Austinist Interviews Junot Diaz
Back in 1996, Junot Diaz published a collection of short stories, Drown, which became one of the most celebrated literary debuts of the Nineties. Drown drew on Diaz’s experiences growing up, first in the Dominican Republic, and later, from the age of six, in a northern New Jersey immigrant neighborhood. Now, after eleven years, he has just published his long-awaited first novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Wao, the protagonist, is a Dominican-American dork who discovers that his family is the victim of an ancient curse. The book is a hit so far—the New York Times calls it, “Mario Vargas Llosa meets ‘Star Trek’ meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West.” And they mean that in the best possible way. Diaz took time out from his book tour to speak to us by phone.
Sunday Sept. 23
First off, how’s the tour going?
Oh, you know. You figure you do this once a decade, so I’m just pumped. I have the best job in the world right now.
“confederacy of dunces.”
No, I spent the last eleven years working on four novels. The first was a kind of weird fantasy novel which I finished, then it was actually purchased, but the problem was they wanted the next novel in hand before they would publish the first one. Because it was a four part series.
I got sort of antsy, cause I wanted write my “literary” novel. That was novels two, three, and four. Two and three didn’t work out, and you’re looking at four. I have stacks and stacks of pages—sometimes I’m astonished that I can be so stubborn. I’ve been working on this one for about seven years.
Sci-fi plays an important role in your new novel, at least in the inner life of the protagonist. After the hard-edged realism of Drown, I wouldn’t have associated you with genre fiction.
I think that “genre” fiction is at the core not just of the inner life of the protagonist but also the inner life of the narrative. Look, from what I gather, things haven’t changed so much in the canon of the United States, by which I mean that work by writers of color is still considered a “genre.” I think many people still consider it as an offshoot of the mainstream, and not as a bedrock of what we call the canon. So for me, being someone who’s often categorized as a “genre” writer, I’ve found it normal to muck around in as many other genres as possible.
You also use folklore. The idea of a curse of Christopher Columbus, or fuku, is a major theme of Oscar Wao. How do you reconcile sci-fi and realism with fuku?
I just think that all these elements are present in anything that we call reality. I wasn’t trying to create any hierarchy of narrative. You’re doing this work, you’re trying to write, and what you discover is: you live with people who are hardcore realists, and you live with people who will start a war based on a scrap of a myth, and you live with people who believe that God was an alien, and you live with people who believe in ghosts. For me, the world is such a difficult place to compete against, as an artist. And the only way I know to come close to matching the absurd majesty of the world is by trying to include all these elements in a way that they coexist, more than anything.
Does a novel change when you’ve been working on it for that long? Oscar Wao deals with a lot of history, especially U.S. interference in Dominican politics…
Well, part of my project was a more playful and pragmatic view of history. You have the kind of sinister view of history that you see in 1984, where history is just plastic, something you can just alter at any given moment—you can just cut people out of a photograph. I wanted to have the same freedom, but in a much more positive or productive way, where if I had a photograph, but the photograph is wrong and I forgot to include a character, I had no problem just cutting out a character from another place and just slapping it on. I think history moves best when it is not treated with religious awe. Part of me enjoyed the fact that I was working in a moving river. It’s part of the fun.
What recent books have excited you?
I’ve recently gotten obsessed with—I know this is crazy—the first half of Natsuo Kirino’s novel Grotesque. It’s just like, holy shit. I mean, I read that and I think it’s an extraordinary book. I think it’s really dynamite. Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh, fucking incredible son of a bitch. Karin Fossum just published a book called The Indian Bride, that was one of those stop-the-violence type books, I just couldn’t believe how great it was. Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s Around the Bloc—that book is amazing.
The mayor of Austin chose Around the Bloc for his citywide book club earlier this year.
Well done mayor, I must commend. Be you criminal or hero, that’s a great pick.
Have you been to Austin before?
I’ve been like three, four times, I think. Austin has some of the best Mexican breakfast on the Earth.
God, if I could name them, I would be a genius. I’m one of those people who just gets dragged around by my friend, Dagoberto Gilb. They always get me fucked up in this bar, I don’t know where it is, where everybody has more ink than hair. I’m always astonished.
Are you feeling optimistic about the current climate for writers of Latino origin here in the US?
I guess I side less with the splinter called “Latino writers” and more with the huge mass called “Latinos.” And I think that the situation is so intriguing and so perverse. We’re an essential component of this country’s economy, its social and cultural life. We raise everybody’s kids, we’re some of the best and most dedicated educators, and without our bodies, there would be no war effort.
And yet, as a whole, the country is either negligent, hostile, or condescending. So my issue is more that I’m extremely optimistic about the dynamism of my community. But I’m rather disappointed at the narrowness of the larger community. I think great things are gonna happen for Latino writers and the Latino community, but I fear that it’s gonna have to happen over the resistance of this narrow, reductive, you know, “confederacy of dunces.”
Do you have advice for young writers of any background trying to get their voices heard?
I can only speak about what helped me, and what helped me was forming writing groups. Not with people who you love or are your friends, but with people that you can work with.
Secondly, I think as a writer, as an artist, you have to practice to like the art you’re in, not just like what you do in it. I think you’ll find your path far more easily. I’m often troubled when I’m around young writers, because a select group of them seem to not like anyone’s writing. And then I wonder why, as a whole, the art of reading, upon which the art of writing is based, is shrinking.
First you’ve got to learn to love books.
Yeah, Jesus. When I went to grad school, it was so odd. I was surrounded by people who just didn’t like anything. A book would come out, and people would say, 'Yeah, but it does this and this and this wrong.' I don’t remember being so aware of all the flaws in books during my first enjoyment of them.
So what can we expect from you next?
I’m trying to go back and restart a novel, it was book three of the four. It’s my Dominican version of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar meets Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.
I know Akira, and that sounds crazy, but what’s Stand on Zanzibar?
You’ve never read Stand on Zanzibar? That’s like the most insane late 60’s experimental science fiction novel ever.
What would a Dominican version of that combination look like?
Good luck my friend. I’ll tell you when it’s done.
- David Foster
- David Foster Wallace
- Dominican Republic
- Junot Diaz
- Kanye West
- New Jersey
- New York
- New York Times
- Oscar Wao
- Star Trek
- United States
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we'll they did a write-up on Willy Vlautin, Brian Francis Slattery and a bunch of authors in a short story collection too.
wow, me and junot diaz: the only writers that Austinist has paid attention to for months.
(i'm the only Austin writer, though.)
I am about 120 pages into Oscar Wao right now and I cannot get enough of that book. It is the kind that keeps you up past your bedtime b/c you get so involved in the lives of the characters.
Can't wait to see him read in person this weekend.