Words on a Page: An Interview with Junot Diaz
When Junot Díaz walks into his apartment, stacks of books topple over and welcome him like pets. The “to-read” pile just inside the door—several stacks wide and several deep, with the tallest reaching about hip height—has collapsed in one corner. After picking up the books, the author, who has been an omnivorous reader since he was a child, lays the latest addition on top, capping it with a history book on World War II that had been waiting for him in the lobby.
Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year for his debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a multi-lingual, multi-generational story of Dominican fukú, a curse with a death grip even after the family of the eponymous Oscar has moved to the United States. His prose demonstrates his love of language and an acute sense of how it works—and how it can be pushed, threading hip hop vernacular and Spanish slang in sentences that spit as they sing. Traveling through a multitude of different milieux, the novel circles its protagonist with a fierce centrifugal force even as it encompasses an enormous number of footnotes. Though his first book, Drown, a collection of ten short stories that cohere into a nearly novel-esque whole, was a highly acclaimed best-seller, the release of Oscar Wao, his second book, eleven years later has made Díaz one of the world’s most celebrated authors living in the United States.
Sitting in his living room with views of Cambridge rooftops and towers all around, Díaz is clad in a black hoodie, jeans and his signature dark-rimmed glasses. The sweatshirt is embellished with a pin given to him by a student of his at MIT, where he was recently granted tenure. The pin is the size of a quarter, depicting a lion in a top hat. “A Dandy Lion. . . Terrible,” he shook his head as the cashier in the Harvard Book Store asked about it earlier in the day, cheerfully bemoaning the visual pun.
Looking at the books around us in the apartment, Díaz warns readers of Oscar Wao, with its allusive qualities and encyclopedic erudition in everything from island politics to B-movies, “The book obsessions of the novel have only a little to do with my own obsessions. I think that I read more about falconry when I was in sixth grade than I did science fiction.”
After moving to the United States with his family at the age of six, he learned how to read and began to tear through books. While still wrangling with English (learning to speak the language? “That fucking sucked”), the written word became his ally.
“I just read everything. I think that for me it was just such a comforting rhythm. Words on a page. Me reading those words on a page.”
Though later on his own writing would be a site where the translated life was confronted in all of its complexity, in the beginning he says, “I found reading to be such a great respite from the daily pain in the ass process of immigration. It was a place I could live in language without feeling my deficits. There’s nobody in a book that can tell whether you’re pronouncing the words right or not.”
“A typical hyper-lexic kid,” he read compulsively, in particular spending a lot of time with biographies and nature books—“You know, those kid biographies: The Lives of Great Men. And it was all men. And they were all white. They should have been more honest: the Lives of Great White Men.”
“I was obsessed with the United States wilderness,” he continues, self-mockingly enumerating their titles, “The Desert, The Grand Canyon…The Sea Islands of the Carolinas,” in the faux-soothing tones of advertisements promoting vacation spots.
“I think there was a part of me that was seeking an answer to the question who am I? How did a Dominican kid leave his island and come to New Jersey? And what is this place? I think a part of me was reading so compulsively because I thought that maybe there would be some code in one of those books that would explain not only explain this new place but would explain me. What I discovered is that there is no answer. . . It was the process that provided me with what I was looking for. There’s a great quote, which is about Gilgamesh, ‘the quest itself proves the futility of the quest.’”
His two principal linguistic registers (“this kind of crazy Caribbean language and music” and “this sort of African-American-infused American vernacular”) grind against each other along with the many other voices he ventriloquizes in his writing. Much has been made of his ability to stretch languages and idioms by putting them together, an ability that Díaz says is, at its root, the product of a certain shamelessness. “Shame more than anything interrupts your ability to learn. If you feel shame when people mock you or look crazy at you’re less likely to practice it. One of the things that’s helped me is that I have a particular amount of shamelessness around these different idioms that I love. I’ve grown up with hip hop my whole life but I’ve never felt any shame of misusing the language that I grew up with. I feel no shame using this discourse which is basically my English jammed against things that would be anathema in the larger hip hop culture, you know, mashing all the intellectual nonsense that I learned in graduate school with it. . . .
“It takes so much more energy keeping these things apart.”
Emphasizing the difference between the daily multilingual practice of a community and its reconstruction on a page, he maintains, “One lives in English organically and then one has to represent it artificially.
“The artifact of the fiction requires an enormous amount of work. There’s stuff that exists perfectly normal life in conversation—no one cares if you fuck something up, it’s felicitous, people enjoy it—it doesn’t have to be necessarily literary, but, yes, [writing is] an enormous amount of work, an enormous kind of stupid work, which means that there’s a lot of just the basic experiment of adding a drop, tasting, nope, adding a drop tasting it, nope. That’s a pain in the ass, you know; my students know all about that, my students run through a million models to get to the right thing.”
The translation of the book from Spanish-speckled English into English-inflected Spanish required its own experiments (though, he argues, “If you think about it, it’s a piece of cake”): “What’s really driving the book is code switching. I can’t control all the other languages but I can certainly control English and Spanish, so that all I needed to find with the Spanish translation was find an entirely different code to switch. So what we did was we translated the entire book into Spanish and then went through the entire book matching English and Spanish looking for a set of codes in English that worked really, really well in Spanish to preserve that sort of multilingual madness. For example, the word ‘feeling’ is an English word that’s very, very common in Spanish and it means something completely different. If you say someone came at you with feeling it speaks of a deep sincerity, but it has a very particular cool resonance in Spanish.” He adds that you can never go wrong with a word like “cool.”
As for those translations into languages which he can’t control, he says simply, “In translation signal noise is a given.” He gestures towards the bookshelves to our left, “If you look up here, at least 10% of these books are in translation. . . In the U.S. we have the lowest rate of reading in translation of any country in the industrialized world. And yet there’s more complaints, or more reservations around translations than anywhere else.”
Ultimately, “I think the more that you actually spend a translated life, the more you realize that it’s a minimal charge to be able to engage yourself in another world.”
And, in fact, though Díaz began reading as soon as he came to the U.S., attempting to find some sort of life logic in the pages of books, it wasn’t until he was much older that he began to write. When he was growing up, his brother came down with a brutal form of Leukemia (“It was a big part of my childhood,” he says. “He’s fine, he’s in remission, but he spent ten years in chemo. That’s a fucking long time, man.)
In an attempt to communicate his world to his brother, he wrote twenty to thirty page letters to him during his long stays in the hospital.
“A part of the way I stayed connected to my brother was writing these enormous, ridiculous letters about what was going on about our lives, about the neighborhood, and in some ways my complete love of reading had prepared me for the moment that my brother’s illness provided, which was an excuse to now participate in the form I loved so much. So that’s how I started actually, writing letters to someone in a hospital.”
(He no longer maintains his art by writing letters, though, “I’m as much a traitor as the next person, I’ve given up the form…You should see I have boxes of the letters I wrote and the letters I received when I was in college. My god! I can tell the loves because of the stacks of letters. We wrote each other like crazy.”)
His family continues to be a strong presence in his writing. The fantastical elements of magic realism have been one of the most widely recognized aspects of Latin American literary canon, evolving in more recent years into the Macondo vs. McOndo debate. Seemingly counter-intuitively, the moment in which magic realism is most present in Oscar Wao is also the part most derived from real life; towards the end of the novel, a mystical mongoose comes to Oscar’s aid, a creature which Díaz explains comes directly from family lore.
“My mother got lost when she was young in a coffee plantation (my father used to grow coffee) and she was lost for like three days and everyone thought she died and by the third day they just went and bought fucking—I mean, it shows you the difference, if a child were lost for three days today, we would still have hope, we would still be looking, but in the DR they were like ‘Three days? ’That kid’s fucking dead man’—they went out and bought funeral clothes, they were going to bury this little outfit and then my mother shows up. And my mother tells this story and she was like I had gotten lost and was just desperate and this mongoose came up and was like ‘you lost?’ ‘Well, I’m tired right now but I’ll come back tomorrow and lead you out.’ So he did and my mother arrived home the next day.”
Given the presence of magical mongoose in Oscar Wao, one might think that they are some sort of national animal, a kind of mascot, in the Dominican Republic, yet Díaz says, “Most Dominicans don’t even know we have mongooses. . . . If I can claim any fame, it’s singlehandedly reminding the pueblo dominicano that we have mongooses.”
The brutalities of the thirty-year tyranny of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, which pervade the action and atmosphere of the novel are another outgrowth of Díaz’s family life. “I was deeply allergic to the kind of insane fascistic militaristic craziness that was present in my family through my father’s military ethos that came directly from the Trujillo regime.
“It was nothing personal. It doesn’t make a difference what your opinion is if the house is on fire, the house is on fire. Probably the only thing we’re [Junot and his siblings] all completely in agreement on is that that family structure was just toxic. And everyone had very different reactions to it. My older sister ran away. My brother checked out. My little brother went and idolized the absent man and he joined the military. The effects are everywhere. And even my sister who ran away married a military guy; she spent years in a military base in Berlin.”
The extremities of evil in the novel, in particular those presented by the dictatorial regime, are at times distilled and allegorized according to science fiction and comic book archetypes as Trujillo is put in apposition with Sauron in Lord of the Rings, for one. Originally, Díaz wanted to include actual images from comic books in Oscar Wao, making these ties and the narrator’s interdisciplinary wanderings all the more palpable. But in execution, the postmodern project failed: “It was not working. It was just garbage. It was like eight or nine kinds of bad. It felt forced; it felt pretentious. And your mind is like, dude what you’re trying to build is like a jet engine, but what we have here is like a go-cart. It’s a go-cart.”
He describes a plan for the first page that was meant to the open with an image of the apocalypse from Katsuhiro Otomo’s famous manga Akira, rays of destruction extending to the leaf’s limit and folding over to the next side to point to the Dominican Republic. I ask if the comic book panels he had in mind were all found or if he had drawn some by hand. “Darling,” he says, “if I could draw, I wouldn’t be in this business.”
It is in large part the social function of visual art, he explains, that appeals to him. “I’m sorry, but look at that painting someone sent me,” he says, gesturing to a painting, sitting across the room unhung. Red, beige, blue, it demands attention with its bright hues and dynamic, cartoon-like shapes—brown bald stylized figures with triangle teeth, a grey creature with blue on its head, a blue line through the middle to the painting.
“Somebody saw me at a reading in Seattle and just fucking sent to me. And, I’m sorry, but that’s kind of a cool painting. . . The thing is that for me writing is so personal and so deep and so private. This is so social, you know.”
Díaz describes the immediacy with which visual art can be shared in contrast to the delayed reaction time engendered by writing. If you give a book to someone, they walk away with it alone and then come back later, sometimes delaying weeks. “There’s something pre-modern about writing. It’s not so much that I’m waiting for a response as I want to be involved with that person and have my art form some sort of community with them. With this, someone walks in: instantaneous. I love that we’re in a community there.”
As if to prove the point, he logs onto Facebook, where we watch a video a friend posted on his wall. In fact, of the favored artists he mentions—Tony Capellan, Jacob Holdt, Pipilotti Rist, Piero Manzoni—many work with video. Perhaps given the cinematic preoccupations evident in the novel this comes as no surprise, even with Díaz’s warning of the differences between Oscar’s taste and his own.
I ask about film and look over at the DVDs beside the television. Some of the DVD boxes are still shrinked-wrapped because “I keep losing them, so then I have to keep buying them,” which is to say he keeps lending them to friends, so then he has to keep buying them. While the selection is not all about the apocalypse—he recommends the Japanese film Ping Pong, calling it “One of the greatest fucking movies I’ve ever seen,” the presence is strong, as is further evidence of his love of the social nature of art. Above the TV set is a cartoon, marker on paper, that his friend Petey just rolled in and put up one day; it has hung there ever since.
In the DVD pile there is an old British miniseries called UFO; Threads, a BBC documentary from the 80s about the atomic destruction of England (“fucking terrifying even today”); Planet Terror;The Last Days; Appleseed; The Last Blood.
“This is just a small selection,” he reminds me as a lists them. A central theme in his work, made clear by his description of layout from Akira with which he had wanted to begin Oscar Wao and the reverberations of the now invisible image of destruction extent in the text of the novel itself, is manifested here as well: dude’s obsessed with the apocalypse.
“I’ve been fucking fucked in the head by the apocalyptic eighties.
“Look, I was fucking generation bomb. It’s the most hidden thing. what separates me from my students is not the fact that they’re eighteen and even their cells are new—you guys just fucking glow with your newness—and the fact that I don’t know any of your music or any of your culture, part of it is that the apocalypse was fucking real, man. I mean part of why The Watchmen the movie the doesn’t work is that Alan Moore in the comic book didn’t have to do anything to convince people that the end of the world was this far away.” He illustrates the extreme proximity of the end that he felt with the inflection of his voice and two almost touching fingers.
“We’re deeply apocalyptic now but it’s not on the skin in the same way.”
As a self-described sensitive eleven-year-old, watching the news at night outline where the atomic blasts would hit—and seeing his town in New Jersey in the black—it’s no surprise that with every movie, every TV show, everything touching on the apocalypse, it started to eat at him. “The whole world was tearing itself to pieces; South Africa was in place; the entire economy was dumping. And that really fucking fucked me up, so I’ve been trying to write something about the end of the world.
“I’ve got to do something to channel this apocalyptic madness of mine.”
Díaz is currently doing just that, reviving work on a book he has described as his Black Akira novel. He began work on it before Oscar, which rose from its ashes in the wake of 9/11.
For the moment, though, he is off to see some friends, who have been calling him over the course of the past hour, taking advantage of the little time he has in Cambridge these days.
And so, with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, the door closes.