I met Junot Díaz on Sunday, October 13th — met him in the sense that I was toward the end of a line consisting of about 100 anxious fans waiting to shake hands with the man and get their books signed. I took the opportunity to ask him if he’d do an interview with Gozamos, and he told me to reach him at his MIT email address. To my surprise, he responded to my email straightaway by asking for the questions.
His acceptance was tougher than rejection. What do you ask a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a creative writing professor at MIT, a MacArthur Genius and the leading voice in Latino literature?
I thought of asking him questions that would allow our readers to better know him, things like his favorite comfort foods and his favorite movie. Had I been bold enough to take up more of his time, I might’ve put together a much longer interview that delved into all of that. For the time being, I figured a handful of thoughtful questions would be more than enough. Maybe that longer interview will occur somewhere else down the line.
It took me about a week to email him eight questions. Then I waited. I waited for a month. Meanwhile I thought every self-deprecating thing a novice interviewer could imagine. Maybe he’d read my questions, rolled his eyes, shared them with a confidant for a laugh, and decided he couldn’t be bothered. Maybe he’d changed his mind about doing an interview with a budding Latino website. Not once did I email him in those four weeks, convincing myself that he would write back, that he was only composing well thought out answers.
After a month, his response email appeared in my Gozamos inbox. His answers came with a simple preface: “sorry about the lateness. j.”
His answers appear below as I received them. After all, he’s a brilliant and exciting writer, and I was afraid of altering his words away from what he’d written. I wanted the readers of this interview to get the same sense of sitting with Díaz that they get from reading one of his works.
I apologize if my questions run a bit long, but I wanted to make sure he understood where my questions were coming from.
Race figures prominently in much of your work, specifically your experiences as an Afro-Dominican. Being a black Puerto Rican boy from the burbs myself, whose family called him negrito and who thought his grandfather was simply indigenous, I can appreciate the increased complexity this dynamic adds to your storytelling. Plus, I’m sure most of your non-Latino readers — and even some of your Latino ones — hardly considered that someone could be both Latino and black. Seeing how there still seems to be some confusion over how Latinos should be categorized as a people (mostly at the Census Bureau), where does race fit into your own understanding of Latino identity?
We all have a race, even though as I’m sure you’ve encountered there are some whites that seem to think that race is a people of color problem, that they have no race at all, but that’s just a delusion born of white supremacy. Race has always been a lens through which I was taught to view the world — this is part of the early training we all get, though again some of us would deny it. And my sense of my own African-ness has long informed my understanding of my community, my family and of course of my own personhood. Some of this came from growing up in a community in NJ that had a sizeable African-American presence. Some of this came from within my own family, who had people that were proud of our African roots. And some of this came from my own decisions and convictions. I’m not sure I would be an artist if it wasn’t for my connection with my lost erased ancestors who were enslaved. But look we live in a country that is deeply invested in the racial binary of black and white — that doesn’t like anything that upsets that cozy solipsism. We Latinos are a racial complexity that the U.S. seems ill-suited and unwilling to confront. And yet confront it, it must. In these conversations Linda Alcoff’s concept of ethnorace — how we Latinos (an ethnicity) also have a race but how we Latinos as a group have also been racialized as a group — has always proven helpful. We need tools and education and spaces to have these conversations about our community but as of yet we haven’t gotten them in the proportions we need them. That will come soon but of course we have to keep fighting.
In your recent interview with Salon, you said writers of color are already considered a genre right off the bat. Your mentor Toni Morrison says it’s their own fault, or rather, the fault of those who came before and “wanted their own space, like a mystery section.” I think you’ll agree the same can be said about immigrants and Latinos of any color. It seems whatever doesn’t fit into mainstream America’s image of itself is automatically labeled outsider art. And that cuts both ways, because there must be plenty of minority readers — especially Antilleans, or even just immigrants or Latinos — who approach your work as a survey of all Dominican, immigrant or inner-city narratives. So, if you’ll ignore the irony of the question, what do you say to people who see you as a spokesman of the Dominican, immigrant and Latino communities?
If one thinks a book of fiction can be a useful guide to culture, can stand in for a whole community, then that person smokes way better shit than I do. Novels are art and art seems to be best at raising questions, not answering them. If you come to a novel for answers… bueno. But certainly there have been moments where I was being asked to be a stand-in for our communities, a pressure one must always resist and if you can flip on its head. The community I grew up in doesn’t need spokespeople as much as we need justice.
Many artists through the years have expressed a reluctance toward joining academia or gaining formal recognition of work. After hearing he’d won the Nobel in 1964, Sartre famously said that “a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution.” He may have been echoing Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 letter declining the Pulitzer, in which he wrote, “All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous.” And yet, here you are, a writer of color from the D.R., raised in working-class New Jersey, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and MIT professor. Were you ever afraid of losing that edge by achieving a certain level of prestige in the literary world? How has winning the Pulitzer and entering academia affected your approach to your art and your work?
So the examples are two white men? Damn. And for the sake of accuracy I was raised in a mixed working poor and working class community, of which my family belonged to the former fraction. But look these are questions everyone should always ask themselves: how does our privilege affect us? And what can I do with whatever privilege I have to help others? For me personally teaching part time at MIT and winning some prizes are awesome privileges but on the scale of things they cannot begin to equal the privilege I attained when I immigrated to the U.S. and became a U.S. citizen. Once you do that, the rest seems like nothing more than garnish. We always have privilege vis-à-vis someone and for a whole bunch of complex reasons having to do with my history as an activist I try to use my privilege to help. That’s the only thing privilege really is good for. Sure you help yourself too. But if we’re going to be fair did winning the Pulitzer affect my work more than say missing all those meals I missed growing up? Hard to say. Don’t much like these questions because behind them I detect an unhelpful obsession with a mythical authenticity — wrapped up in these questions is a sense that somehow changing makes us less authentic Dominicans or whatever. Dominicans on the Island will argue precisely this — you left the Island, you ain’t Dominican any more. I guess I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy this fetish for the authentic, which is used to victimize so many of us. Can’t speak Spanish? You ain’t us. You’re an immigrant? You ain’t us. These questions always seem to be excuses for us to valorize certain positions over others, to make simplistic arguments about who we are. As for how winning prizes has affected my work: I have no idea. And how can anyone know? Is there a test case, a pocket universe, where I didn’t win that can serve as the control? Listen, we all change. We all grow old. We are all no longer who we once were. If we have ‘edges’ then by their own logic we will all eventually lose them. What can you do? Me, I worry about is finishing books. Anything else feels like too much.
I read a recent interview in which you said you preferred writing novels to short stories. You said that, given the time and effort you put into your short stories, you’d rather have a novel to show for it than a short story or a short story cycle. Does that mean Oscar Wao is your favorite work thus far?
I don’t have a favorite work. These books are all part of a cycle. I see them as one unit. But also remember I lived with these works for a very long time. For a long time the only book I knew was Drown. And for a longer time it was Oscar Wao. It’s like I love the book I’m writing but then the next book comes along and usurps everything that came before. Perhaps in a couple of more years I’ll have more perspective. Drown and Oscar Wao will probably have the benefit of being my first book and my first novel, respectively. Will that translate into they being my favorites? Time will tell. But given the rate I’m writing books I might not have much to choose from.
I’m a young writer myself and I can’t bear to look at anything older than a year. I view those older stories as though they were written by a different version of me — a dumber or more naive me. I know you said you don’t have a favorite work, but do you still enjoy reading your earlier work? Or do you read a few paragraphs from “Fiesta, 1980” and cringe thinking of how differently you might write it today?
I never read anything I’ve written. Too many of other people’s works to catch up on. And as I’m sure you know — when one writes a book what ends up happening, the tragedy is that you alone are the only one that cannot enter that book. It’s a strange consequence of the creative process. As for “Fiesta, 1980” etc. my younger self wrote his stories the best he could. Why would I want to take that from him? Even if I did like to read my old work I’m sure the last thing I hope I’d feel besides the shame or a sense of inadequacy, some gratitude. Dude did his best. Made me possible.
Speaking of finishing books, what can we expect from Monstro, which is the working title of the science-fiction novel you’re working on? I’m sorry I haven’t read the excerpt published in the New Yorker, but from what I read in New York Magazine, it’s about a young Dominican York girl who saves the day by saving the whole world. Do you feel yourself channeling a specific science-fiction master in your writing?
I have no idea. I haven’t written another word of the book so don’t know what it is or who it might be coming from. I do think a lot about Octavia Butler’s work. Her obsession with apocalypses, with biological transformations, with refracting African diasporic history through the tropes of science fiction, has always held me in awe. She’s an astonishing writer and one who I’m in perpetual awe of. And then of course I’ve always wanted to do something along the lines of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. At a structural level that novel always fascinated me. But yeah, if I ever DID write a scifi book I’d love to see a lot of Butler in its DNA and some Otomo and Delany of course. But that’s like wishing for everything in the world.
Switching topics, hip-hop culture is replete with the word “nigga,” to the point where it’s become a part of everyday parlance among all types of groups — from Puerto Ricans in the Bronx, to white kids in Detroit and Asians on the West Coast. Yet, despite how ubiquitous it is in the music especially, the word “nigga” remains a controversial word. Most users of the word, myself included, consider it a separate entity from the word “nigger,” just as “torta” means different things in Mexico City and Buenos Aires. But you seem to use the word “nigger” exclusively. Do you see no consequential difference between “nigger” and “nigga”? Should the younger generation ditch the word, or is it already part of reality in hip-hop culture?
First understand: I grew up surrounded by so-called Black English and by the word nigger, used positively and negatively. I was called nigger often enough by whites to be haunted by it. But also remember that I grew up before people started using -gga to signal the Good N-word. Good N or Bad N was determined by context. So in my time you had a Richard Pryor or Felipe Luciano’s Jibaro, My Pretty Nigger, which in case you don’t know was a Good N.
So when it came time for me to write I decided to stay old school and not to designate between Good N-word and Bad N-word; the reader must discern that for themselves. In other words they got to do the work by reading the context. Which we always do anyway. After all just because someone calls you a nigga that don’t mean they love you.
What’s valuable about this strategy is that by keeping the word in its original -er formulation I do not allow the reader to escape from the horrifying traumatic bloody history of the word. I suspect the reason folks don’t like to see the -er word, even if it’s being used positively, is because it reminds them of all that racism and horror. Well, if you’re going to co-opt a cruel world, you need to be able to live with its history. From where I’m standing, nigga is a comfort word practiced by folks who want their blackness shorn of the nightmare of white supremacy. Nigga at its deepest level is a form of forgetting — nigger is not. Nigger reminds us, even when it’s being said ‘Nigga’ that it’s a word that has long victimized us. Seeing that extra -er just keeps the history in the picture. Does it unsettle people? Yup. And isn’t that the role of an artist? To disrupt and to raise questions?
By keeping it -er I unsettle this cozy arbitrary “rule” that argues that -gga is acceptable but -er is not. I engage the reader in a fuller sense of the word by having them decipher the valence of the word through context. And lexically by keeping the word -er I confront readers with a fuller range of historical and social connotations, remind readers of the nightmare historical burden of the word we have recuperated. A re-minding that nigga is not always capable of. But understand I don’t necessarily want converts. But a conversation, yes.
On a final, lighter note, do you still consider yourself a fan and avid listener of hip-hop music? How has hip hop changed since its golden age? Is it dead? Who’s in your iPod? What are your criteria for a good hip-hop song?
Hip hop is still my music. But there ain’t nothing I can add about its trajectory that hasn’t been said by smarter people. What am I listening to these days? Jack shit. I’m old. I move slow. Still enjoying Kendrick Lamar and Tyler the Creator’s latest. But if you got some recs I’ll take ’em.
Díaz third book to-date, This Is How You Lose Her, was published in September 2012. Besides teaching at MIT, he also sits on the Pulitzer Prize board of jurors as the first Latino and is honorary chairman of the DREAM Project, a non-profit organization geared toward education in his native Dominican Republic.
[Photo: Olvasoterem2 via Picasa Web]