Junot Díaz: Giant Monsters, Linguistics, And Five Years Of Freedom
The latest book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her, is a collection of stories linked by recurring characters. Last month, it was nominated for a National Book Award. Less than two weeks later, Diaz won a coveted MacArthur "genius" grant (half-a-million dollars over five years). He also teaches writing at MIT. Several years ago, after the release of his celebrated novel, The Brief Wondrous of Oscar Wao, he was the toast of the Miami Book Fair Interational. He's back Monday for a reading, and he recently spoke with us from his home in Boston.
Q: How has receiving the MacArthur Fellowship changed things for you?
A: One is very gratified. It's always a surprise, and it's always a great stroke of fortune. One is, of course, reminded of how fickle and arbitrary that these things can be. But just at the most practical level as a writer, it certainly takes the pressure off to have the sense that no matter what happens for five, six, seven years depending on how careful you are, no matter what happens, you can write very freely. That's something that almost never happens in anyone's life, especially if you're the kind of person who doesn't have Romney-type money. Five, six seven years to write freely is no small gift.
Q: When you did a reading in Coral Gables in September, you joked that your mom thinks you don't work. What was her reaction to you receiving this prestigious grant and being called a genius?
A: You've gotta understand--these are eminently practical people. My mother's reaction was that after taxes, this comes to $62,000 a year, so that I should be very careful and not give my money to all the organizations I support. You have to understand, I come from old world, very conservative, country-type immigrants. I think my mom thinks these are fickle things. She would prefer someone like me to be a doctor. I guess part of her is probably proud in ways that she can't articulate, but at the same time there is a great gap between what my mother thinks of as stability and what I would think of as stability.
Q: So what is your story collection about?
A: It's a look at the rise and fall of a young man's intimate life. Of course, because I'm trying to be as honest as possible, it's also a rather troubling book. It chronicles the life of a boy, a young man trying to find intimacy despite all of his bad habits and all of his male privilege and male outlook.
Q: Did you ever consider turning it into a novel?
A: It's weird. People never ask me have you ever considered turning this into a book of poetry. There's this weird sense of literary form where one thinks of the short story, especially a linked book of short stories, as some sort of incomplete or disreputable novel that is not nearly as accomplished. I guess I never did because in my mind, the fractures in this book, the way that this book asks the readers to work, the way that this book sort of demands a certain level of participation from a reader, is only possible in this form, to me at least. So no I never did. I really never did. I kind of enjoyed the idea of this sort of shattered view of one person’s life because it felt kind of realistic.
Q: Actually, the reason I asked is because there were certain stories in the book that felt like they could be expanded into a novel.
A: I think that the book intentionally replicates a pattern found within the novel. I always joke around and call it the traditional pleasures of the novel. This book attempts to produce [that], as well as some of the traditional pleasures of the short story collection. This is one of those books in kind of the form that I’m interested in - which is one that is neither/nor. It’s kind of hard to categorize, but I really enjoy that about it.
Q: Your new collection reintroduces readers to Yunior, a character who’s been a part of all three of your books – your first story collection, Drown, the award-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and now This is How You Lose Her. Some critics have called him your alter ego. How would you describe him?
A: That’s such an interesting comment. I’ve heard that again and again. None of these people have ever spent 10 minutes with me. I would expect such a claim based on experience. I’ve always thought of Yunior as very much a fictional creation, someone who I dressed in the same clothes as mine. I made him from the same area in New Jersey. I made him go to Rutgers. But it’s sort of like somebody inhabiting your life. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who’s borrowing your clothes and borrowing your car and showing up to your job is you, and I think of Yunior as very, very different. This kid is so much more isolated than I am, so much more strangely haunted in ways that I’m definitely not. I kind of like that he’s got certain aspects of my life, but I think that he’s very, very different.
Q: By now readers of your work are familiar with the way you slip in Spanish phrases throughout your writing. But when you were first getting started, when you were trying to get Drown published, did you run into any resistance from editors and publishers?
A: Think about the baseline of our culture. It’s strangely resistant to Spanish. There [are] folks who hear one Spanish word, and they’re convinced this is some sort of immigrant conspiracy. And there [are] other folks who are really, really comfortable with having multiple languages and multiple registers in a book. A part of me was always writing for people who were comfortable with encountering what would be called opaque language. There certainly was some [resistance] from people who wanted things to be a little bit more clear, but in my own head, I kind of stuck to my project. I kind of believed in the reader in ways that made me confident that this was going to work.
Q: As a Dominican American a lot of your work centers around the immigrant experience. Most of your characters share your background. I’ve heard black writers say they’ve been asked if all of their characters have to be black.
A: I’ve yet to have heard a white writer ever report that people have been telling them, "Oh, are you always going to be writing about white people?" I think that the same way that the short story is viewed as somehow incomplete, as less than a novel, I think being a person of color in this country has been traditionally viewed as something incomplete, something limiting, something that isn’t universal as compared to whiteness. As a person of color, as much as a white person, I have encountered this racial logic all my life.
Forget just the writing. Often as people of color, we’re the only ones being asked these questions. So I doubt you’ve asked any white writer, "Have you been asked to stop writing about your whiteness?" Often what ends up happening as people of color, we’re forced to be the only witness to a system that has everyone implicated in it, and therefore we have an unfair burden to bear in witnessing and identifying and criticizing this system.
But I think the same as a Rick Moody and the same as a Jonathan Franzen, the same as a Jennifer Egan, I’ve been as exposed to this system as any of them-- a system which, again, thinks of people of color as strangely disqualified from the universal in a way that white folks aren’t. And whether it’s at the level of a weird comment from a journalist, if it’s the level of readers or if it’s the level of editors, I’ think this is something that is very general. In some ways we have to start getting everyone on board. If one group has to talk about it, then everybody does. Otherwise, you end up in the situation where race is the bailiwick only of people of color, which is sort of like saying that race is the bailiwick only of the victim and therefore you can exclude conversation around the person who commits it. I think this is very significant, and it’s not without its consequences to us, not only as artists but as a larger culture.
Q: I understand that you’re working on a science fiction novel now, Monstro. What can you tell us about that?
A: I can tell you that it might never be done. I can definitely tell you that. It’s weird because it’s one of those echoes, something I said, I almost wish I hadn’t said because it kind of follows me around. It’s weird to talk about a book before you finish it because chances are, you’ll talk about it, and it never gets done. I would love to write a book about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes in the Caribbean. I think that is a natural, natural match. Talk about your chocolate and my peanut butter. Nothing works better in conjunction than the apocalyptic and the Caribbean. I just want to write a book about giant monsters trying to eat people, see how that would work out.
Q: It seems like that would be a bit of a risk for you, that your regular audience may not want to follow you down that path.
A: But that’s okay. I don’t know what a regular audience is. I remember the first audience I had with Drown and when I put my novel out, Oscar Wao, there [were] a lot of people who read Drown who were just like "You know what -- I don’t like the novel. I think that you were a better writer when you were in Drown." And then there [are] people who read This is How You Lose Her, and they’re like, "Oh, God, this is such a step back. I wish you’d never gone back to the short-story form in general." As an artist what you have to understand, and what comes through very clearly, is that each project recreates an audience, and that you necessarily don’t have the same audience from project to project. And that’s okay. When people leave seats, it opens up seats for other people who have not been sitting down maybe to come down and enjoy what your work is doing. God knows, man, God knows, I’m just lucky to have anyone paying any attention, so hopefully, this will find its audience somehow, somewhere.
Junot Diaz will be at the Miami Book Fair International Monday night at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are required.