LAist Interview: Junot Diaz, Author and Pulitzer Prize Winner
The thing about author Junot Diaz is, one minute he’s on the phone with you, rapping about meringue, Malcolm X, comic books, and how shit never gets done on time in the Dominican Republic – and the next minute, he’s winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He describes himself as just another ordinary, poor immigrant kid from Jersey, but the book tells a different story: that of an author alive with passion for his roots, for language, and for the moments of silence, linguistic and cultural, that can bring a family together and also tear it apart.
LAist was just one of the multitudes to heap praise on "Oscar Wao", which appeared almost eleven years after his previous effort, the short story collection “Drown" . The novel has also garnered a National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, and has been nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. If all that weren’t enough, he’s even up for a James Beard Award for an article on New York’s Dominican restaurants that appeared last year in Gourmet Magazine.
Diaz admits, however, that awards don’t mean much to him when it comes right down to it: “My friends all think I'm so crazy. I'm more worried about the next text than I am like, enjoying resting on these laurels. I need to learn to do that more, I'll live longer if I do. It's tremendously gratifying, of course, that people are interested in the book and want to read it, that there's been this much attention given to a piece of fiction that's about a crazy Dominican family, of course, it's wonderful. But for me, that feeling lasts only pico-seconds. I really just want to write stuff that only takes five years to finish!”
We spoke with Diaz by phone last week (before his Pulitzer win was announced) about language, politics, gender, and how “Oscar Wao” was originally conceived as a multi-media experience, complete with an illustrated section that would mimic the comic books Oscar so loved.
Interview conducted by Carrie Meathrell and Osmany Rodriguez
Would you ever write a book in Spanish?
Naw. I mean, I basically learned to read and write in English, and I think that in the end that's probably going to be my life's tongue. But you never know, I never think about it in that way. What’s crazy is the way that the politics of these languages work in real life– people kind of forget that for most young people, the language that they're saddled with wasn't a choice. I came over [from the Dominican Republic] so young that speaking English wasn't a choice, it was a basic form of reality on the ground.
Is “Oscar Wao” being published in the Dominican Republic? Are you going do any press for it there?
Yes, it'll be out in September. The thing is, in Santo Domingo, it's really all up to the folks over there, and everything's very last minute. So there's no point making plans for six months from now. So far I have to go back to Santo Domingo three times this next two months for literary stuff, so I'm sure something will come up in September. Everything is done in Santa Domingo last second, you know?
So your Spanish is still pretty good, but how's your Nerdish?
It's terrible. That’s the more honest truth – my Sindarin and Quenya are just terrible now!
Yet sci-fi and fantasy genres play a huge role in this book. You build so much of the book around references to The Lord of the Rings, The Fantastic Four, comic books, Dungeons and Dragons – how does the fantasy world work in this book?
My sense of it is just sort of the mythic dream of what the United States is – I don't think that's any more or less ridiculous than somebody believing in and organizing their lives around Lord of the Rings. It's all make believe in some ways, it's just some of it is more respected than others.
What about the academic resistance to sci-fi and fantasy as a genre? Why can’t these genres be used to say something significant about our modern moment?
Everyone has an obsession with everybody else’s language. There's a lot at stake for people who are disqualifying or disavowing certain linguistic registers and valuing others. It's basically the way we organize ourselves: literary criticism, yes, Tolkien, no. If you talk to MFA people, it always goes like this: creative writing yes, literary criticism no. The reverse is also true for literary critics: criticism yes, creative writing no.
I just find it so bizarre that people who work on language have these opinions. Being against a language form is just as absurd as Canute the Beast trying to order or command the sea. It's more about your own craziness than anything about the way the language works. So you really can't be – I'm not looking for excuses to restrict linguistic registers at the border, I'm looking for excuses to deploy all sorts of language. Through my own educational process I was always being told by one group or another that one language is good, one language is bad. Even people who are supposed to be defenders of language, they'll always sneak in their biases, you know: "I think it's really really great, but don't bring any sci-fi stories into my class."
Let’s talk then about the kinds of words that are okay to use and the kinds that aren’t. You use the word “nigger” a lot in this book. Have you gotten any pushback from people about being a Latino writer and using that word?
It's one of those things, I mean -- there's a ton of child rape in this book too. Does that mean I'm a child rapist, I endorse child rape? I mean, the word nigger exists in the world. And some people aren’t okay with a Latino writer using it, and you know what? That's really cool! That's the difference that we're talking about, is it real life or is it art? When it comes right down to it, so child rape should only be represented by child rapists? Or if you represent child rape in a book, does this speak to your relationship with child rape? Or is there something far more complicated going on, with the concept of representations, or the concept of deploying "taboo" language and who deploys it? I don't ever remember Oscar calling anybody nigger, or Lola using that word – it's coming from Yunior specifically.
It's easy to assume that because there's one person in a culture or group using that word, that everyone's using it. But I find that part of what the book is about is about who uses what language and how they're using it. There is something about the way Yunior uses language that is worth really interrogating. I totally understand people's political decisions about language, vis-a-vis their decisions about their practice and their life, but I just feel like when issues of representation are up in the air, you have to use a much wider palette. We're trying to talk about the world. I guess this isn't an essay about for or against the "n word", it's sort of a larger argument about the world, so that everything in the world, positive and negative, should find its way into a book. There's something surprisingly reductive about how people are always trying to scratch books out of existence. That means we've got to get of almost everything by Mark Twain!
I mean, after all, Malcolm X is of Caribbean descent. He's not purely African American descent, if I remember correctly, part of his family is either from St Lucia or St Croix. [Editor's note: Malcolm X's mother was born in Grenada, in the southeastern Caribbean sea]. So he shouldn't use it either, right?!
What I find interesting is that I'm neither for nor against who should use certain words or not. But there's a tremendous amount at stake in trying to control how language is used.
Did you ever think about writing “Oscar” in comic book form?
There was supposed to be a whole illustrated chapter, this was supposed to be one of those multi-media texts. But as so often happens, the book wanted to be what it ended up being. So all my smarty-pants ideas about the book, they were just for naught, for naught!
Would you ever think about writing a sci fi genre novel?
It all depends. I had ideas about this book, but those ideas quickly – my conscious, executive ideas were undone by the power of the unconscious masses. I mean, yeah, I wouldn't mind making the executive decision and try to write a straight up sci-fi novel, but at the end it would just be all about Dominicans again! But I'll give it a shot one day, I'm sure. I guess I always start in one place and end up usually ten thousand miles away.
Lots of people ask you about why it took you so long to write this book.
It's an easier question to ask than to read the book carefully and talk about it.
Now that it's done, is it worth it? I mean, do you say to yourself, I spent all this time on this book, I feel like I did it right, that it was a worthwhile experience?
I don't know – in the end, what I'm really thinking about is, I hope the next one doesn't take that long! The immediate applause is interesting – and you're like "hey, this is great!"
But what I'm really thinking about is the future. I'm really thinking about -- what's going on now? What's coming up next? How's everything going to work? I think that that's more on my mind than anything else.
The book was recently optioned by Miramax. Would you be involved in a film version of “Oscar Wao.”
Well, they haven't even cut the check, so you know! These things take so incredibly long. I could say "yeah!" and then tomorrow, I'll be completely gone from the situation. It's one of those things where only when it's done, can you say you had anything to do with it. That's the way the movie business works. As long as the tiny little check they gave me clears, they can do whatever they want with it!
A lot of this book focuses on different types of masculinity, specifically Dominican masculinity. Yunior on the one hand is a player, he’s very promiscuous, and then on the other hand you have Oscar, this nerd who can’t get a girl to save his life, and he’s terrified of dying a virgin. How were you trying to represent a male Dominican experience?
The one thing this book cautions you about is thinking about itself as a totalizing text – because it's the opposite of disappearing, it becomes too present, it becomes a dictatorship. The whole problem with authority and with having one person who's an expert, one text that explains it all – you know, a “Dominica-nomicon” – you know, it becomes dictatorial. And if anything, this is a text that is terrified of dictatorships. Part of what I'm very much interested in is a sort of multi-determined, complicated, nuanced look at how New World masculinity plays itself out in a local area like the Dominican Republic. I mean, I could be wrong, there's lots of unconscious stuff here more than conscious stuff, but I thought the DR was the kind of case study for a larger argument about the world, how that developed, what are some of its lures and what are some of its dangers.
How hard was it for you to get into the female subjectivity, to view things from the perspective of Lola, Belicia, La Inka?
Ones of the good things is that I wasn't trying to direct it, it was all being filtered through Yunior’s voice. What I was happiest with, even though these women are being filtered through this aberrant, weirdly masculine, polymathic voice, what I wanted to get across was that the sense that you were encountering the female subjectivity despite all this white noise from Yunior. That a voice like Yunior could, without losing itself, render what it's like to be around these kinds of women.
But the reader reacts very viscerally to a character like Belicia – you can’t help but get angry at her, for her violence towards her children.
But man, you know – people are fucked up! You know, our vision of ourselves is always so much more positive than who we really are. The thing with Belicia – in my mind, that was a very honest representation of her. But most of us? Nobody knows who we are. And what if somebody jumped into your head, you know? And got to see everything that you are, all the sorts of things you thought about, all your cowardice and fear: the representations would be a little bit rougher than you're accustomed to. I hoped everybody would be able to see her despite her bitchiness, to see her longing.
I guess because all my life I've grown up around Dominican women, I have sisters who were a huge impact on me, I've been dating a Dominican woman more or less for the past ten years. Part of me feels, as an artist, if I can't create a tribute, or at least a map of the world I encountered being around certain kinds of Dominican women in the 90's and the 2000's, I'd feel, like, lame as an artist. I mean, I've spent all this time with them and they would be like come on, is that the best you can do?
How did the research process work for you? How did you research the historical aspects? What about the nerdy Parts?
The real tough stuff was the historical stuff. It was a ton of raw research, it was just me and there was all this work I was doing just getting the information, and there was all this information I already carried inside of me, because I was such a history nerd, and I am such a history nerd, and it's all this crap I carried inside of me, you know. I had all this stuff inside of me, and it was just interesting to find out how I could make all these connections, in my head. What was the hardest thing was to create these two webs [of the present-day narrative and the historical narrative], these two structural webs that worked with each other; one web of signification and of plot and structure with that kind of nerdish stuff? And then one that showed all this information about all this nerdishness, I didn't want to be completely fluent in nerdishness, I wanted to have this narrative, so that if you follow the nerdish references to a logical conclusion it organizes the book in a different way, and it allows you to see the book quite differently – and then the sort of historical arguments that are being made in the more historical sections, if you actually follow them to their conclusions, or if you ask yourself, in both areas, what is missing? And why is it missing? And you begin to fill in all sorts of kooky ass information.
So yeah, man it took a lot of work, but what took more work out of that was how to do this, so that both sections worked with each other, and that both sections depending on how you entered them, or how you engaged them, would create a different book.
And that's what I wanted to do. If you follow the historical argument, you would have one kind of book, but if you got off on some of the nerdy shit? It creates a totally different book. And I wanted the book to be different books, so you're not just like, oh so the difference is that Oscar has hair here or doesn't have hair there.
I read so much, interviewed so many people, and then you also have to become fluent in this stuff, it’s not just knowing it, you have to talk and think it for months and months and months. I mean, you can't crack fucking jokes about this shit unless you know it inside and out.
You speak very highly of your experiences in college, at Rutgers University.
You're a poor fuckin kid from Dominican New Jersey, from a neighborhood you never left, I mean I certainly never met a girl who liked to read. Never met an activist, you know? Going to college was like immigrating again except it wasn't as fucked up, it was actually kind of fun. I mean, it wasn't fuckin paradise, I mean, I worked my way through college, delivering fuckin pool tables. I mean, I know kids who say they worked their way through college and they had a fuckin work study job at the library, you know? I was fuckin working my ass off, so it wasn't a fun ass joke, but compared to what immigration was like when I was a kid? I was like, shit yeah, this is great! You get ass, people invite you to smoke weed, you meet people from all over the world, you read books you can't believe ever could have been written. You get with activists, you get to travel, you know.
Nothing startles me on a daily basis more than what we’re all capable of, and how things can work out if we’re just given a little bit of support – all these institutions that are supposed to be nurturing young people, and this country that’s supposed to be all youth-positive, there is just no support for young people. It takes so little to catapult someone into another universe, but they don’t even want to give you that.
I look at myself – anyone can say what they want about themselves, but when I was fifteen years old, I wasn’t a fuckin special kid, I was like every fucking kid I knew. And we all had dreams for ourselves, but the specificity of those dreams and the power of our longing made us feel exceptional. But you know, on an objective level there was nothing special about me. I keep thinking about almost every young person I’ve met was a lot like me, and certainly not better, just how little it would take to send these kids places that the whole world needs, not just they need. It just startles me.
Every time I reflect on my work, it’s like okay, I did this, it was tough and shit, but the kind of support I got they’re not even giving out anymore.
What sort of advice would you give writers who are just starting out?
Can I expand the franchise a little more? I don’t feel that my organic unit is ‘the writer.’ I feel my organic unit is poor immigrant kids who want to do something to make themselves feel valuable. Maybe writing is a part of it, you want to feel valuable and fuckin productive. The hardest thing in the world is to maintain any sense of hope in a country that doesn’t give a fuck about you. And whether it blows you up in Iraq, maybe it triples your student debt, while you’ve got your back turned?
The hardest thing in the world is to maintain a positive outlook, and I have failed many many times to stay positive, but you know what? That has been more to my detriment than anything else. I’ve never failed the way that I fail when I have gone negative. And it’s weird, even when shit is really tough, if you stay positive, it sounds really Pollyanna-ish, but it’s a lot easier to get shit done and get out of that fucking hole. But it’s tough, man, when you’ve got a boot on your neck, to say “ohhh, gotta stay positive!” I have a lot of respect for the kids I meet, and you know everybody says “oooh this generation, it’s going to hell, blah blah”, and I’m just like, “Shut the fuck up, man.”
An individual person thinks that they have enough knowledge and capacity that they can judge a collective? I’m like, what? That’s the ultimate height of absurd arrogance. I’m just like, yo, whatever, man. Even if young people don’t do anything, they’re still worth it for the very fact that they’re on this earth, you know.
Thank you so much for talking to us.
Thank you guys. Just try to make me sound good, okay?
We will make you sound awesome.