Interview with Junot Diaz

by Marina Lewis

Appears in Other Voices #36



Junot DŪazís stories have appeared numerous times in The New Yorker, as well as in Story and the Paris Review. He is a recipient of a 1999 Guggenheim fellowship, and his work has been featured in Best American Short Stories of 1996, and 1999ís Best American Fiction. He is the author of the book Drown, and is a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University.

Mr. DŪaz graciously agreed to speak with Marina Lewis, by telephone, after her interview with another renowned author evaporated from her tape recorder. Fortunately, she plugged it in correctly this time.

 

What are you reading right now?

 

At this moment Iím reading, basically, what is an act of historical sycophancy. Itís a book that the president, the old dictator of the Dominican Republic,Trujillo, had someone write about his regime. Itís the most astonishing, over the top, adulatory piece of nonsense in the world. Just propaganda.

I find this kind of genre hilarious. Itís always useful to see what people, given the chance, will say about themselves. It says so much about who you are, and how you, in a moment of vanity and self-congratulation and triumph and power, represent yourself. The silences. All those things make up a person.

 

What writers have you loved? Who did you love growing up?

 

Who I loved growing up is not who you might think. Most of us build up our reading. Iíve always had this sense that reading is this constant piling on of words upon words upon words, and the initial base upon which all this rests usually gets crushed under the latest layerójust gets crushed, overridden and pumiced, and we often forget that the thing which made this amazing structure possible is often extraordinarily humble, simple, unelaborate, uncut, just the most basic quarry stone. So as a child, my entire love of reading and of literature was built on what most people would consider crap. I used to read comic books. I used to read really kind of nonsense books. The first writer that I lovedóitís hilariousóas a kid I used to love this insane apocalyptic writer of childrenís stories, this writer named John Christopher. I remember him being a writer I adored. In some ways he was writing these stories about the apocalypse, about young adolescent boys always finding themselves in a scenario where theyíre one of the last people on earth, and it was just such an awesome metaphor for how I felt in those days. I adored crap like that. And then of course you grow up, and your tastes grow up, and you find yourself in love with so many different kinds of writers. I remember those first few, itís like one of those early relationships, like your first real love, after youíre out of the stage when youíre an adolescent and you really have adult faculties. My first real adult love was someone like Sandra Cisneros. I adored her. I adored her work. I adored what she meant, what she was trying to do, her experimentalism, her poetry. But I think the most sustained love of mine, the one thatís carried me through all these years, is my relationship with Toni Morrison. Iím telling you, Iím one of those people whoís still cracking my head on many of the ideas Toni Morrison both suggested and elaborated on in her work.

 

How did you start as a writer?

 

I always told stories. I was far more of a storyteller than I was a writer. I still think I am. In a way, the medium in which I chose to tell my stories was the medium of least resistance. I think had I been very privileged, and had access to afford a film background, I could just as easily have gone into that idiom. The form chose me; it was just the conditions of what I was doing. But I have to say, the form didnít just come out of nowhere, it was an extension of my love for reading. A friend of mine, another writer, told me that the Latin root for author is augment, and I think thatís basically what it was. I wanted to augment, to add to, my reading experience.

 

Could you tell me about your very first published story?

 

It was a story called ďYsraelĒ about a kid who gets his face eaten off by a pig. That would be the plug line. But the real story is about diaspora, about Dominican families having to live in these worlds where parents are abroad, and their kids donít really know them. Itís pretty much a story about families and brotherhood.

 

It appears in Drown, but where was it published originally?

 

Story Magazine

 

Were you like, so excited?

 

I was like, you knowÖ People who know me know this: I was extraordinarily excited, but Iím one of those people whoís a genius at undercutting their own excitement. Iím like Yeah well, itís great this got published but what does it really mean? So in the same way, when Drown was published and received all sorts of wonderful support from a wide variety of wonderful people, my reaction was still not celebratory. I still thought, Well, now you have the novel ahead of youÖ.

 

Since you have gotten a tremendous amount of attention for your first story collection, do you feel a lot of pressure about your novel?

 

Iím a brutal person. I torture myself. So I think for the first five years I just pressured myself to the point where there was no joy in writing, and if thereís no joy in writing you canít tell stories. Itís funny, because in some ways, if I had not put so much pressure on myself, I probably would have written two books already. Iím not saying either of them would have been good, thatís another thing, but I could definitely have produced two books.

When youíve got low standards for yourself, or when youíre more generous, depending on which perspective you takeóone more cynical and hard, and the other far more open minded and kindówhen youíre more generous with yourself, you let yourself do things, make mistakes. Iím awful. I have a tyranny of me. I just donít allow myself to make mistakes in ways that probably have held me back. So, yes, Iíve put a lot of pressure on myself, a lot of bullshit. I kind of shut down a little bit, but now after five years going on six, the pressure is kind of gone. I just exhausted myself. It sort of doesnít matter anymore. That moment when people were waiting, when there was a sense of held breath, thatís since dissipated. I feel much better this way. Now I can just do it. In a way I hate to say this because it sounds so disingenuous, but after this many years you just donít give a fuck. Itís like I donít care. And Iím writing a book that in its structure reflects the I-donít-careness.

 

What do you mean by that?

 

I think when youíre trying to cultivate or preserve the same audience that had been giving you all this attention, you write in certain ways. You tend to extend some of the things youíve been doing. And I guess one of the great liberties of these past few years is that I was able to realize that itís an impulse to continue writing in ways that get attention for you. Itís natural to want to extend or preserve the kind of attention you got, which leads to certain limitations in your artistic production. On the other hand, if you decide to really challenge this ďaudience that youíve built,Ē or to shatter it, and try to create a new audience with new kinds of work, thatís really good, thatís just really interesting. It keeps you fresh.

The impulse for me originally was to re-write Drown in some way. But now that Iíve had all these years, what Iím trying to do is to remake an entire new audience. I donít think I would have tried that without all this time off.

 

What is your process, and is it the same as it was for Drown? Specifically, some writers have templates in their heads, whether short story or novel, where they know the ending, or have an outline, but some work as a process of discovery, where they donít know what theyíre going to write until they start writing.

 

Thatís me. Nothing takes the joy out for me like planning. And thatís good. I have to tell you though, one of the things that makes it good is that I have always had some weird space in my mind where stories take the form of radical geometries more than they take the form of words and sentences. I know this sounds odd, but I donít see my stories on page, I see them as physical structures that seem to float in my brain. So even if Iím on a journey of discovery with my writing, the structures begin to unfold lattice-like. Itís hard to describe. I never realized how odd it was until I spoke to a friend of mine, George Saunders, about it and he was just looking at me like I was crazy and I realized hmmmóthis is probably why even when I write just slowly, and just exploring it, I still am able to create some very strange and useful structures.

 

Do you feel that the structure exists and what youíre doing is uncovering it?

 

No, Iím not that dumb. Thereís an unconscious part of me that creates the structure. I feel like I have a structural engine that runs in my mind on some subconscious level. So consciously Iím enjoying myself, and just having fun, and not paying any attention to structure, but thereís a part of me that really determines the grammar, but does so without fanfare and without consultation. I just feel like Iím scribbling and going wild, but when I finish it I realize later that thereís this amazing structure in place. You know, amazing for me, whatever that means.

 

Whatís your revision process? I know youíve said you work very slowly. Are you slow sentence by sentence, or do you just revise so much it makes for slow going?

 

Both. Iím sentence by sentence slow. And you would think that I would create more elaborate sentences. For all my plod, I still produce rather workmanlike, short sentences. So in some ways itís rather sad, but yep, itís both. Itís easy to talk about this shit because people will tell you nonsense, but I think the slowness of my production speaks for itself. I work extremely slowly, and I will re-write a story fifty times.

Do you find yourself cutting a lot, or just really changing?

 

I find myself doing everything

 

Other than Sandra Cisneros, what short story writers do you like, or feel you can learn from?

 

The ever mighty, but very little known, Edward P. Jones. He wrote Lost in the City, and you canít mess with that, at all. Denis Johnson, of course. He had a huge impact on people coming up, when I was beginning to study writing at MFA. Jesusí Son had just come out and made this tremendous impact on people.

Really, thereís just a ton of people. Michael Martone is just ridiculous. His love of his home state, Indiana, really mirrored my love for New Jersey. He just showed me radical forms with which to handle it.

 

You are admired in the same way. A lot of young writers love Drown, and this is reflected stylistically, for example, in their use of the first person, no quotation marks. How did you develop that style?

 

That comes from others, other people do it. I think the structural stuff, like the no quotation marks, is just metonymic for something else. Itís always great when students see something youíre doing that they like and they take it and who cares, right? I mean thatís wonderful. But I think that hides what really interests me in dialogue. My characters say a lot less than most people remember them saying. I donít write dialogue really well. What I write really well is silence, the things that the characters donít say, the gaps between peopleís sentences, the ellipses between what we feel, what we see, and what we recognize. I think thatís where it all comes in. And of course I am someone who works in two languages. Itís not having quotes, not having italics, not having any of these things that separate the spoken word from thought-word, from narrative-word. For me, its also how I think about memory, how I think about languageÖA certain branch of democracy which for me is moreÖAgain not to be too self involved and too self-serving, but I think that these little ďshowyĒ things are linked to much deeper narrative storytelling questions in my work. Itís not just Ah this motherfucker doesnít use quotes, but the way that memory works in my stories has everything to do with why there could easily be confusion between the spoken word and the imagined word.

 

In the story ďAguantando,Ē you describe the United States as ďsomething folks planned on.Ē What have you observed about peopleís sense of living for their futures in another nation?

 

I have a sense of the DominicanÖitís not much of a theory, more a collection of words, a dot dot dash code that I use to, in another way, decipher a larger code, which is the Dominican experience, the Dominican diasporic experience, and the American experience, all hooked together. I always lived in a situation of simultaneity. Itís like a science fiction book where an alien or creature or an artifact exists on two worlds, or on two different planes at one time. Theyíre not fixed in one place. They phase in and out. Thatís why I always felt that while most people live in memory, which is the ability of memory for you to limn a memory with another memory, that youíre able to remember something simultaneouslyóyouíre able to remember something and remember something else at exactly the same time, exactly the same moment. In memory youíre allowed to collapse. Something they say you canít do in quantum physics. Living in a place like Dominican Republic, we didnít need to do that as memory, we were doing that as we lived. Two worlds were existing at exactly the same time. In a way, your imagination was bifurcated. So you couldnít help but live in the Dominican Republic but also in the United States. You couldnít help but live in the present and in the past the way most people live, but also in a future. You have to have an amazing imagination to be an immigrant.

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Youíve often likened your work to science fiction. Could you say more about that?

 

Whatís ironic is that no one internalizes social norms in society as do minorities in that society. So in other words, whatever criteria there is for literature, nobody follows that more to the letter, I think, than people who are literary minorities. Thereís this kind of colonial baggage, as Homi Bhabha always reflects, that idea that the Indian becomes more English than the Englishman. I think it, in some ways, has limited our usage of narrative that would be revelatory, or transformative in our artistic production. Again, I donít want to say that everyone has been limited in this way, but I think itís true in general. So that if youíre a person writing about a Dominican diasporic experience, to hew too closely to canonical ideal of what literature is would limit you. The conventions of what is canonically known as literature canít hope to encompass these radical experiences that you undergo when living in a diaspora like the Dominican one. And sometimes the only way to describe these lived momentsóthe surreality and ir-reality of some of the things that people like myself have experiencedóis through lenses like science fiction. The joke is youíre Dominican living in the Dominican Republic in 1974, and you get transported to the U.S. from the campo, where you started out living in an open air house with no electricity, with no bathroom, living in a world thatís extremely closed and sealed in some ways, with no access to education, and almost a sense of living outside of time, though of course you never will live outside of time. Itís the sense you then get, when youíre transported to a place like central New Jersey. I think the narrative that would logically be most useful would be not only space travelótraveling between two planetsóbut time travel. Jumping between two entire existences, two entire temporal moments, is what it feels like. These conventions you find in science fiction are awesome in trying to discuss some of the tensions and weirdness of being a person of color, being a third world person traveling between the third world and the first world. And even the terms ďfirst worldĒ and ďthird worldĒ already intimate science fictive travel between planets. So Iím like, why not? Those resonances are right there. Itís like having this huge, wonderful, gorgeous, rich, ripe, delicious mango hanging over your desk. But because youíve been trained that mangoes are not the kind of food that one eats at a desk, you just willfully ignore them. How could you ignore such wonderful interconnections? And thatís why I find science fiction important and useful.

 

Mario Vargas Llosa recently said, when discussing his run for the Peruvian presidency, ďIím a writer, and I write about politics because I think this is part of the writerís obligation to participate in civic life.Ē Whatís your reaction to that?

 

Well goddamn, we need Mario Vargas Llosa to say that? The writer already participates in civic life. I think what he points out, and why I think itís a really useful point, is that many writers participate in civic life in a very particular, conservative way. And whether Vargas Llosa is himself a political conservative, I think his approach, that statement, shows a certain amount of progressiveness. Look, locking yourself up in a room and focusing on yourself is a very particular and conservative way of dealing with civic life. But youíre definitely dealing with civic life. Your non-participation is participation. So it goes without saying. But I think what heís trying to say is that writers should have a less conservative approach, and perhaps explore. It seems that as writers in general we havenít explored that fully, and again I say ďwe,Ē because in Latin America, or Latin America as I understand it, there are writers who have. Just think of someone like MartŪ. That was an experiment in how much a writer could participate in civic life. In the U.S. itís far more discouraged. Writers are supposed to be hermetic.

But itís always the third world people. Theyíre the innovators. Theyíre the people who really just create other exemplars, other lines of being that donít describe some of the Western bullshit. Somebody like Arundhati Roy is really showing this, in such a public way. Sheís really being such a model for young writers as to how one can approach writing and civic life. I donít think we have enough of that, someone whoís deeply committed as a writer to a community, deeply committed to certain kinds of activism. I donít find that common among my writer peers. In fact, because community work is so important to me, I find myself almost utterly alienated from other writers. Because that is such a central part of who I am. For most other writers thatís not a real concern. Few are the writers I can share both my art and my community work with.

 

At the Chicago Humanities Festival you talked about the privileging of certain types of language. Could you say more about that?

 

I think Chicago is an extremely conservative city. Terribly segregated. When people of color donít control public space the way that they do in New York. White people in New York City feel contested, and they donít feel contested in Chicago. That creates an amazing amount of conservatism. And you could see it in the way that the question and answer session came out. There was so much discomfort among the white audience, with being so openly contested. You should have been sitting by me when I was doing the book signing, people came up and railedóall these white men just railed, trying to pick a fight. It was hilarious.

We all know that there are language forms that are considered impolite and out of order, no matter what truths these languages might be carrying. If you talk with a harsh, urbanized accent and you use too many profanities, that will often get you barred from many arenas, no matter what youíre trying to say. On the other hand, polite, formal language is allowed almost anywhere even when all it is communicating is hatred and violence. Power always privileges its own discourse while marginalizing those who would challenge it or that are the victims of its power. Just watch whatís happening in Palestine. I find the language of Israel, for example, the language of an occupying army that practices collective retaliation, that drops bombs on villagers because someone utterly unconnected to them kills an Israeli soldier, this language is considered (by many in the world community) as rational and civilized, yet the language of a Palestinian revolutionary, fighting to end the occupation, with whatever limited means he or she has at their disposal, is considered the language of savagery and of barbarism and of terrorism. It would seem to me that the Israelis deploy their language privilege to cloak the reality of what theyíre doing and distort what the Palestinian struggle for liberation is all about.

 

You had mentioned language as it is typically presented, for example, in The New Yorker. You see your presentation and usage is more value free, perhaps?

 

I think I make the values explicit. Thereís nothing like making values explicit to have people questioning their system of values. Think about it. Nobody will admit that they have certain hierarchies of beauty locked in their head. But nothing shames or provokes people more than making those hidden values explicit. They canít stand it when you take their hidden structures and lay them out in front of them. People just recoil. They like to think that itís just organic, that thereís no ulterior motive, but in fact thereís deep ulterior motive and if you lay them out people go wild. I enjoy that stuff. Because I write so much about family and about love, itís not like Iím intentionally provocative. At all. Iím rather conservative in most ways.

 

Yes. In Drown, though you deal with the subjects of sex and drugs, you are remarkably elliptical in your presentation. You avoid the type of stunning detail you use to such good effect when describing, for example, the boy whose face was eaten off by a pig.

 

If youíve done drugs, and youíve fucked, what more do you need? What am I describing and for whose benefit? Whoís benefiting from anthropology? I figure that my audience knows what the fuck Iím talking about. And if other people want their voyeuristic thrills, they need to go elsewhere. Plenty of writers of color will give you that voyeuristic thrill. I just donít want to participate in those patterns. Way too often writers of color are, basically, nothing more than performers of their ďotherness.Ē Iím trying to figure out ways to disrupt that.

 

Thereís been a lot of discussion of the autobiographical elements of your work, which is actually not interesting to me,

 

I agree.

 

But what is interesting is how your writing impacts your relationships with family and friends. Do they ever look at you as a vulture, feeding off their experiences?

 

My friends know better. Look, I find other writers to be vultures. Of course not all. There are plenty of writers, like Edwidge Danticat, where you never get that sense. But do you know how many writers Iíll be speaking to, and theyíll be like oh thatís such a good sentenceóIím gonna use that in my story? And I just look at them and say Look, the reason youíll never produce work which will be useful in a better future than this one, is because your relationship is to people as product. I just donít have that kind of capitalist relationship with people. Peopleís experiences, my own experiencesÖI donít see them as natural resources to plunder. My close friends and family know that I have considered this stuff deeply. They see the way I am. They donít feel I ever copy any of their experiences because I bring so much imagination to the stuff. My friends never hear themselves in my stories.

Thereís such a huge trend, that artists are free to take anything they want, anywhere. And thatís great. Ninety-five percent of artists support that kind of stuff, or a lot of people do. And I think itís funny how in some ways this sounds exactly how free market capitalists talk. These are the people who have various kinds of theories and approaches to human being-ness, who have ravaged and dehumanized and animalized what we call the third world. So this is me being especially cruel and especially critical. But why in the world would I work toward duplicating that thought pattern in relationship to my work? I donít know if that makes any sense. So even though, in certain ways, we always take from those around us, I actively think about that relationship. Part of it is because my mother raised me really well. People have a right to their own stuff. Thatís just it. And other people will contest, and roll their eyes. And you know what? I think they should know, or should at least accept, that they would find great, wonderful company in the boards of all these transnational corporations. They would find so many like-minded souls. And I prefer not to be seated at the same table as criminals.

Itís fun to blow things out of proportion to make a point.

 

What do you do at Syracuse and how do you like it?

 

I teach writing in the MFA program, and I really like my undergraduates. Itís sort of weird. I think that the kind of reception I got with Drown obscures the fact that, at least I think, Iím trying to do very radical work. A lot of students in writing at the graduate school are drawn to me because of the fame, but they misunderstand. Because theyíre so blinded by Oh, heís in The New Yorker, heís got this heís got that, they donít look closely at what the work is really trying to say. In some ways itís a great experience. I love to teach. But I also sometimes think that my relationship to my graduate students is more determined by what little fame I have rather than by my work. And that can be demoralizing. I find so few students are interested in pursuing radical ways of creating narratives that donít seem at all radical but are really subversive. I find most people just want to get in The New Yorker.

Itís such a great experience at the undergraduate level because those kids just want to learn. At the graduate level the rewards are far less. I often find myself being asked just to be a midwife for other peopleís dreams of fame.

Itís actually more complicated. This is me at my most ungenerous. And I adore my undergraduates.