Junot Díaz (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1968) is the author of two collections of short stories and one novel. One of the most original and celebrated voices of his time, Díaz writes from the heart of the Dominican-American community in New Jersey, with many of his stories examining the complexities of growing up and living between cultural identities. The success of his first collection Drown (published in 1996) led to Díaz being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Díaz’s follow-up novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007 and the publishing of his latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her, coincided in 2012 with the awarding of a prestigious Macarthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant. Díaz divides his time between New York and Boston, where he teaches in MIT’s Creative Writing Program. In August 2013 he was a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival.
KYD: As I read your first collection Drown, I wondered how it was received in New Jersey, in the neighbourhood where many of the stories are set? What did your Mum and your brothers and your friends from the block think of it?
JD: Nobody there reads me, that’s the best part. It has been my fate to be part of a community where they don’t really read me. I don’t know what it is, my friends are proud of me for being a writer, in the way that folks are proud of you for raising dogs, but they don’t ever come to the kennel.
KYD: Do you feel you write for the Dominican-American community as a group? Has that ever been problematic?
JD: I always feel like I write about such a narrow, tiny universe that it’s always astonishing that anyone finds themselves reflected. I’m just stunned that non-New Jersey people can see themselves. If you’re writing for a community that’s not accustomed to seeing itself represented you get what we call ‘the shock of representation.’ One of the outcomes of that sometimes is the question ‘who is authorised to make that representation?’ and I find that to be a normal conversation that’s interesting to have. I’ve got no problem with folks asking that question, because it’s a conversation, not a judgement, and the jury is permanently out on it. To be nervous about that conversation is to be nervous of readers, and I’m more nervous of writers than I am of readers. It’s a very readerly conversation, I like it.
KYD: You’ve mentioned in the past that, broadly speaking, there are two types of writers: those who write for other writers, and those who write for readers, and that you’re much more concerned with the community of readers. Is that something you still stand by?
JD: I’d tweak that response to say that it’s not so much a conscious choice – it’s not like you pick Team Edward or Team Jacob – but that it’s astonishing how one can feel that there is a space in a book for a reader. It should be a generous space, versus a sense I feel in other books where there isn’t a space for a diversity of readerships. When I think of a writers’ book, it’s a book where the writer refuses to cede any control to the reader. I’m familiar with those books, they’re very common and there’s nothing wrong with them, but there are other books where I feel the writer cedes much more control, and I have way more fun with those books.
KYD: From your debut Drown, you might say there was a while between drinks before your next book.
JD: Oh my god, it was more than a while between drinks, it’s like if someone breaks up with their girlfriend and doesn’t see anyone at all for another ten years. I’m just fucking slow, I’m just fucking lazy, it sucks.
KYD: Can you talk me through that process – I understand you got a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and you went down to Mexico to work on a novel that eventually became The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?
JD: I went to Mexico City because it’s the Paris of Latin America. My best friend Franciso Goldman (the writer) was there, he is a totally Falstaffian character of gale-like appetites and he was a fantastic person to spend a year abroad with. I went down there and I was trying to write an apocalyptic science fiction novel which was a disaster, it sucked. I was listening to Portishead a lot, because I’d lost all my CDs in the move and that’s all I had. So I was listening to Portishead and going progressively fucking insane. And I had a long distance relationship that I was incredibly faithful to, so I was weirdly isolated in that way too, it’s the stupidest thing you can do when you go abroad. What finally happened was that I had this fucking thunderstroke of a moment when I was miserable and desperate at a party, and someone put into my mind the idea of mispronouncing Oscar Wilde’s name and as soon as I heard this person say ‘Oscar Wao’ suddenly this entire family and this nerd kid and the Trujillato all just came storming into my brain. It’s the only time that I’ve ever had a miracle.
KYD: Oscar Wao is a fantastic book – it was highly anticipated and very well received. Could you tell me about the hybrid nature of it: there’s a coming of age story for the nerdy Oscar, there’s the Latin American tradition of the dictator novel with the Trujillato, there are footnotes which break into the main narrative as well, all narrated by the character Yunior. How did you put it all together?
JD: It was like that image of Dr Osterman, from Watchmen, blowing himself up in a nuclear physics experiment out in Los Alamos and then through the sheer force of will piecing himself together. But while piecing together what’s left, the bits that get left out so fundamentally transform him that he’s not even human any more. That was the whole ethos of putting this book together. I was going to write about a person who was trying to summon the pieces of a world that he could never fully put together, and when he assembles this book, what’s produced is something very strange. In my mind Yunior’s attempt to piece this world together required footnotes, history, everything I could possibly come across. But in the end it was always understood that he would never succeed, that it would always fail. Part of this for me was the great relief of understanding that I was going to write a failed novel. It allowed me to play in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to had I been trying to write a real novel.
KYD: Would you say that your love for comics and apocalypse films forms a big part of your writing toolbox?
JD: I don’t feel like I have any other choice. Other people were reading Proust, other people grew up reading Gibbons and others still reading the Greeks. For me the seedbed of my narrative universe was the apocalyptic lunacy of popular culture in the seventies and eighties. It formed my vocabulary for telling stories, it’s part of the way I understand the universe and communicate this understanding to other people.
KYD: Place is important too: you write about New Jersey, but it’s certainly not the New Jersey where the Sopranos come from.
JD: My New Jersey is the absolute lame-ass elsewhere. It is the most unremarkable shadow of a place like NYC. It’s the edge of the edge. I always say I grew up somewhere between a city and the city. There was something about that working-poor post-industrial banality that just spoke to me, it made me as a kid. I dreamed so desperately of being somewhere at the centre of the action only to realise that what I had in this nowhere-place was really quite rare. I never realised that most people didn’t grow up with Uruguayan exiles and Colombian immigrants and Koreans. It was crazy to have access to all that in this tiny fucking place and still be able to step out and see the towers of New York City. Everything was so close yet so profoundly far away.
KYD: When you write about the Dominican Republic in your latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her, there seems to be more of a mental distance than a physical distance – characters are able to call home or step on a plane. On the map it’s not so far but it’s a world away at the same time.
JD: These characters, these immigrants, they don’t even have the right narrative to describe how fluently bicultural they are. They’re conversant in both cultures but there’s no space for them to understand that as a good thing. Neither the USA or the Dominican Republic values that kind of bicultural fluency and so they have to wrestle with how to fit in in a country where you only get one choice at the buffet, but you’ve already got both on your plate. The two countries imagine that there is a distance, but these people are proof positive that these places are closer than they care to admit.
KYD: How do you manage that perceived distance in identity when you move between the USA and the Dominican Republic?
JD: I don’t get awards anywhere for fitting in – when I was growing up, it was weird, I didn’t fit in but I still had such a deep bench of friends, I was always blessed. I guess I just had to find my ‘adult peace’ which is that when I’m in the Dominican Republic I don’t do anything to hide the fact that I’m from New Jersey, and vice-versa.
KYD: Let’s talk about the character Yunior – he’s present in all three of your books, and there seem to be some autobiographical elements in his makeup. In a lot of ways he’s a typical macho-Latino guy, but he also has a sensitive, alienated side to him. He also seems to be the polar opposite of a character like Oscar Wao.
JD: The thing about Yunior is he really fits in – people see him and are like ‘this is one of us.’ Yet he feels like he doesn’t and is wracked with alienation. But I mean who isn’t? I’ve never met anyone who’s totally comfortable with who they are. It doesn’t seem to be part of the human condition. My older brother was like Yunior, no matter where he was, it seemed like he had never left. You’d see him coming down the street and people would be like ‘this motherfucker is from this fucking block.’ Oscar is the opposite, and we hate him for it. I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle – ‘You’re a freak, but you’re one of us.’ They’d see me on the block and say ‘who are you visiting?’
KYD: Yunior kind of ties together the narrative universe you’ve developed so far. Will we see more of him?
JD: We’ll see, the plan was to write maybe two or three more broken novels about him that would click together to form the one big novel about his life.
KYD: In the last story of This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior turns to writing almost as a cathartic exercise. Is this how you view your practise?
JD: I’m incredibly self-critical and so for me writing is certainly not therapeutic. It must have been my Catholic upbringing but when I conceptualise my writing now I think of it as a calling. There are writers who really love writing, they enjoy it, and they have a libidinal investment in it. I don’t feel any of that – for me it’s a calling because it’s something I’m good at that I’d prefer never to have to do. I wonder how many artists are discouraged because they feel that everything has to come out of a pleasure principle. It’s possible to be a committed artist and not have that be a natural extension of your ego. It took me a long time to figure that out because all the writers who are held up as models you see are like ‘oh my God, if I don’t write I’m gonna die.’ I sometimes think if I keep this up I’m gonna die. Then I discovered that there is a range of people being called, and although it sounds like religious nonsense I think it’s a nice metaphor. In the past twenty years I’ve met a whole group of artists who feel like this is what they were called to do, but if some kind of angel came down to take it away from them, they’d be grateful. But you can no more give up a calling than you can swap out your soul.
KYD: If Australia is coming into its Asian Century, you could perhaps say that the US is coming into a Latino Century. Do you identify with Latino culture in a broad sense or would you say there are still firm enclaves within that?
JD: It’s important to recognise that Latin America is not a linguistic construct. There’s a huge Latino diaspora that continues to regenerate Latin America, including those of us who live in English. I do identify with Latino culture, but that might be because I have a much more generous sense of the way that communities work. I feel that I can be strictly from New Jersey and also be an American, and that one doesn’t have to decide between a generalising political identity and a real organic geographic identity. One can simultaneously be a part of many things. The problem with most of the talk about growing Latino community is that it’s lip service – none of it is being matched with broadening Latino franchise or increasing Latino power. In fact, the more Latinos seem to grow as a population, the more rabid the attacks, the more toxic the policies that are being levelled against them. You compare that with the Asian century and you’ve got China, which has political clout and economic power. That’s a real difference.
KYD: You’re teaching at MIT, in Boston, and the city makes an appearance in your latest book, where Yunior notices a certain animosity towards Latinos. Is that sentiment noticeable across America?
JD: I’ve always reported quite honestly that one of the standard features of our society is that we’re all a bunch of fucking racists. For me the issue always seems to be ‘when was the last time we were racist?’ not ‘are we racist?’ and so for me there’s been a process of recognising in my work something that we all do. What cracks me up is that this stuff has always been present in my texts but because now I mention Boston the issue is specially charged. There’s something about the way Boston works as an emblem for America’s race relations that taints the conversation in a way that none of my writing about racism in New Jersey has.
KYD: There’s been talk you’re working on a sci-fi novel called Mostro. What can you tell us about future projects?
JD: I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing as a writer right now. Honestly, nothing’s coming together. So we’ll see. I’m trying but nothing’s coming together at the moment, it’s another dead period for me. I’m in the fucking doldrums!
KYD: You described your vocation as a writer before as a calling, would it be true to say that there’s something of a burden there too? When you’re in the doldrums do you feel a need to break through it or is just a part of your process?
JD: We all have emotional reactions to difficulty, to challenges. Sometimes we take them personally, and get really depressive. Some of us try to structure them and deal with them. I think it’s part of our cultural moment to divide everything between a pleasure and a burden, and not to understand that there is a wider range of how things work and how things might be. I happen to have a process that requires an enormous amount of commitment and struggle. It’s hard in a culture that prizes productivity so much.
KYD: If you’re working on something and it’s not coming together, do you put it in a drawer and come back to it or do you toss it?
JD: Neither really, I just keep bashing my head into it. Bash my head and read, that’s the only solution. I used to bash my head and read and drink and fucking smoke everything in the house but now I just write and read.
KYD: What sort of things have you been reading lately? Do you try to keep across new writing or are you a re-reader?
JD: A bit of both – NoViolet Bulawayo is a new writer who I first published in the Boston Review. She has a novel out called We Need New Names that is fantastic. I recently re-read in one sitting my childhood favourites the Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander. They’re fragments of the puzzle that lead me to love reading, so it was nice to revisit the scene of the crime. And then of course other essentials include everything by Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Cisneros, Juan Rulfo, and I’m a big fan of the Mexican writer Mario Bellatin.
KYD: What pops into your mind if I ask you about Australian literature?
JD: The worst thing about being a guest in someone’s literary house is that one never reads enough of what is required. I’ve read the giants, the Booker winners, Tim Winton and New Zealand writer Keri Hulme. But you never feel like you read deeply enough, you always feel like you’ve shortchanged an entire literary tradition. This is my third time in Melbourne and I’m really enjoying it. When I published my first book I spent a month in Sydney and that time had a huge impact on me, it was the first time I’d been away as a writer in another country. I met all these crazy fucking activists, it was amazing. It was the first sign for me that I could live internationally.