Interview with Junot Díaz

Posted by Goodreads on September 4, 2012
Junot Díaz's prose, rich with Lord of the Rings references and interspersed with Spanish language, always emerges as supremely current and multicultural. His work is wide in its appeal; members of the Dominican community, the literary set, and fans of the craft all profess allegiance to the novelist and creative writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Díaz's first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. The ensemble work, centered around Oscar, a young, nerdy protagonist who falls deeply and headstrongly in love, explores themes of the immigrant experience and dynasties—in roller coaster, crackling prose. Díaz's latest collection of linked short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, reintroduces the character Yunior from Oscar Wao and delves into Yunior's panoply of lovers. Goodreads talked to the author about his struggles writing the book, if Dominican men can fairly be called perros, and the art of seduction.

Goodreads: In terms of format, this is a departure from your novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Why did you write a book of short stories, and why now?

Junot Díaz: This book began way before The Brief Wondrous Life. I began immediately after I finished Drown. I thought it would be nice to write another book written in this way. I thought I was going to finish it very quickly, and instead it took 17 years to finish.

GR: That's a long time.

JD: There was a part of me that was a little appalled. You get a little appalled, but at the same time you understand that some things take a very long while. I think I'm an incredibly slow writer, and there is nothing I can do about it. It's just who I am. I've had to come to terms with, "This is my pace."

It's kind of a strange book because once again it's that hybrid form of linked stories. It's certainly more tightly linked than some of the linked story collections that are called novels. It has been a long time in the making for me. A long laboring over this project of the rise and fall of Yunior as a cheater. Finally the last few stories came in, and the book really came together.

GR: Much of this collection of short stories is written in the second person. What do you find effective about this perspective?

JD: In this case it was the only way I could do it. In general that second person is a tough mode to write in. It's both overly familiar and alienating. One has to bring much skill to it. In my case it was much less a strategic vision and more a last resort. I couldn't make the story work any other way.

GR: Goodreads member Karen asks, "The relationships in your books seem so real and full of hopes and disappointments. Do you think your stories are about hopeless romanticism or people treating each other badly?"

JD: I wouldn't characterize it as either. Both elements seem to be present for the one. I tend to be as honest as possible about what is going on in relationships. Sometimes when we're really, really, really honest about what's going on in relationships, it can look really God-dammed ugly. It can look a little rough.

GR: Your work is distinctive, always populated by these gritty, multicultural characters. Goodreads member Noah says, "For many of your multicultural, multilingual, and even multinational characters, the American dream seems distant and distorted; a story of ascension that, though known to them, is unattainable. Do you see yourself as giving voice to the new reality of immigrants in America, and are you writing the latest updates to the story of the American Dream?"

JD: One never knows. When you're in the middle of it, you really don't know the context. Certainly I am familiar and studied the vernacular of immigrant writing. I think I'm responding to the historical and the present without a doubt. I'm hoping there is both something of the now and something that will work for the future in how I write about immigrants and immigration. It's hard when you're so close to the moment to see what it means and what it stands for.

GR: Goodreads Author Carljoe Javier asks, "Your first book dealt with very heavy topics: postcolonial issues, political oppression, drug addiction. You continued discussing similar concerns in Oscar Wao, but there was a decidedly lighter touch and a more humorous tone to it, despite all of the weight and gravity the novel packed in. That's probably why it resonated so much with so many readers, myself included, because you were able to put some moments of lightness and happiness along with tragedy. How do you find this balance, and is it a conscious effort to bring in humor?"

JD: Without a doubt I think that for me as an artist a book without humor feels very unrealistic. I think even the grimmest book should have a couple chuckles in there. One of the advancements in my practice as a writer was my embracing more the humorous dimension of the human experience. I also discovered that readers are much more likely to tolerate a book about rape and genocide if there is humor than if there was not.

The place for Oscar Wao is humorous. It's a useful voice to help people get beyond their defenses. Part of what we do as writers is attempt a seduction. We are attempting to convince you to hang out with our book for sometimes days at a time. I think there is nothing wrong for someone like Yunior to pitch a story in a certain way. Yunior makes the darkness of the book even darker.

GR: Writing as seduction is an interesting lens through which to approach your work.

JD: There are a lot of arguments about this. One of the arguments is, what is language for other than to seduce. We don't have these big brains just to survive; we have them because they were useful in helping us get partners. I find that it's no accident that when we talk about our favorite books that we say we love them. The most powerful gift a work of art can give to the viewer is the feeling of love.

GR: Goodreads member Meredith Watts was enchanted by the window into Dominican culture and asks, "I would like to know the meaning of the mongoose and the man with no face, two magical elements of the book. [Are you] willing to point us to a myth or another source?"

JD: That is a wild question. First of all, I think that's a wonderful question. Second, those are the parts of the book that require the reader's participation. Depending on how you answer the question, "Who and what are the mongoose and who and what is the man with no face?" reshapes the entire book. If I provide the answer, it robs the reader of their role. I will say that the novel argues that the mongoose is an alien from another planet. Whether you wish to agree with that or not is up to you. The man with no face is far more mysterious and will require far more reflection. I based the talking mongoose on a character that appears in a young adult novel called Flight to the Lonesome Place by Alexander Key, the same author who wrote the Witch Mountain books. In it there was a talking alien mongoose. I loved it.

GR: "Despite the fact that you are an award-winning author and professor at MIT who has clearly reached intellectual heights that many Dominican men from 'the hood' never will, I wonder from reading your books what is it inside you that propels you to perpetrate the Dominican male penchant for being such perros?" This question is from Nurys Amargós, who says she "refuses to date her own kind due to the aforementioned penchant for being such perros."

JD: First of all, I think that this is a good question. I want to begin by pointing out that I don't think it's helpful to generalize about any group, including your own. When we talk about Dominican men or we talk about Dominican women, we're usually only talking about a small range of individuals. There are 10 million Dominicans. How many of us can claim to have even met 1 percent of them? We tend to deny our own group the possibility of individuality. We'll deny Dominicans individuality, and we'll easily generalize a group and expend individuality to other groups. That is certainly an unfair playing field. Whether we're talking about Dominicans or your average American, it's not as if both groups are completely troubled by masculine privilege and by male misbehavior in relationships. Last time I noticed, there is no group in this country that has a monopoly on men behaving poorly.

GR: People do seem to be harder on those in their own circle.

JD: We make it personal. When our group slightly misbehaves toward us, we make it personal. We are so quick to abandon our group over a few slights. I think that it's no accident that it is happening to a community of color, an immigrant community. I think we are quick to abandon the weak. I rarely hear people saying American men are such cheaters. I'm never going to date American men. The last time I checked, there was a lot of cheating in America. But American men are allowed to be viewed as individuals, and Dominican men are being viewed as a group. To answer part of the question, I think it's important for a male writer to explore the difficult issues about masculinity, to explore the fucked-up-ness of men. I would argue that there are few men who are going to read what I have written and say, "Yes, this is exactly how I should be behaving. Yes, this is a roadmap for who I should be. Yes, this book rewards me for being fucked up." If anything by describing the perro-ness of Dominican men, it encourages real conversation. I hope. GR: Goodreads member Mike Veve writes, "Earlier this year in a talk you gave in Washington Heights, you spoke about the struggles you had in your high school career and the events that led you to those struggles. As a New York City public school teacher, I was moved by your description of young people needing time and space to grieve for the things that have challenged and injured them." He'd love for you to elaborate.

JD: I think we don't give credit to how difficult childhood is, especially in communities like Washington Heights. We expect children who are living in communities with enormous poverty and all of the problems that that entails to perform in school as if nothing is happening. When I was in school, you messed up once and you were absolutely done. Teachers and administrators were drawing conclusions about who I was as a student based on little information. That conclusion followed me throughout all my school days. I think it's very hard to be a young person today. We have to give people room to fuck up. We have to give them room to be bad students. That doesn't mean that they are permanent fuck-ups, that these kids' essence is that they are bad students. We have an education system that is basically an assembly line. We have teachers who are not getting paid enough for what they are being asked to do. There is no question that unless we start putting the money down and start approaching education in a more compassionate way and helping teenagers, we are going to continue to suffer from the crisis we are seeing today in many of our public schools.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing.

JD: My writing process seems to involve a lot of reading and working in the morning. I get almost all my writing done by noon. Then there is reading, and I'm an editor at the Boston Review, and there is rewriting.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

JD: That's pretty easy. A memoir by a Puerto Rican author, Edward Rivera, called Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic. Jessica Hagedorn, who wrote Dogeaters. Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García.

GR: What are you reading now?

JD: Have you ever heard of the book The Emperor and the Wolf, about Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune? I am working on a book From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant: A Novel. The author's name is Alex Gilvarry.

GR: What's next?

JD: I'm trying to write a novel, but you know how these things go. I'm trying to see if the novel will work or not. It won't be for a few years. You have to have patience and you gotta have fun. For me, both of those things are a challenge. It is going to be called Monstro, and it is coming along more slowly than I expected, and it sucks. But one has to have hope.

GR: Last thing: Several Goodreads members asked, "Where do you go to get Dominican food in New York?"

JD: I go to Margot. That's my favorite Dominican restaurant. Also Mama Juana Cafe.

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Joyce (new)

Joyce Suficiencia He mentions here two Fil-Am authors: Hagedorn and Gilvarry. Cool.

message 2: by Victoria (new)

Victoria Booth This interview has inspired me to begin reading this author. Thank you!

message 3: by Kia (new)

Kia Garriques Great interview! Very admirable that he tried writing in the second person even if it was difficult to do. A writer should never been afraid of tackling the unknown.

message 4: by Rose (new)

Rose I've been a fan since Drown (although I wasn't a huge fan of his Oscar Wao book) and am currently reading, This is How You Lose Her. He is an inspiration. I love his writing and I can't get enough of it!

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