Before he disappears from the spotlight once more, Junot Diaz sets the record straight on immigration, identity, family, and the brief and wondrous origins of his novel’s title character.
It’s been almost two years since Junot Diaz first wowed (or perhaps Wao-ed) readers and critics with his first novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In the novel, Diaz holds a torch up to the misbegotten wastescapes of New Jersey, the perils of being a nerd, the ripples and folds of the sexualized human body. But equally important in his novel is the weight of identity—the experience of being a Dominican-American, a Dominican-American nerd, and a Dominican-American nerd who’s profoundly unlucky at love. But Diaz’s novel isn’t merely a continuation of the immigrant family saga; it’s a reworking of it. _Oscar Wao_ is composed in Spanglish and verbal jousts, in the language of a diaspora community still coming into its own. Diaz’s short stories illuminate a similar sense of yearning and confusion. In Alma, the narrator’s eponymous girlfriend is “one of those Sonic Youth, comic-book-reading alternatinas without whom you might never have lost your virginity.” When the narrator is discovered to have cheated on Alma, he’s branded a “fake-ass Dominican.” Diaz’s writing seethes with inventiveness and familiarity, a vocabulary we might not have ever used, but still somehow recognize. But Diaz doesn’t merely re-employ the Spanglish we’ve seen in other works; his is a soaring, racing, allusive Spanglish. His Spanglish isn’t just dialect; it’s a way of life. Now, over a year after Diaz’s Pulitzer win, the literary world wonders where to find Junot next—will it be another ten years before we hear from him again? In some measure, Diaz seems more comfortable in a classroom, living uptown, or with friends at a bar in Mexico City than in the spotlight. But by all indications, that won’t stop the nerdsmith from continuing to shape the world of contemporary fiction.
Junot Diaz was born in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States at the age of six. He delivered pool tables, washed dishes, pumped gas, and worked at a steel mill through college. But Diaz’s trademark role was that of voracious reader. From a young age, he was a mainstay at his local libraries, carving an identity for himself that was sometimes at odds with his community’s own. He later received an MFA from Cornell University. Diaz first received attention for a collection of short stories called Drown, published in 1996. The collection would find its way onto high school and college syllabi nationwide, and for ten years, Diaz worked to follow up on its success. _Oscar Wao_ brought that success, in even greater critical and commercial measure. The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani says Diaz writes “with seemingly effortless aplomb the two worlds his characters inhabit: the Dominican Republic, the ghost-haunted motherland that shapes their nightmares and their dreams; and America (a.k.a. New Jersey), the land of freedom and hope and not-so-shiny possibilities that they’ve fled to as part of the great Dominican diaspora. ”
When he’s not writing, Diaz serves as fiction editor of the _Boston Review_ and teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He exudes the sort of self-deprecating wit and intelligence that some consider humble, others honest. He considers his Pulitzer win an important gain for the Latino, immigrant, and Caribbean communities, but he also expresses what the prize doesn’t mean for him. Moreover, he isn’t interested in writing books at a rapid pace, only in writing the books he feels strongly about, whether or not they take ten years. While there’s no telling when we can expect Diaz’s next novel, we can catch the author in a rare moment of repose, somewhere between critical affirmation and the uncharted future. Adriana Lopez, a founding editor of Críticas Magazine, spoke with Diaz by phone, Diaz in New York and Lopez in Madrid. Listening in via teleconference were 500 members of Las Comadres book club in association with Borders Books. It was, according to Lopez, “like hanging out in your house on the phone and listening to Junot wax on about writing, his childhood… and crack many sly and silly jokes in between.”
—twenty questions (or so) by Adriana Lopez
Guernica: Tell us about immigrating to the states as a young child. Where do you consider home today?
Junot Diaz: [Immigrating] didn’t burn out my desire to travel, though that can happen. There’s nothing like immigration to make you want to just stay put. But what I think of as home is this life between Santo Domingo and the parts of New Jersey and New York City that were my childhood, so in my mind it’s like home is all those things combined.
Guernica: And right now if you had to give one quick answer to the question, “Where do you live?” what would you say?
Junot Diaz: I live on 119th & 1st.
Guernica: [Laughs] Ok, that’s very specific. I hope there are no groupies outside your apartment.
Junot Diaz: Highly doubtful. I only write.
Guernica: Your writing has been described as hip, graceful, and raw with lyricism. When did you first start writing? And where were you in your life as a young writer when you started playing with language?
Junot Diaz: I guess I started writing in college. I just ran into a college roommate of mine who I haven’t seen in sixteen years, and he was like, “Yeah man I remember I would come in from classes and you would be parked at your computer writing.” And I remember that I started writing with some kind of discipline my junior or my senior year of college. But you know my love of literature begins much earlier than that—I was a kid who grew up in a kind of traditional Dominican immigrant family, whatever the hell that means. There weren’t any books in the house per se but for some reason when I arrived in the United States, I was just attracted to reading. I found reading to be a delight, a source of comfort, a way to explore. And I always think about myself as a writer; that comes out of being a reader first, and I don’t think I kind of got to really playing with language in any formal way probably until I was in my mid-twenties. Probably around twenty-four when I was finishing graduate school.
Guernica: Would you say it was something that kind of came from yourself, or would you say there were certain writers who gave you the courage to kind of start reworking the English language somehow?
In general, I’m actually pretty darn awkward. I guess I’m not a Caribbean person whose spoken language has always been kind of our playground.
Junot Diaz: I think so. I think that you’ll always find permission from what you read and what you hear. Maybe there are some people out there who are fully-formed geniuses but for me I predicated much of my work on people that I admired. When I was in college, I was reading Sandra Cisneros and that was a huge impact on me. I was reading Maxine Hong Kingston—again had an enormous impact. Pete Thomas and this South Asian writer, her name was Anjana Appachana. I was just seeing it in books. I was seeing how people played with language and how flexible and fungible and how incredibly pliant language can be, but how sharp too. I have to tell you something: when I was young, I read Moby Dick and I always thought, “There is no English like this in the world.” It was a book that contained twenty-five Englishes. And I was like, “Could I write a book that contained every single one of the languages I could speak fluently, or at least that I was aware of?” So that was a dream, too.
Guernica: You’re a great talker. I’ve heard you give talks and on the radio. You’re a naturally good talker. Do you think being a good talker is also part of being a good writer? Or did one come first? Were you a better writer, then a better oral speaker? Can you talk about that?
Junot Diaz: I guess it depends on who you ask. I would actually say that part of it is practice. In general, I’m actually pretty darn awkward. I guess I’m not a Caribbean person whose spoken language has always been kind of our playground. I never was one of those people who had the gift of gab, as they say. I’m not sure the two connect. I have friends who are incredible raconteurs. They tell tremendous stories. I mean, I can listen to the writer Francisco Goldman tell stories all day. But I’m terrible at telling stories, man. I’m telling you. I do better when I’m on the page.
Guernica: I think what you do have that I think we can talk later about is your great ear for listening to people tell stories, which is probably one of the best things that a writer can have. Would you agree?
Junot Diaz: Well yeah. An ear doesn’t hurt, but it’s so weird because I think there are so many different writers that come from different traditions. There are people who harvest language out of the air around them, and there are people who harvest language from text that they read exclusively. And there are people who mix and match different percentages. An ear will never do you wrong, but I know writers who…most of the language they use is just extracted language from other languages they’ve read. I am a big-time reader, but I mix and match. I love the kookiness of our speech. Speech is like wonderful magic and poetry in itself. I’ve always had to crib a lot from what I’ve heard.
Guernica: I want to ask you more about how you choose subjects. From your short stories, from your first days, to Drown, to Oscar Wao, is there a certain motivation each time? Or is it kind of just like a character that enters you and you go with it? How do you choose subject matter?
Junot Diaz: Well, it’s kind of a thing where I wish I knew. I think that these things are so mysterious. It’s real hard to put a kind of an explanation on it. I remember some stories came about because they were the only stories of the ten or twelve I tried to write that year that didn’t suck. Some stories I wake up and I’ve got a real itch and I’ve got to write that story. That happens infrequently. Other stories are this incredibly slow process. I’m just working line by line by line and then a couple years down the road you’ve got the outline and you’re like, “OK, I can work with this.” I’ve got to tell you, I’m terrible at getting a really good description on the process because what I’ve discovered is that it seems real mysterious. The art is just really mysterious. If I understood it more, maybe I would write more.
Guernica: Do you ever jot things down when you see something? Like something in a movie or something in a book or something on the street or the subway and think, “I should write about that?” Do you jot things down for future reference?
I think that if you’re writing about the human condition, my God, you’ve got to start at base: point zero, point one, is the body.
Junot Diaz: Sure. But it’s never worked for me. Absolutely never. There’s nothing I’ve ever written down that I’ve gone back to later and used. I don’t know what’s wrong. My art feels like it’s real disobedient. I can fill notebooks with observations and maybe they find their way into the work unconsciously, which is great. I’ve never been able to directly plug, like to take a little snip that I’ve picked up on the street and transfer it into a story. I don’t know what’s wrong, but it never works that way.
Guernica: What does it feel like to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer?
Junot Diaz: It feels like absolutely nothing. I mean, again…I’m probably the wrong person. There’s people who, if they get a little prize or if they get a medallion or if they get a little badge, it’s like a big part of their lives or they integrate it in an interesting way. I’m not that kind of a person. I mean, my friends always said, “You celebrated more getting your car back from the mechanic than you did winning the prize.” You know, it’s not simply a matter of a false kind of ‘aw shucks’ modesty. I guess I wish I could say that this wasn’t true, but I’m not really in it for these things, you know? And I guess I would probably write a lot more if these things mattered. Because if you really want a prize, or if you really want applause, you should try to write as many books as humanly possible.
Junot Diaz: And I think that for me, it didn’t…I mean it’s really a nice thing. I’m very, very happy. I’m glad that it’s something for our community, as a Dominican, as a Latino, as an immigrant, as someone from the Caribbean. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s good news with no bad side. It’s something that folks can celebrate and that can be a guide to other folks who want to do the same thing. But again, I don’t think it’s done much to me, I mean, shoot, I kind of like who I am after thirty-nine years, you know? I’ve developed a personality, and I wouldn’t want just something like simply some applause to change it radically. The thing that’s been striking about winning a prize like this, though, is that it does transform…it really gets your book into the hands of people you would have never met before, who would have never read your work. And that’s really gratifying. That’s the component of it that’s been really wonderful.
Guernica: I think that’s a good point. You’re known now, and Spanglish and a little bit of the history of the Dominican Republic and its relation to New Jersey and New York is known now in South Africa and different places. In a way your story is now worldwide, too. And all the messages you wanted to relate in Oscar Wao are known. Now I think this is a good way to get to Oscar Wao itself, the book. And I guess a little back-story, just to clarify—there’s been so much rumor about how this book was given birth to, and I heard you went to Mexico for a bit to write.
Junot Diaz: I did go to Mexico, yeah.
Guernica: And I guess the question is, how long were you there and also, did you go to Mexico because you wanted to distance yourself from New York and D.R. somehow? Because they say with writers sometimes you have to leave these places to really write about them?
Junot Diaz: I wouldn’t say that. I mean, I think that distance is good for some people for certain projects. I mean this is sort of a dynamic question. Some projects require more distance than others, some don’t require it at all. Sometimes you need it and sometimes you don’t. In my case I went to Mexico City because I just was fascinated by the idea of Mexico City. I mean, Mexico City is the center of art and culture and politics and has been and continues to be for Latin America in a way that I think really called to me as an artistic person, as someone that was interested in the politics of Latin America, you know. God, every single famous person in Latin American history and art and politics seems to have found their way to Mexico City.
Guernica: I heard a great rumor that you actually came up with the, I don’t know if it was the character itself or the title of Oscar Wao on a dance floor in Mexico or at a bar in Mexico or something like this, that supposedly you were with some friends and you were—you kind of mispronounced the way Oscar Wilde would be said in Spanish, and Oscar Wao came out, and a lot of people just started laughing and you kind of went with this idea of the way Spanish speakers would pronounce his name, as kind of a symbol for a little bit of Spanish speakers and the awkwardness of the language and I don’t know what. But something happened there.
Junot Diaz: That’s a far better story. No, I mean, the details are okay: I was living in Mexico City, I had a group of dudes and young sisters who liked to get together—we liked to go dancing, we liked to go drinking. One night I was out very late, this was like five months, no, maybe like four months into my trip. It was very late, and we were over at a friend’s house; the guy’s house who I was at turned out to—in the future—turned out to be a very famous Mexican actor. But that night we were just all hanging out and it was a bunch of Mexican bohemians and me and my Guatemalan buddy. And one of these Mexican cats just pulled a book off a shelf and just cornered me and was like, “My favorite writer in the world.” He was telling me, “My favorite writer in the world is Oscar Wao, I love Oscar Wao, Oscar Wao is brilliant.” And I was dying because I knew he meant Oscar Wilde. That’s where the book began. After that party I went home and I laid in bed, and I suddenly had this idea of this fore-cursed family. This idea of this awkward fat boy and this idea that this family would be cursed in love, that they would have great trouble finding love. You know it just felt like a real good kind of novella, telenovela type plot. I just thought, “Hey, I can work with this, you know, I can really change this into something else.”
I can’t imagine someone is going to read this (Wao) book and then feel, “It’s going to be cool to be a nerd now,” no more than people walk away from a book and say, “Let’s reduce the racism of the world.”
Guernica: I’ve talked about this with some other friends of mine, about the characters in Oscar Wao and how connected to their bodies they are. And let me explain this, because it’s a little bit from Oscar’s fatness to his mother’s huge breasts to Belicia’s absolute beauty and power over men with her beauty. You talk about good hair, bad hair, skin tone. And you’re really good at bringing your characters’ physical attributes alive in kind of a deep kind of metaphoric language in terms of describing who they really are. I wanted to talk about whether you’re conscious of this or did these descriptions have to do a little bit [with] how in Latin culture the body is so talked about? I have an aunt, and every time she comes into the room she squeezes my fat, you know. It’s kind of like just how she shows love. And is this something you think is kind of characteristic of our Latin-ness, or do you think this is something—the body—that you picked up from literature in general?
Junot Diaz: Well, I mean, I’m writing about the Caribbean. The reason we’re all in the Caribbean is because bodies were enslaved and bodies were made into machines and bodies were made into incubators and bodies were turned into permanent—at least for people who were living in the moment’bodies were turned into permanent destiny. Our bodies were used to enslave us and were reason to slay us. And I think that the way that the body has worked in the Caribbean is very important historically. I mean, for God’s sake, it was a matter of life and death, beyond just what it normally is every day. If you woke up and you suddenly had black skin, that meant that that was your fate for the rest of your life and it would be to your death, in some ways still. But you know I was also interested in the object, the deep historical thing, that we’re talking about a place where in the local culture, in certain sectors of the local culture, people are embodied in really weird ways. You know, it’s like, every time you hear anyone talk about the Caribbean, whether it’s Caribbeans themselves or people outside, there’s always talk about women’s bodies. Talk about this voluptuousness, this kind of stereotype of what a Caribbean person is. And I think these are stereotypes that even people inside the culture, we actually sometimes claim them and we’re very proud. And look, nothing reminds us—beyond just any Caribbean nonsense and any sort of old ancient history nonsense—the body is what reminds us on a daily basis that we’re human. The body defies us, it betrays us, we have to struggle with it, you know. And it reveals in curious and in abiding ways how we are not perfect. I think that if you’re writing about the human condition, my God, you’ve got to start at base: point zero, point one, is the body.
Guernica: This kind of leads perfectly into the famous question, how do you keep working on the same novel for ten years? Did you ever want to just quit and publish it under a pen name? Have you written under a pen name?
Junot Diaz: Nope, I have not. I wish that I resembled the rumors around me, I certainly would be a more productive worker. No…it’s a really good question, but I feel like I have such dumb answers. In the end it was the book I had to write, and that there was no way I was gonna…whether it came out as garbage or not, no matter how many times I wanted to quit, I would get up and do it again. And it was just the book. The real question was how I could give up on it, there seemed to be something very vital about these characters and their family, and there seemed to be something I was trying to say that was worth all the failure that I was encountering.
Guernica: And you felt pressure, yes? Drown was received so greatly, and people were kind of wondering, can he do a novel, is he a short story writer? You felt pressure, yes?
The thing is—do we really need another writer who writes a book every eighteen months, whether the quality is wonderful or not?… Maybe what we need is a writer like me who goes very slow, as well.
Junot Diaz: I mean, I didn’t really feel pressure from that. That doesn’t really mean much to me. It’s not that I’m inhuman; it hurts when there are five people in the corner of the room whispering about me. You’re not made out of steel. The pressure that I felt was coming from me because I’m very demanding of myself. I didn’t care what anyone said in the outside world because I was so busy beating myself up. There was no room at the table for someone else to beat me up. I’m just really hard, very hard on myself, and that’s the way it is. Again, I think it would be different if I were a different kind of person, but I am who I am. The pressure I felt was not from the first book succeeding, it was because I set the bar high for me, I wanted to write a book that I could live with for more than ten years.
Guernica: Ten years went by quickly for you?
Junot Diaz: I wouldn’t say that. Those were horrible years. I always laugh, because this book is in some ways, there is so much joy in it. For all the pain and the agony of these families, there is clearly a love of life in this book, which is kind of comical because when I was working on it, I felt so crushed, I felt like I was blowing it.
Guernica: My idea is that people leaving [the character of Oscar] are going to think, “Well, it’s kind of cool to be a nerd.” I want to hear about what a nerd was like for you when you were growing up, and how that’s changed, and if you consider yourself a nerd.
Junot Diaz: Well, I don’t think anyone is going to get away with—again, I can’t imagine someone is going to read this book and then feel, “It’s going to be cool to be a nerd now,” no more than people walk away from a book and say, “Let’s reduce the racism of the world.” Books are wonderful, but they aren’t that powerful. For me I was always a smart nerdy kid. I wasn’t the smartest and I wasn’t the nerdiest, but I was a smart nerdy kid my whole childhood, and I definitely wanted to be somehow involved with reading the rest of my life ,and I came from a community, I lived in a community, I was part of a community where reading was considered completely alien. I mean, honestly, I spent my entire childhood feeling like a freak because I liked to read. It’s just like, “Eh, no one else likes to read but me; I must be crazy!” A lot of young Dominican [kids]—and I’m sure a lot of other communities too where these kids walk around feeling like freaks—they walk around feeling like X-Men, because whatever they like, it’s such a weird thing for their communities. For me being a nerd is just like I like to read. I was lucky because I came from an incredibly tough, you know, what they would call in my community, a legitimate family, I had a lot of tough people in my family, so I was allowed to be a nerd and no one would really bother me. That’s not really the case for most people—most people in my community. If you loved to read, people would think you were soft and trying to act white. I heard that stuff too growing up, but again for the most part, I was protected because I had a brother and a sister who did my fighting anyway, and would have happily done so to defend me. They say that [being a] nerd is really cool, that now people are all into computers, but I don’t know, man, I just wonder if in the communities that I’m talking about, whether it’s gotten easier to be a smart kid, it’s gotten easier to be a kid who’s into art, gotten easier to be a kid who reads. I don’t know. I can’t speak to that. I haven’t seen it become any easier for these kids. The communities that I’ve experienced aren’t everyone’s.
Guernica: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
Junot Diaz: I think, like, God, that’s such a great question. I’m a writer, think about it. If it weren’t for the fact that I was so stubborn, God knows if I ever would have finished any of these books. I write so slowly. For me, what I would be doing if I wasn’t a writer is never far [from my mind]. Knowing me, I would probably be a lawyer. I’m really into our community, I’m really into the rights of immigrants, the rights of the working poor. I’m one of those little activist types. I probably would have just gone to law school. And the scary part is that I was one of those kids who always tested really well. You put a test in front of me, and I would have been like do-do-do-do-do. I probably would have been some community lawyer somewhere—if anything, that’s probably what I would have been doing.
Guernica: We’re kind of getting to the end of our interview, and I wanted to talk a little bit about your general psychology in a very quick way. So what I’m going to do is give you a series of quick questions for you to answer. I don’t want you to think about them too much—it’s just a title, or a certain thing, quickly, to go down a list. OK? What’s your favorite song?
Junot Diaz: [pause] God. What’s my favorite song? Probably The Child Left Behind by Bongo.
Guernica: Name a city. A city that you like. A favorite city.
Junot Diaz: Oh, Baltimore.
Guernica: [Laughs] OK. Why Baltimore?
Junot Diaz: I’ve spent every summer for about ten years going to Baltimore and I’ve really enjoyed it.
Guernica: That’s unexpected. Favorite character from a book.
Junot Diaz: Fiver from Watership Down
Junot Diaz: He’s kind of like a little nerd rabbit. But even though he’s very tiny he’s very brave.
Guernica: OK. Novel? Your favorite or one you like.
Junot Diaz: A novel that I like? Beloved
Junot Diaz: Name an author that I like? Ah, Salman Rushdie.
Junot Diaz: Central Station
Guernica: A memory.
Junot Diaz: A memory? Walking to work. When I used to work at the steel mill, walking to the bus stop.
Guernica: How old were you?
Junot Diaz: I guess about twenty.
Guernica: And what happened on this walk?
Junot Diaz: Nothing. I just remember that walk because I did it every day. You know?
Guernica: What’s the phrase you most say?
Junot Diaz: “I don’t know.”
Guernica: [Laughs] And where are you most happy?
Junot Diaz: In a book. If there’s another answer—on the plane to Santo Domingo.
Guernica: Do you believe in the rust factor?
Junot Diaz: In the what factor?
Guernica: Rust factor. When you’re not writing, you start getting rusty.
Junot Diaz: No, I don’t know. I don’t know how it works. Again, I think that most of my writer friends are really compulsive. I think that’s great. It’s wonderful for them. It’s just not my bag. It’s not the way I work. But again, it’s probably why my friend has ten books out and I have two. The thing is—do we really need another writer who writes a book every eighteen months, whether the quality is wonderful or not? I mean, maybe. But I can name twenty off the top of my head who do it. Maybe what we need is a writer like me who goes very slow, as well.