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Interview with Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz. Photo by Rodrigo Ramírez.

By Michel Mendoza and Keiselim A. Montás (Keysi)

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Nota de los editores

Una versión en traducción al castellano de este diálogo apareció en el magazine de Rialta el 29 de diciembre del 2020 (Entrevista a Junot Díaz – Rialta Magazine). Compartimos ahora las respuestas originales de Junot Díaz en inglés, tal como le fueron ofrecidas a los entrevistadores durante el intercambio.

KM: Keiselim A. Montás (Keysi)

MM: Michel Mendoza

JD: Junot Díaz

It was March 2020, and Michel was reading This is How You Lose Her. He talks with friend about the book and comes up with an idea: An interview with Junot Díaz. He comes up with yet another idea: to have Keysi do the interview. There are “so many things, so many current topics in common: bilingualist, diaspora, Dominicanness, life —not only academic life— in the United States.” They decided that if Junot agreed to the interview, then Michel would come up with questions resulting from his fresh reading of Así es como la pierdes.

As a recent immigrant from Cuba, Michel was starting his immigration journey in Kentucky. Junot was stuck in Japan at the start of the pandemic. Keysi, in New Hampshire, was starting to get overwhelmed about what was coming. Between March and December 2020 (what it took to complete this interview), it felt as though the world was crumbling on us (all of us, not only Michel, Junot and Keysi, lost something or someone). But Junot agreed to the interview: Michel Mendoza and Keysi Montás asked and Junot answered. Today Michel, like Yunior and Ócar Wao —while doing a Ph.D. at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York— lives in a populous neighborhood in New Jersey; Junot is in Cambridge working on another book; Keysi continues in Lebanon, New Hampshire, less overwhelmed, alert and writing.

Keysi Montás: First things first: Thank you for granting us this interview! Thank you for all you have written and what you have said! And thank you for what you will say and what you will write!

Junot Díaz: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for the invitation and for taking the time.

KM: Have you ever written poetry, perhaps for some jeva? Are you a poet on the quite side?

JD: I never wrote poetry in my life, never even attempted it. In fiction it’s so much easier to hide your writerly weaknesses behind your strengths but it always seems that in poetry the exposure level was much higher. You need to be braver and more impetuous than I am to write poetry.

KM: You are a self-identified bookworm. Any book in particular that you always go back to and reread?

JD: I’m always re-reading, always returning to my literary roots. There are perennials like Song of Solomon and The Woman Warrior and I, Claudius and everything Octavia Butler has written and everything Bolaño has written. And other books that drop in every now and then like favorite friends – Perdido Street Station, Sputnik Sweetheart and Natsuo Kirino’s Out. This past summer I went on a horror novel binge. I’m not talking about HP Lovecraft or Stephen King. I’m talking about mid-list paperback novels. In July I read 12 Brian Keene novels back to back. I love Keene but the last time I’d read so much of his work was in 2010.

Michel Mendoza: Junot, in an essay (“Una historia de once años”- “A Story of Eleven Years”) and in numerous interviews you’ve spoken about the origin of your novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Beyond your declaration that the little came about from an unexpected crash, during the night of a party in an apartment in Mexico’s D.F., between a book of Wilde and a defective English pronunciation (from “Oscar Wilde” came out, in a Dominican enunciation, “Oscar Waoa”), I am interested in the roots of this book. Is it true that, at the beginning, you wanted to write some sort of Third World version of Akira and call it “The Secret History” where Neo Tokio would be replaced by New York? Have you continued to write that book, do you plan to, at least, publish any part of it?

JD: It was always my plan to write a dense genre novel as my first novel —something that only the nerds were going to enjoy, something that would require a certain amount of genre literacy. But it never worked out for me. Perhaps I didn’t give it enough time or perhaps I wasn’t ready. And so out of that disappointment or inability sprang Oscar Wao. Unfortunately for me I haven’t returned to anything SF or fantasy. Which causes me no small amount of pain.

(I wrote this answer back in August. Four months later and I am now writing a SF novel that absolutely no one will read. But let me finish it first and then we’ll see if I can find a reader for it.)

KM: Tell me about Japan. I am curious to know what took you there the first time, and then, what makes you go back?

JD: When I was a teenager I befriended a Japanese; they more or less adopted me, made me the fourth son. I go to Japan every year for the same reason I got to the RD; I want to be with my family. Besides the Japanese are an island people who have endured apocalypse and military dictatorship. They are obsessed with the purity question of who is Japanese and who is not. Japanese immigrants played a key role in modern Dominican society. There’s a lot of commonalities and connections here. Plus, when I’m in Japan I return, in a small way, to my years as an immigrant. I don’t understand a lot, I make mistakes nonstop, I’m either hyper-invisible or hyper-visible. I guess I like to be in touch with my immigrant years, even though they were years of heartbreak. Immigrant heartbreak made me and Japan is like a second crucible, a second chance at becoming.

MM: On another note, and to follow up on the topic the references of your book, I was delighted to discover that in the development of the storyline of Oscar Wao, that nerdy boy from the suburbs afflicted by the curse of the Fukú and so far form the stereotypical erotic construct of what a real Dominican should be like, you captured psychological fantasies such as those in a book like Dune. Could comment on this?

JD: Well, to be honest, the novel I’m writing now is a lot more Dune than anything I alluded to in Oscar Wao. Dune has a lot of problems of course — central to the novel’s DNA is the White Savior narrative ala T.E. Lawrence. But in spite of its defects Dune is an important book and few genre novels have done such a convincing job dramatizing what it would look like for a human consciousness to develop into something greater. And yet for all the time spent in Paul Atreides psychic space the book’s action never lets up. (There’s a reason Hollywood can’t stop trying to make Dune into a movie or a tv series.) Dune certainly meant a lot to me growing up. Not only its incredibly worldbuilding and its sophisticated fictional politics but also Herbert’s disturbing thesis that the type of heroes common to our popular epics are in fact monsters.

KM: I recall that a few years prior to the publication of This is How You Lose Her, you had asked (I can’t remember if via Facebook or email) about any experience anyone could share dealing with failed relationships, or betrayal, or cheating which were discovered on-line or via internet trails. How much research do you do to write about something?

JD: A modest amount of research. With Oscar Wao I researched endlessly and there’s a book I will finish on day about Japan that has taken quite a lot of time too. I like to have other people’s voices in my head when I begin to write; it helps me produce the illusion of community, of multi-vocality. With This is How You Lose Her I interviewed eleven different Dominican “players” for the book. That was a sobering round of interviews, let me tell you. The very hypersexuality that Caribbean culture likes to encourage in its men is poisonous to everyone.

MM: Some critics have perceived your inclusion of words in Spanish in your narrative as a crafty recourse to ratify or achieve a certain latinidad. For me, it was not until I came to live, as an immigrant, in a world of immigrants with different and intertwined idiomatic competencies, that I better understood that the cultural universe in your books is not a mere linguistic fantasy beyond its literary stylization, but a reality. I imagine that the representation of orality that happens, let say for example in the stories within This is How You Lose Her, would be one of the challenges that noting or stamping your work. Is that so?

JD: Throughout my career —and now that I’m in my 24th year as a published writer I feel comfortable saying “my career”— I have struggled to represent the full complexity of the linguistic world I inhabit, a world where there is a category-busting spectrum of language ability, proclivities and registers. It ain’t easy and I haven’t settled on anything that will satisfy anyone. But I can live with my choices and I hope that at least some readers can too. I write fiction but in that fiction there are fictions and one of these is the illusion of orality. Capturing orality in text is like capturing dance in a photograph. We can suggest but never fully express what we seek to communicate.

KM: What is the function of silence, the silences (that which you do not say, which you do not write, which you remove), in your stories?

JD: Silence has always been my dominant language. It structures not only what gets written, but also how my “plots” unfold and resolve themselves. What is left unsaid — what is denied, what is disavowed — is the architectural style in which I build. The average reader is trained to focus on what is being said, on the drama before them, but their brain picks up the second language, what is not said. We are all bilingual. We have our mother tongues and then we have our grandmother tongue which is silence — a silence particular to the cultures we inhabit. Reading a book where the silences are not mindfully structured creates a different set of effects than a book where the silences are mindfully structured. As I mentioned in another interview we did, Keysi, before I write a character I like to sketch out the silences they hold within themselves. The ones they will never break, the ones they have no idea they’re holding and the ones they are actively wrestling with. That’s how I create my characters – first I find their silence.

KM: Tell me about the influence women writers have had in your writing.

JD: If it wasn’t for women writers, I wouldn’t have any escritura.

MM: Getting back to language, recently I was telling Keysi that I have This is How You Lose Her, and the Spanish, Así es como la pierdes, version of as well. And you know what I am perceiving after comparing them? That both versions seem like an original, that the book could very well have been written in Spanish and translated into English. That has never happened to me before. Have other readers shared with you that they had a similar experience?

JD: I have been told that the translation is superb; I always thought so but I’m not one too judge. An excellent translation always troubles questions of authenticity. Which is to say an excellent translation becomes a gothic twin, an uncanny doppleganger that could easily replace the original and who would be the wiser? If only all translations were so deft.

KM: You have some photos in your bookshelves: Any photo with a special meaning?

JD: A photo of me, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler and Avery Brooks. If ever there was a fire I’d try to save the people inside my place, first and then that foto. Fuck my computer and my passport – that foto first and foremost.

NM: About that character that many have considered to be some sort of an alter ego of you, you’ve said: “That’s his biography: a tíguere who cannot lie in his writings while in his life he cannot tell the truth.” (Junot Díaz, Entrevista en El País, 2013). What else, beyond appearances, bring Yunior and Junot close and apart?

Junot Díaz. Photo by Rodrigo Ramírez.

JD: Imagine someone you knew stole your identity — took your diploma, began to talk about the town you grew up, wore your clothes, adopted your interests and mannerism and your passions. That person might seem to an outsider like you but to anyone who knows you that person would be an immediate fraud. Yunior only appears to be me because so few people know anything about me, about my past, about my real life. I’ve done that on purpose; I don’t want to be known by strangers; I prize my privacy and in this world where everyone commodifies themselves without thinking, reveals every molecule of their life and its excreta for social media “likes” or to shake the tin Patreon cup, I have no problem belonging to the non-sharers. But to answer your question in good faith: I have two sisters who transformed me utterly and Yunior does not.

KM: Your narration in the second person is laid out as an autoreferential conflict of a character who is an author speaking to himself, and you play with offensive-defensive confrontation; like when one says to someone “Hey, you!” (offensive) and that person replies “Who, me? No, not me!” (defensive), but it is evident that yes, they are talking to you. You do something like this in your work, and I ask: Is that an artificial creative recourse, or is there a certain intimacy between the character (let’s say Yunior), and the author Junot?

JD: I’m not sure how to answer, Keysi. Here’s what I can say: I do not feel comfortable with the naturalized relationship that most books encourage between the authorial persona and readers. I want to draw attention to the fact that not only is there a narrative persona narrating the book but there’s also an author who often tries to obscure themselves behind the narrative persona. By drawing attention to these entangled levels I hope to raise questions about authorship and authority and the way that these things are made invisible / naturalized and the dangers of such a cozy relationship between author and reader. In my books I’m always giving readers peeks behind the author’s mask and then pointing out that the face underneath is probably a mask as well.

MM: You have said that the underlying question in your books (and I think what you are referring to is that no single book should aspire, by itself, to represent the historical or existential sense of any community), is not exactly what it means to be Dominican. What is that root of characters like Yunior or Oscar, as you said, is the questioning of masculinity, and about being black, in the diasporic context. How did you arrive at this reasoning?

JD: The question of who is Dominican is interesting to me because of its origins —and not because I’m super-interested in the answer. In my mind there is no real answer to that question, just wonderful arguments. But the question itself and its obsessive place in Dominican discourse arises from colonial ontologies that question the humanity of anyone non-white and a history of dictatorship, specially the Trujillato that was always running loyalty tests on its people. Anytime you question someone’s Dominican-ness, not only are you falling for the fallacy of authenticity (classic failure of the imagination) but you are also evoking very sinister historical forces imbedded in Dominicanidad. But it’s true —a quest for a Dominican essence isn’t what drives my work but the more specific challenges of growing up inside a diasporic African-descended Dominican community, which will touch on the first question but that has many other concerns.

KM: Doubt. When we say to ourselves “Is that how you say that? or, is that how you write that?” I know you have spoken about experiencing it upon speaking, and you have called it “Quality control”, as something that happens while talking, when words are coming out of your mouth, and inside of you you are thinking: “Coño, is that how you say that?” How does that doubt mess with you and how do you resolve it when writing? Do you stop and consult; do you highlight it (to doublecheck later), or you just keep on writing?

JD: Everything I’ve written since Drown has been marked by uncertainty and by raising questions about the possibility of authority. My work can less by described by the Bloomian preoccupation of “Anxiety of Influence” and more the post-dictatorship subjects “Anxiety of Authority”. I realize that I’m driven to pursue authorship only in attempt to unsettle it. I author in hopes to inoculate readers against authors — to make them more resistant to the easy confidences that authorship can invite.

But there’s a more foundational level which I’m guessing you’re referring to. Having lived in a situation where I never had a comfortable or natural language, I’m an alien in all my languages which means that I never have confidence that what I’m writing is correct. There’s always the interval of uncertainty — for most people words are separated by text or speech segmentation — for me, internally, every word is divided by an uncertainty segment. That’s just how I live. I know nothing else. It would be more a burden I guess if I had memory of a better or easier time but I don’t.

KM: That linguistic doubt happens to us transterrados, those of us who live between two languages, two cultures, two countries, two systems, atop a bridge that connects our here and there, our present and our past; to those of us who have to swear loyalty to two countries, neither one of which fully accepts us, and both, at every turn, rejects us, denationalize us. Tell me a bit about how this transtierro manifests itself in your life: in the personal and family realm, in the political and legal arena, in the social and intimate sense; what tricks or hacks do you use in your everyday to negotiate the necessary permeability to survive?

JD: Patience, compassion, tolerance of absurdity and tolerance of other people’s nationalistic simplifications —these are my hacks for living as a diasporic subject in an age of nationalist hyper-fantasies of purity and unity. It took me a while to wean myself of the opioid of authenticity. It’s amazing how this question of authenticity is in everything – it’s like the processed sugar of the social —and no less toxic. Once you realize that you cannot let other people have gatekeeper power of a phenomena as complex and unimaginable as belonging then you begin to decertify those border guards —that takes time and it takes patience because most of those border guards live within us. The arguments with the bullies who claim that you are not black or you are not Dominican are secondary to the arguments with the bully within.

MM: In your books, the ghost of the male affective or erotic failure is also tied to the infidelity of the protagonists. Based on that, and on the way in which sometimes characters like Yunior speak of women, certain critics have said that your work is misogynist or sexist. However, your feminine characters are, in my opinion, very strong. Can expand upon that?

JD: Simple universal truth: to represent hegemonic masculinity is not an endorsement of hegemonic masculinity. If it’s easier to call me misogynistic because wrestling with the complexity of the work exceeds your interest or your capacity —knock yourself out. Doesn’t change the fact that there is complexity in the work and a strong animus to the very oppressions it represents; nor does it change the fact that this complexity has spoken to and inspired many people across the gender spectrum. To dismiss a work by ignoring its complexity —to damn the complex by deploying the simplistic— is the first reflex of the competitor, of the anti-artist, of unhappy, of the hater, of the dictator. To damn the complex by deploying the simplistic is a juvenile impulse that none of us should indulge; not only does it harm the critics ability to be an artist, more or less guarantees that they will be a lousy artist, it also makes that person a lousy human being.

KM: In order to solve a problem, or to mend a error or cure an illness, one must recognize, name, accept that there is a problem, that an error was made, that we are ill: in our patriarchal culture and society, men have been allowed to be, and do, everything. In an interview in 20131, you defined “male privilege” by saying: “When I was in high school, I could get home at 1 a.m., any day f the week, holding a bloody harpoon in my hands, and my mom would receive me with ‘Hello M’hijo, what do you want for dinner?” If my sister received a phone call, and if it was a man’s voice, mom would hang up the phone”. Today, are you, Junot Díaz, a feminist?

JD: I don’t think a man can be a feminist. Hegemonic privilege is too vast to suddenly be conjured away by saying I’m a feminist. I do believe we can be feminist allies, which marks both the inescapability of our privilege but also our desire to end it.

KM: You have fought all kinds of discrimination and injustices since your college years; amongst those battles, the one about the racial discrimination we suffer here in the United States and in the Dominican Republic, but in the DR with an aggravating factor: the typical “I want nothing to do with blacks, but I am not a racist.” I know that, many a time, you have felt frustration with our country, have you ever been tempted to give up, to throw the towel?

JD: Never. I don’t confuse a few interactions for a nation. And I’m a sentimental Dominican. I fell in love with what’s best about the Dominican Republic very young and it’s a love that I’ve never lost. Sure, the Erredé has broken my heart on more than one occasion but that just means you focus your love on what’s not fucked up about the country. Despite what the bachatas say heartbreak does not justify the end of love. The day all love ends my love for the RD will end but not before.

One must be critical, always, of nations, but I’m not a deporter by nature or politics. I don’t seek to throw out or cancel – I believe that one should always seek to engage what one wishes to transform. Now, clearly, not everyone has that energy or inclination but it is the sad consequence of neoliberalism’s psychic power that one of its prime directives —seek every excuse to avoid solidarities— goes uninterrogated in progressive circles.

MM: I just finished reading Islandborn (2018), your most recent book and the first you have written for children (the illustrations, by the ways, are beautiful). In it you tell the story of Lola, a girl who wonders about the Dominican Republic, the country of her family’s origins, where she has never been. That reconstructive inquiry that let her to talk to her family and neighborhood friends, would lead her to talk to Mr. Mir (I suspect, obviously, that there is some homage to Pedro Mir in this character). He would ask Lola if she ever heard about the “monster” of the island. That question, and what builds around it, seems to me like one of the most political and painful moments of the book. It all has made me questions, thus I’d ask you, if perhaps the shadows of the Trujillo dictatorship would continue to be one of the darkest backdrops of your work?

JD: Much like the country in which I was born, I’ve yet to exorcise Trujillo from my life or my art. If anyone seeks to clarify what might be most Dominican about me perhaps this could provide an answer. It might equally be what’s the least Dominican about me -hard to say. Growing up under a father who was exceptionally pro-Trujillo didn’t help this, but one doesn’t need such a father to make the Trujillato immanent.

KM: I think this moment calls for observing what is happening around us, and not for, necessarily, talking about what is happening. We are living a historic moment of great shifts and changes in which multiple factors exert influences; a moment which, at the same time, is very difficult. Do you we (humanity) would come of this better off, or are we screwing ourselves even more without realizing it?

JD: In the short term it looks like we’re fucked. And unless there’s a miracle we’re fucked in the long term too. Fortunately for us what is most human about human beings is still capable of miracles. But whether that happens or not only these lives will tell.

KM: Many factors contributed to the election of Humancaca in 2016; I have distilled many of them into three categories: The failure of the US educational system, misogyny, and racism. What are your thoughts on the subject?

JD: Trump is not some malfunction of the system. He is the system -or at least it’s natural-born child. This system will give us many more Trumps in the future unless its changed. Unless all of us kill our devotion to neoliberal values. Look, I’m a progressive. Hard to the left of most everyone, and yet even to me it’s kinda obvious that a lot of the progressive left has adopted many of the tactics that made Trump possible under different guises. We are much neoliberalism’s children as Trump is. I mean, sure most us believe in science and believe that truth matters- that’s not a small thing but is the left really less punitive than the right? Less likely to deport people who don’t fit our formula of good citizens? Are we less inclined to polarization? Trump has zero compassion and that’s what drives the Right but is the Left really a fount of compassion? I guess I’m not so sure. Lots of people claim they hate Trump; I wish they hated just as much the systemic cruelties that made Trump inevitable. Cruelties like: a rush to judgment, a profound confidence in our own rightness, the overriding impulse to demonize people who disagree us, a desire to punish people we believe to be wrong beyond all of reason and humanity. What scares me most is not the fact of Trump but that so many on the Right and the Left resemble Trump so uncannily.

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1Junot Díaz: Immigrants, Masculinity, Nerds, & Art at the Chicago Humanities Festival, entrevistado por Peter Sagal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TA8X6TUA83k

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