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In darkness we meet: a conversation with Junot Diaz.

The stories in Drown (1996), Junot Diaz's first collection, were called "powerful and convincing," "sentimental, yet cynical," and "mesmerizingly honest." Two of the stories--"Ysrael" and "Fiesta, 1980"--were anthologized in the 1996 and 1997 editions of The Best American Short Stories. Since then, Diaz has been selected twice more for the BASS anthology (1999 and 2000), received the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction in 2002, and was recently awarded the Rome Prize. Diaz earned his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University and an MFA from Cornell University. He has taught at Syracuse University and is currently a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as the fiction editor for the Boston Review.

This past September saw the publication of Diaz's long-awaited first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The book was met with universal praise: "If Donald Barthelme had lived to read Diaz, he surely would have been delighted to discover an intellectual and linguistic omnivore who could have taught even him a move or two" (Newsweek). The New York Times Book Review named it a Notable Book for 2007. The novel chronicles the life of Oscar de Leon, "a fat lonely nerdy kid," from his childhood as a short-lived Dominican playboy, to the painful experiences of first love and high school, to his final days living in the Dominican Republic. But Oscar Wao is more than a bildungsroman; it's an honest and poignant narrative that looks at the overbearing weight of history as it influences generations upon generations of Americans, who often don't realize the impact it has on them.

Three weeks into his month-long book tour, Diaz met with us in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The full-length version of our conversation can be found in the March issue online (worldliteraturetoday.com); the highlights below offer a glimpse of Diaz's wide-ranging interests.

I was reading Chinua Achebe's book of essays Morning Yet on Creation Day, and he had this essay called "The African Writer and the English Language."

Sure, no, I know it.

And he's talking about how a lot of African writers were tentative about using English, but at the same time he realized he couldn't use the English that other writers were using--he needed to take English and make it African, make it his own. And he has this quote from the London Observer from 1964, from James Baldwin, where he talked about how the English language reflected none of his experience, but if he learned to imitate it, he could make it bear the burden of his experience. And I was wondering, how conscious was your attempt to make English your own, to make it bear the burden of Dominican American experience? Was that a gradual process or did it occur naturally?

Yeah, no, I remember the essay, don't remember the Baldwin quote, but it's a good one to try to grapple. It's sort of weird: language for me, you know, it's one person, so it's hard to build up a sort of philosophy on it in any way that makes sense, and I guess what strikes me at first is that language is a funny thing to attempt to nationalize or to put a stamp on. Language eludes any attempt anyone has to corral it. So, it's always weird when people feel that there's this sense of ownership in a language and that people use it to victimize other people, because language just doesn't work that way, so I always think about the way young people in any neighborhood or particular spot will immediately work the language to their experience, to their little anecdotes.

One of the things about having childhood friends is you don't just have childhood friendships or relationships and physical proximities--you have your own goddamn idiom. You just create this entire language, and in some ways it holds you together--that idiom holds you together--longer than even your physical presence. So, you're able to hang out with people and say one thing and they all just start laughing. And I think of that, in a sense, in the same way it happens for anyone who's attempting to use language in an artistic enterprise, the same way that we use language to forge a reality among our youthful friends--we're going to attempt to use it to try to particularize that experience, because there's no exchange rate of language-to-experience that ever holds steady. Every experience of every moment seems to require some new way of saying it, and every artist seems to provoke an attempt to say something that might even be mundane, say, in an original way. So that's a long way of saying that to begin with, we're in that, we're in this mechanism, that language is already plastic in ways that I think are exceptional, that are far better and far more fungible than anyone would like to give it credit for.

But, as far as myself and my own individual project, the idea is definitely that proposito, like on purpose, which is that I was trying to see how far I could push English to the edge of disintegration, but still be, for the large part, entirely coherent. In other words, could I make the unintelligibility gap for any one reader as wide as I could, but still have it hold together, still be able to communicate the experience? And so, I've definitely thought a lot about it.

My first sense of it was always with having to learn English as an immigrant, feeling, as an immigrant, the sense of a perfect English would never exist anywhere, but in your mind you have to dominate it, in your mind you have to master it, and your mind kind of torments you with every mistake you've made, preparing yourself against this ideal that doesn't exist anywhere. And so, of course, I have all these things in my mind, and these are all sort of vectors that you want to play with because learning English is such a violent experience as a kid.

Given that geography shapes the way a writer views the world--like Faulkner wouldn't be Faulkner without the South, and Rushdie wouldn't be Rushdie without India and England--but in your experience, especially in Oscar Wao, much of the narrative lives in both worlds, but in the American world it also uses these very esoteric topics such as Lord of the Rings, and framing the viewpoint from the Watcher, which is this Fantastic Four reference, and I was curious, for you, how does American pop culture help you understand both worlds and present what you know to the reader?

Well, when we're talking about English acquisition, one discovers very quickly as an immigrant kid that there's English acquisition and then there's English acquisition, that there is this almost endless array of vernaculars that you have to pick up. So that you can learn the standard English, but then you realize, I don't know shit about sports-you got to learn the sports stuff. Then you realize, I don't know shit about American popular music, I don't even know who the fuck The Who is--you got to pick that entire thing up. Everyone's making references to TV shows you've never heard of, old TV shows, and even little ditties in TV shows. I mean, the music from Jeopardy--that do do do do--that makes no fucking sense to an immigrant. You've got to learn that. And so, in the end, you keep stacking up all these little languages, these threads. And so comic books, fantasy, and science fiction are like a very vibrant, alive, and very American language.

When I've been looking at some of the reviews, whether positive or negative, I think what gets missed in so much of the discussions is they seem to forget that science fiction is one of those really bizarre American imports. It was imported from France, from England, and it was somehow perfected in a bizarre way. And the comic book is an even more American form. They think the blues and the comic book are two of the most original indigenous forms. But it's so strange that they're completely marginalized, these very indigenous forms that are very marginalized, they've been an important part of what we would call the North American narrative, what we would call the formative literary experience. They've always been a great ontological or epistemic lens, so that you have fucking Ronald Reagan, for most of his foreign policy and most of his worldview, if you read those biographies of his, he used science fiction. The folklore of science fiction was a huge part of his mind. And he's not the only one.

So I was thinking about how in the world to describe the extreme experience of being an immigrant in the United States, the extreme experience of coming from the Third World and suddenly appearing in New Jersey. You know when you test cars or planes, and you put them through stress tests? Every language that I was deploying, every language system, fell apart. As soon as I put it through the bend of Santo Domingo, 1974--no lights, nobody knew anything about the United States, nobody had even seen a TV---central New Jersey, 1974---cable, Vietnam, lights, electricity-every time I tried to use a narrative to take me from here to there, it disintegrated, as soon as it reached that--I don't know how to call it--that world barrier. But science fiction, fantasy, and comic books are meant to do this kind of stupid stuff, they're meant to talk about these extreme, ludicrous transformations, and so I really wanted to use them. I felt a great kinship to these narratives, which served as a backbone for so much of what we call "America" but are completely ostracized; it felt like the history of the immigrant, the minority, the woman. I was like, Yo, we're friends. In darkness we meet. Let us do work.

I was curious, did reading Lord of the Rings and comic books lead you to other things, to "serious" literature like Beowulf or Greek mythology? Or was it something kind of isolated?

You know, when I was a young reader--I immigrated to the U.S. when I was six--I had difficulties speaking English, but I found it far easier to read English. They made up this word these days, they call it hyperlexic. That's what they say now, but back then I was just a really precocious reader. So I had to compensate for my difficulties speaking English. I always think of it that when you read, no one can comment on your accent. When you read, it doesn't make a difference about how poorly you mispronounce words. What was interesting was that I always read very diversely, so science fiction and fantasy and the fantastic, the genres, the pulps--they were all just a part of this larger reading, and what happened was I would jump from author to author, and the fantastic always interested me at any level. So by the time I was in high school, I'd moved into horror. I was reading horror writers and stuff--Stephen King and Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany--and what happened was that those books were the final bridge to serious literature. You know, a lot of those guys had real serious literary aspirations.

I read in Callaloo that you used to write screenplays in college.' In that early stuff, did you feel pressured by mainstream literary fiction?

That's a good question. I felt my problem was that I was always never gonna--I started writing screenplays and then I realized that the stuff I was doing was too beyond the mainstream. It's not like so incredible, but to write screenplays about this stuff, I guarantee you that you will starve to fucking death. No one cares about this kind of work.

I'll never forget when I knew I had to quit. I was in a scriptwriting workshop, and I was writing this script about something, and this other person was writing a shark attack script, and I pointed out--the whole thing was about this battle between these guys and the sharks--and I pointed out that one of the characters wets themselves and the camera pans in, and I was like, You can't really see that 'cause they're underwater, right? And the professor got mad at me. He was like, Well, you don't understand the way this works, you know, you can make it work. And I just thought, Shit, I'm fucked. The shark kid is doing better than me. So I said, I gotta go.

And for me, when I think about mainstream pressures, I think an artist is always wrestling with this unique voice and with the unique vision they have, and then all they know about their convention, all the stories you know, all the things your friends like, and all the things you like were telling you, Hey, this other way is easier, this other way's been done before, this way leads to acceptance. And you're like, I know, but I want to have every seventh word a science fiction word. And people are like, Well, they're gonna make fun of it. And, you're like, Okay, and then you start to do it. But for me, I discovered the courage that I lacked in my childhood because of social stuff--and again, I don't want to make it seem like wherever the wind blew I would put on a white afro because white afros were in--but I think it's just that I have particular sensitivities to some of the things that I changed, when I looked back on it I was like, Damn. When you're a kid it's hard--when you're a kid it's fucking hard--but I think in my writing I have the courage that I didn't have maybe when I was nine, ten, eleven, and I find myself much more able to resist, though the struggle is there and it's almost never ending.

I've heard you say, and even in Oscar Wao in one of the footnotes the narrator asks, Oh, you're surprised, you didn't know this about Dominican history? Just wait till your kids don't know about the United States and Iraq. But I wonder, you've said the average twenty-something Dominican probably doesn't know much about Trujillo or anything that's happened, but it seems, at least in your writing, like there's this weight of Dominican history, even if the specifics are unknown. Maybe it's characteristic of the immigrant community, but they have this sort of inherent toughness. Do you see that?

I guess I always thought of it as the way that families work. If you think about it--that line is a perfect one to burrow into it--if you think about it, the shadow of history doesn't go away. It just doesn't. You pretend that it's your shadow, but it's actually a shadow from a past that's very old and very long. And so what I think about is that is the same way the Dominican community has all these shadows of history upon it--families within that have their own--but I think about the way the Dominican Republic casts a shadow onto the United States. Its involvement, which is completely forgotten, has shaped the entire destiny of this one country. It's a perfect example of how history works--history works in a way that you would never fucking expect it--and that's how the past feels. The past feels like, What is my responsibility as the United States, or as a person in the United States, to the Dominican Republic? I have nothing to do with it, I don't know nothing about this country, I don't know what the fuck they're talking about, but that's the way the past is. And yet the weight of that history is on you forever, and even if you're like, No, it had nothing to do with me, it's there, it works its way into things. And so, I think that in the end Iraq will be a similar situation where in a short time people are going be like, Look, I don't even know what the fuck Iraq is. And so, when I think about communities that are wrestling with histories, they do stick together. Think about it: the United States has a history in the world that is horrible in some ways, and yet that's only made us more clannish, more like, It's us or them. It's almost as if the only way to survive the mistakes we've made is by sticking together, because that seems probably more safe than just admitting we've made mistakes.

But to answer more directly the last part of your question, I just think immigrants in general, regardless of anything, are really extraordinary individuals. I just think how mundane immigration is across the world, to give up one world and go to another, man, that leads to certain survival adaptations, which may look from the outside like admirable toughness, but people are really just surviving.

Did you smuggle history into the United States with you when you were a little boy? Do you think that writing these Dominican stories or stories about Dominicans have helped you to face that history more than you otherwise would have?

I don't know. It's probably less therapeutic--not that you're saying that it's therapeutic--but I've always wanted to know why. It seems simple, but I always wanted to know why we came to the United States, why I'm here. I couldn't figure out why I was in the United States. There're all these great bromides that you hear from your family folk like, We wanted a better life. But that's not really enough; for me it wasn't. I really wanted to know why the fuck we were here, and then you ask enough questions and eventually you begin to discover that the question of why the fuck we're here is inextricably tied up with why is the United States here. You can't talk about the United States unless your first words are "Santo Domingo." That's just the way it works, and yet you wouldn't know that in either country. The egg, the cascara, the eggshell no longer remembers the eagle that it gave birth to, and the eagle that it gave birth to no longer remembers its eggshell.

For me, it's trying to understand these relationships, since I was a creature that was produced by those relationships. I think the joke in the book is about Shazam, constantly Shazam and Isis--these superhero characters are in some ways my vision of the Dominican Republic and the United States, where Billy Batson, the normal guy, suddenly says the word shazam! and turns into this superbeing. And in some ways it's basically what happens. Santo Domingo's typical-normal, we think the Third World's commiseration and suffering is normal, and the United States is this super-being. And so I kept wondering, What the fuck? Where's my role in this? And you find yourself neither. The joke is you're neither Billy Batson or Captain Marvel, you're basically shazam!, you're the word, you're that lightning which transforms, that runs back and forth between them and holds them together, and I think part of this narrative was attempting to write the lightning, because I don't think I could've done anything else, though my special position in my life was that. That's what I was. I'll be Billy Batson when I'm in Santo Domingo and look around, and then I go to the United States and you're shazam!, but I felt what I really was was that thing which holds these two guys together, that makes their transformation possible.

With indigenous cultures, their stories are transferred through language, their oral history is passed on from generation to generation by means of their language, and for you coming to the United States, in your writing you're using this very specialized language. Do you feel that you're continuing that tradition or are you presenting something new, like this new narrative that's uniquely your own?

We all have dreams of exceptionalism, the dream that we've innovated in any way, but it's a hard thing to put your mind around. What is the legacy and the survival of language? And, if all the words of a language are lost, is that language lost? I mean, what if some of the structures of your language seeped into the larger language, the one that destroyed you? It's hard to get a sense of what's at work in these things. I think in the end that what is so fascinating, for me, about language is that language is in some ways a catalog or a pantheon of our survival, because in all languages--inside of their lexicons, inside of their syllabaries--in there are all these survivors from past catechisms. In Dominican, the word guagua--bus--is one of the last surviving words from the exterminated indigenous people of the Canary Islands. The Spaniards killed them all and picked up that word--"cart"--from them, brought it to the Dominican Republic, the sight of another extermination, and it's there with the word for hammock hamaca--which is a word from the indigenous Tainos, who were totally exterminated. And I feel like in a way as long as you can keep--people are handing these tiny relics, these small, little fragments of their survival, forward in time to these huge waves, these tides of language--and, I feel like being a part of that, no matter how much I innovate, the most important thing is that you're helping something that's really the most human thing, because one day that's gonna have a great purpose, one day people will remember, one day there will be a reckoning, and it's those fragments in language that are the testimonies, the testament, to what has happened. All our history, all our crimes, all the good things we've done are embedded in that thing, that fluid thing we call language. I sometimes think, Oh, yeah, I'm doing something really original, but in the end I feel like you're just a part of something very, very large and very old and very human, and if you can add a thing or two to the stream, God bless you. But probably the most important role is that you're a vector for something else.

Yeah, I remember hearing a quote that time moves through us, but in reality we move through time, and time has always been there before us, it'll be there after us. Especially when you say those things about language--language doesn't belong to one person, it's this great thing that you move through and it picks up whatever bits of history that it can.

And really, it sweeps. It's like a tide. But that's why I think people are so aggressive and so angry about language. It's that thing that you can't control which makes you the most uncomfortable. That's why nations are always legislating languages. The French have an academy for it, the Japanese don't allow foreign words into their newspapers. They have a special vocabulary, a special language to show foreign words because they don't want the contamination. I think that speaks to the mongoose-like power of language, how difficult it is to contain.

* Diogenes Cespedes, Silvio Torres-Saillant, and Junot Diaz, "Fiction Is the Poor Man's Cinema: An Interview with Junot Diaz," Callaloo 23.3 (2000): 892-907.
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Title Annotation:Q & A
Author:Celayo, Armando; Shook, David
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:3896
Previous Article:The Pale of Settlement.
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