An Interview with Junot Díaz

Henry Ace Knight

Photograph by Nina Subin

Born in Santo Domingo, Junot Díaz immigrated at the age of six to Central New Jersey, where he lost much of his native Spanish and found English acquisition torturous. The complexity of his relationship to language is laid bare by the Gustavo Perez Firmat poem that prefaces his first story collection: "I / don't belong to English / though I belong nowhere else." While he experiences language as a parallel state of belonging and dislocation, the hybrid idiom he traffics in belongs to no one else.

From his searing, swaggering fiction, one might expect Díaz's linguistic experience to be as frictionless as his prose. But it's this paradoxical sense of proximity to and removal from the language in which he writes that seems to torque his shifts in rhythm and register.
Díaz published his first story collection, Drown, in 1996, and his second, the National Book Award finalist This Is How You Lose Her, in 2012. Shortly after earning an MFA from Cornell University—where he lamented the “unbearable too-whiteness” of the program—he co-founded the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, an organization that empowers writers of color through multi-genre workshops. His novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which tracks a Dominican-American family’s multi-generational entanglement with dictatorship and colonialism, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In a recent poll conducted by the BBC, book critics voted it the best novel of the twenty-first century.

The “spooky quantum effect” of history and other “invisible forces” on the individual, Díaz tells me, is what brings him to the page. His work concerns diaspora, belonging and exclusion, race, masculinity, and privilege, much of which we touched upon in this August phone conversation. 
–Henry Ace Knight

Drown, your first story collection, opens with an epigraph by poet Gustavo Perez Firmat: “The fact that I / am writing to you / in English / already falsifies what I / wanted to tell you. / My subject: / how to explain to you that I / don’t belong to English / though I belong nowhere else.” What does that poem mean to you?

The linguistic simultaneity that I experience or, perhaps, that I embody, which is to belong to a language that one does not belong to at all, or the possibility that one can belong to a language and simultaneously not belong to it. I think that anyone who’s had the linguistic experience that I have had finds the idea that one moves into a language comfortably and then resides in its estate with little to no conflict—that strikes a person like me as at best absurd and at worst just as not even close to reality.

Can you describe how you learned English?

Learning English for me was a miserable experience. I don’t know why it happened to me the way it did but I found English to be enormously difficult, growing up in Central New Jersey surrounded primarily by English speakers. I had three other siblings who were learning English. They all acquired the language in a matter of months; in some ways it felt like it was overnight. But for me it turned into this brutal slog. Eventually the school approached my family, saying, This kid probably needs some sort of intervention. I got pulled into special ed and assigned all sorts of people to try to get me to speak English with any facility. But it took a while. It was torturous, man. While this is rather simplistic, I do think my obsession with language stems partially from my lack of any kind of control or comfort around English in my first years.

Does English still feel uncomfortable or strange to you in some ways?

I haven’t ever transcended, surpassed, naturalized that immigrant stance of always checking your language as it passes out of the assembly line of your mouth. I’m always spot-checking, doing quality control. I will speak to someone and afterwards review what I’ve said to them. There are times when I’ll say something in what would be considered “perfect English” and yet I’m completely convinced that what I said was an outcome of my poor grasp of English, and I’ll have to diagram the sentence before I can convince myself that no, this is actually real English.

For me, the trauma of English acquisition hangs over me, but also just the fact that I’m in two languages a lot of the time. It sounds glib but it actually feels very true to me. I live a life where both English and Spanish are in italics in my brain. It costs me no extra effort; it doesn’t feel unusual; it doesn’t feel like an infirmity, but it does strike me every now and then that there are people who don’t pick over their language the way I do, who aren’t so self-conscious of what they’re saying, who have a natural tongue.

You recently wrote in The New York Times, “Books saved my life.” Which books come to mind?

I think that’s part of my compensation for the difficulties I was having with speaking English. I learned how to read English very quickly. As compensation for how difficult life was for this young immigrant in Central New Jersey in the seventies, I buried myself in literary worlds. I was reading voraciously by the time I was seven. A more omnivorous reader, I don’t know if that would’ve been possible. I would read all the biographies of famous Americans. Books on the Rockies. Books on how to build a campsite. I would read everything by Arthur Conan Doyle. I read the edited children’s editions of Edgar Allen Poe. I just tore through everything that my little elementary school library had. I fell in love with books that transported me far away from my world, which for me was very stressful. The library for me represented—or was—what the World Wide Web must mean to people of later generations. In many ways it was a plane, a passport, a lens, wisdom, and experience.  

References to science fiction and fantasy pervade your novel. The density of the allusions to these genres makes them almost a third language in the text, somewhere between the point-counterpoint of English and Spanish. Are science fiction and fantasy another tongue to you?

I would say that it’s a third language for our cultural moment. Since its consolidation as a genre, SF has helped us to manage the dislocations and confusions and fantasies of “progress,” and certainly it helps us read the present in ways that are indispensable. Myself—I’d be blind without my SF bifocals. All these texts help the world come into focus for me.  

To what extent, if any, do you see yourself as a translator working between languages?

From one perspective I’m not sure I translate much for anyone. Nothing about my popular culture references is indexed in any way. Neither is my Spanish. As a writer, I always feel like I’m talking very intimately to my reader and I tend to assume my reader has a lot of my same knowledge. But of course translation is what writers do, from another perspective. We transmute the world into fiction.

How do you work with your translators? 

I’ve only ever really worked with the Spanish translators. In other languages I tend simply to answer questions and clarify knotty turns of phrases but with the Spanish I can roll up my sleeves and, at least in my novel, guide the translator a little. With Oscar Wao I had a wonderful rapport with my translator, Achy Obejas, and that helped tremendously. Her translation was for general Spanish readers and of course I kept bending towards a more Dominican demotic and these negotiations taught me a lot about the market and the practice of mainstream literary translation. 

What unique challenges do you think The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao posed for your translators? 

It gave a lot of them some serious headaches but hopefully also some joy. We’re talking about a narrator who deploys multiple slangs, multiple registers, and whose allusive range embraces a fantastically broad range of pop-cultural texts. But there’s also a lot of energy in the language, a lot of swagger, and I presume to imagine that this offered up all sorts of opportunities for the translator as well. 

How did you arrive at the structure for Wao?

An enormous amount of experimentation. I had a couple of guidelines. I wanted to create this fragmented, archipelago effect. I wanted the narrative to oscillate from the present back in time so that with each chapter we would go further and further back into the family history. I started with those as expectations, goals and then I tried to figure out the way to execute them and that took an enormous amount of writing, an enormous amount of throwing it away.

What was your approach to writing the footnotes for Wao? At what point did you decide to incorporate them?

When I was younger, I was obsessed with a lot of the Latin American Boom writers. Borges famously used footnotes. But I encountered Patrick Chamoiseau’s work, especially in Texaco, where he basically tells the story and then tells the story an entirely different way in his footnotes. That inspired me more than anything. I had been reading a lot of William Vollmann, a writer I deeply admire and even though he used footnotes like mad he didn’t spark me the way Chamoiseau did. Chamoiseau was using footnotes in a very Caribbean way.

What do you mean by “a very Caribbean way”?

Instead of using the footnotes as a badge of his intelligence, he used them to tell narratives in different frequencies. Chamoiseau was often using his footnotes not for the sake of erudition but sometimes for the sake of gossip. And gossip is an important way that people understand the world and negotiate it.

You’ve said that on the surface Oscar Wao seems like a completely ahistorical character, totally New Jersey, and yet Trujillo is what makes him possible. Do you think literature can ever be ahistorical or apolitical?

No, but I think the dream of the ahistorical subject, the dream of someone who just lives in a consumptive mode is something that gets pushed a lot in this country and in other places. I, for one, don’t think it’s possible for anyone as an individual to be liberated from the larger forces that overwhelmingly control our lives. Like how does one simply excuse themselves from class, from race, from gender? You can say that you’re excused from them but of course these forces will work on you in spite of the fact that you’re bowing out. I think that what interests me as an artist is the way that these invisible forces press down on our lives. I’m interested in how history has this spooky quantum effect on people. How history, even when we run from it, even when we disavow it, even when we forget it, is like some very strange dark-eyed dog. It always finds its way back to us.  Not to say that this is the way the world works, but it’s what brings me to the page.

How do you see the relationship between fiction and history?

These are entirely different disciplines with their own disciplinary imaginaries and their own formalistic histories. Fiction and history have been in conversation for as long as either of them has been an identifiable practice. In some ways I think that the two love to jump in and out of each other’s clothes. There’s something just fascinating about us—in these small lives that don’t have much impact in the larger world, but we’re surrounded constantly by narrative, by these large historical sagas of how we came to be and of these great people that made this moment possible. At once we live in a world with historical heroes and one that seems to be drained of any possibility for someone to be a historical hero.

As a writer, as someone with my idiosyncratic point of view, I love that stuff. I love that contradiction—that, on the one hand, we carry with ourselves a historical consciousness, and on the other, we think of ourselves at the most individualistic level. The way that the larger historical forces interact with the individual. That’s one of the things that gets us seated at the table together. Of course, what we do is quite different for the most part. I’m much more interested in the materials that cannot be found in any archive, the material that has been lost and erased, the material that has perished beyond any hope of recovery.

That’s what fiction can add to a historical project: we can imagine the gaps. It is in many ways what fiction is called to do. History tends to draw the gaps out with heartbreaking clarity. Fiction can most readily enter those gaps.

You teach a course at MIT called World Building, for which The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are prerequisites. What is your approach to constructing a narrative universe?

There are a number of different strategies. People are really good at reading worlds. At the simplest level, people are good at telling the difference between comedy and tragedy. They can just read the signs. But those signs are often learned. They’re culturally transmitted. There’s a lot of structure and grammar that goes into them. The more that you read in a genre, the quicker you are to realize not only its rules and conventions, but also when those rules and conventions are being broken. One needs a lot of exposure. One needs to know what the conventions of certain kinds of literary worlds are and how one can productively disrupt them.

I try to think about the zeitgeist of the period. When I was writing Oscar Wao—when I was writing about the pre-revolution, pre-Civil War Dominican Republic—there was this terrible, suffocating, ossified sense of the world that was dominant. People felt that the dictatorship, the Trujillato, was this monolith that was never going to go away. The new generation especially felt that there were no possibilities for them and I wanted to capture that zeitgeist. You try to figure out the structures that enable you to communicate it. Sometimes you do historical work. Sometimes it’s about the more delicate shades of mood. Sometimes it’s characterological. I picked a character who was in a similarly oppressive family situation—where she felt that her life and horizons were being choked out of her—and that allowed me to address, through the private lives of Belicia and her guardian, the public, national conflict of one generation of young people against a dictatorship.

How did you conceive of and begin to build the world that is destroyed in the science-fiction short story “Monstro”?

I come out of an adversarially oriented culture and I immigrated into an adversarially oriented culture. The United States is obsessed with its enemies and its frontier, with its border. The Dominican Republic is no different. Certainly the genesis of “Monstro” came from that continuity between the place I left and the place at which I arrived. Both the United States and the Dominican Republic are looking for racial others that they can combat. What I was thinking and writing about, seeing and experiencing, and working for during the period of the earthquake gave me a lot of inspiration. It wouldn’t take much for either of these states to declare their nearest neighbors inhuman monsters. As we’ve seen in current politics both in the Dominican Republic and the United States, we’re not far from that.

You wrote that apocalypse is about revelation and clarity. What are you trying to reveal or clarify in that story?

I’m not sure. It’s one of those stories that I still haven’t really wrapped my brain around. I was certainly trying to use the strategy of estrangement, of writing a future Haiti and a future Dominican Republic to approach some of the present. What’s interesting is how current events have in some ways revealed my parable as near beer. The Dominican Republic’s current treatment of its citizens of Haitian descent outstrips anything that I conceived of in that story. It’s strange: The real world, in the Dominican Republic and the United States, is turning out to be more dystopian than things that I’ve been able to imagine. I’ve got to adjust my dystopia engine because currently it doesn’t seem to be up to the task.  

You’ve said that the short story is a perfectable form—also an excruciating one that you prefer to avoid in the future. What do you find so seductive about the novel?

It’s us. It’s human: We are not this perfect, elegant symmetry. The physical universe might have these breathtaking symmetries in it, but human beings? We’re a grab bag. We’re more contradiction then we are coherence. We’re certainly not unified; often we’re just held together by wishful thinking. I find myself best represented in the novel. I find in novels that all of their little weirdnesses and flaws—I just find that to be very familiar and it resonates with me. Often you live inside of a novel for a couple of weeks. If you’re like me and read fast, perhaps a week. If it’s short enough, perhaps a couple of days. But you live in that book so fully. It’s like having communion with a person and their world and those flaws, those elisions, those lacunae, that I think anybody who’s a person would recognize as being common enough inside of their own subjectivity. I think they only add verisimilitude and only add conviction to novels, and I resonate with that shit, man. There’s something about the imperfection of the human experience that I think finds an excellent interlocutor in the novel.

That reminds me of your take on Moby-Dick. You said, “Melville ain’t just talking about whalers.” How do you use the particular—the specific heres and nows with which you are intimately familiar and which you write about—to access the universal?

The more granular a description is, the more likely people are to be able to use it as a way to connect. It’s just the way our minds work; it’s not even anything that I’m particularly good at. I think that any of us who read know that particularity is in many ways the wellspring of cathexis. People just fucking vibe on that shit. A song that’s just a bunch of vague obscurities—well, that attracts some people—but I think a lot of people love it when a song has a sharp, human, confessional specificity. Most of us aspire to write a text that seems to be only about whalers as a way of using those whalers to talk about everything else.

How do you speak about diaspora in a broad sense through the narration of your particular diasporic community?

I don’t know if I understand every aspect of the diasporic experience even among Central Jersey Dominicans. That shit is incredibly complicated. Not only is it complicated, it’s very dynamic. What you call diaspora today is certainly not what someone will call diaspora tomorrow. It’ll mean a very different thing to someone who’s living down the street, to someone who doesn’t share your gender or your class background—the other important identity coordinates that make up a person. I am interested in what I witnessed as a diasporic subject, in what happens to families when they’re shattered and scattered, what is possible when one attempts to reinvent themselves in a new land and what is impossible.

I find myself tracing the contours of my own experience and using that as the skeletal key to talk larger meditations on what it means to be a stranger. What does it mean to acquire a new language? What does it mean to have a parent on one continent while you live on another? What does it mean to dream of a different land while you are living in what’s supposed to be your home? While I don’t know much about anyone’s experience outside of my own, I have been able to use the contours of what I witnessed and endured to open up a conversation with other writers writing about diaspora, with other thinkers who are theorizing on what diaspora means. For me, it’s about the conversation.

For a vast community of people, diaspora is their central experience. It is not the national question. In other words, it’s not “I’m American” or “I’m French” or “I’m Thai” or “I’m from Bhutan.” It is, “I am a diasporic person.” This has increasingly drawn both linguistic and critical attention. I want to be a part of that, all of these different conversations, because I feel that I’m a Caribbean immigrant Afro-Dominican and yet, over all these things is that diasporic experience, which has inflected all these other loci of identity that allow me to understand and define myself.

Which other diasporic writers and thinkers do you see yourself as in conversation with?

A lot of the old masters: Arundhati Roy. Paule Marshall. Patrick Chamoiseau. Maxine Hong Kingston. For younger folk there’s someone like Akhil Sharma, who’s extraordinary. I find myself loving the work of NoViolet Bulawayo. Then there’s someone like Hilton Als, who is in some ways a contemporary, but someone who comes from a Caribbean family and has thought very deeply on how the African diaspora plays itself out in a U.S. context. These are folks who I have to say produce in me enormous optimism and trouble my sleep.

How has the Voices of Our Nation workshop changed your writing?

This sounds terrible. I’m not sure it’s changed my writing. Again, that sounds horrible but it’s just that I’m still trying in many ways to metabolize the books that I read when I was in my twenties and thirties. I have a much longer lag time than most people. Most people can have a car accident today and write about it tomorrow. I sort of have a twenty-year lag. It’s kind of like seeing the passage of some faraway star. So I haven’t caught up with what Voices means to me because I’m still trying to figure out what the hell the time before we started Voices means to me. But as an institution, as a space, it’s very, very important to me. It’s something that I believe in very deeply and it’s been enormously gratifying to see how much it has helped young artists. How well received it has been from the participants and how it has continued to renew itself and grow and be strengthened by the enthusiasm of young artists of color. I think if I was going to take a different crack at the same question I would say the optimism that I feel when I encounter all of these artists of color, the enormous energy that I’m exposed to has without question, has unequivocally been good for my soul.