Introduction to the Interview
by Alexis Enrico Santí, Editor in Chief
WHEN I WAS IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL I PLAYED AN IMAGINARY SPACE BUNNY GAME WITH PHIL HOLMES (EL GRANDE JEFE) AND CHE BROADNAX. The game consisted of dodging 5th graders that swung their backpacks at us while Phil shouted commands to Che and I like, "Dodge the carrot-stealers!" and "Attack the grass refinery!" (y otras cosas muy nerd) This all happened on the playground--gravel pelting and backpacks flinging-- and if the bunnies managed to survive the rival imaginary bunnies (we were a small crew) then the 5th graders would kick our asses, knocking us flat to the ground. (Sabe, tio?) In junior high, I played Dungeons and Dragons, with its elaborate characters and all those magical (puta madre) swords. I was a Level 13 Knight. I rocked Wizardry on the Mac (oye, hombre tienes que ir con la manzana) and Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo. In high school I graduated to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everything else in my life had been pretty shitty (no me gustó mi educación media, fue una cárcel) up to that point. I wound up with a seizure condition (la culpa de Nintendo!) and Star Trek became the safest part of my teenage years. In my young life, I had something to escape, much like the main character, Oscar Wao (gordito, feo, y un poquito estúpido) in Junot Díaz's novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar . Throughout the book, Oscar plays D&D (como un payaso, chico) and reads and writes fantasy novels (tontisimo), trying painfully to connect with the world around him.
Interview conducted by Alexis Enrico Santí in early July
-We really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview Junot. We know you’re busy these days, with everything that has gone on with Oscar Wao and the Pulitzer Prize is piping hot, can you give us a day in a life of Mr. Junot Díaz these days?
--Things have been so chaotic it’s hard to give you a standard day. Been traveling a lot but now that I’m back home I wake up in the morning, drive the fiancée to work, do my errands, check email too much, read a novel, go to lunch, check emails again, go to the gym, pass out for an hour, read another novel (or the second half of the first if it’s a long one), go to to dinner with the fiancée, watch BATTLESTAR GALATICA and then it’s time for the sack. On good days I’ll write in my journal. On very good days I’ll try to scribble something in my writing notebook. On weekends, we go out, which is cool.
--What have you thought of this last season of BSG so far? I gotta tell you, I haven’t been too impressed and thought the writer’s strike may have influenced some short cuts. I won’t give anything away in the event that you haven’t gotten to REVELATIONS.
--I do think the overall quality of the show has slumped since the second season. Which is too bad. This was looking like it was going to be a four season grandslam and now it looks more like a four season triple. Still, that’s a lot better than almost all the shows out there now.
--Pulitzer Prize. Wow. So, what was that like, walk us through it? And as a follow up—tell me—when you win the Pulitzer Prize do they give you some sort of medal, a statue? Please tell me it’s not just a certificate of appreciation.
--It’s a certificate AND a little Tiffany’s crystal statuette in the shape of a fountain pen head. What I can tell you: I was at my mother’s house, helping her pack for a trip to Santo Domingo (she was packing, I was playing with my new nephew), when a friend called me on my cell phone, saying, Hey, dude, I think you just won the Pulitzer Prize. And then I put my nephew down, stepped outside, started making calls and didn’t get a confirmation until I was on the bridge over the Passaic River (this is in NJ.) Who knows what I would have done if it had been a joke.
I’m not good at feeling success or triumph, something my old man beat out of me. But that day I felt all the triumph, all the victory that I’d never felt these past 39 years. It only lasted like a picosecond though. Typical of me.
--How has success changed your writing or influenced you, Drown was critically acclaimed when it came out, do you see a new round of changes to your life now?
-- I’ll tell you when it happens. Right now I feel exactly the same. But who knows? Maybe in the fullness of time my post-prize transformation will be revealed.
--We like to talk to authors about not only their success today, the steps that brought them to where they are now. What was your first big break that you experienced; perhaps this was pre-Cornell (where Díaz did his MFA) maybe after?
--I was a Rutgers boy in the early Nineties. Was an English and History major, worked my way through college, delivering pool tables. Had dreams but not much else. So anyway my Junior year I entered a creative writing contest, wrote a story about a Dominican boy befriending the prostitute next door and it won first place. If it wasn’t for that damn contest who knows if I would have kept going. I never had any confidence. Even now I wrestle with that, prizes or no prizes.
--After the success with Drown was published in 1996 you have gone through the past eleven years without a publication of a collection and now the novel. What sort of pressure were you under to produce? Were you facing down your own "fuku" to get Oscar Wao completed?
-- Always pressure but almost none of it coming from the outside. I do pressure superbly all by myself and that’s what I did. I just keep hammering and hammering myself. I’m surprised that I got anything done. Probably would have finished the novel sooner if I’d been nicer to myself.
-- Latin American writers are plentiful at the moment, besides yourself there is: Sandra Cisneros, Ana Menendez, Ernesto Quiñonez, Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez (to name a few of the younger generation) and in another older crew, Oscar Hijuelos, Mario Vargas Llosa and there are many others publishing in English and filling the world with tales of latino culture, dancing, heritage—I was wondering what you think about the cadre of Latin American writers working with the English language?
--How to give a concise useful opinion about a group of artists so stupendously diverse. First, one has to distinguish the US Latinos from the Latin Americans. Allende and Vargas Llosa are more on the Latin American tip. I’m an immigrant. Menendez, Quiñonez, Cisneros and Alvarez were all born in the US. Also you have to get the generations correct. Menendez, Quiñonez and myself are all under forty. Cisneros, Allende, Alvarez, Hijuelos and Llosa are all over the age of fifty-four. With those clarifications in place what I can say is that the future looks bright for US Latino letters. I really believe that the best is yet to come for this sector of artists.
--Thank you for the clarification, I’ve read over 50 stories in the past three days for contest, I’m embarrassed. I guess I have come upon certain Latino writers at different stages of their lives and my own life. In my mind I place Vargas Llosa, who is a family friend as “Old School” and Allende as new school, because I didn’t come across her until a few years ago—as if that makes any sense. I guess what I’m trying to ask is that US Latino writers are making their mark and continue making their mark but there is still a sentiment of division in American letters? Ana Menendez said in an interview with us last year the following:
I’d like to know your take on this debate; you have now achieved the penultimate distinction of being the best in American letters, not Latin-American letters, feel me?
-- I’m in a different boat than Ana since I’m an immigrant and no matter how young you come or how old immigration never leaves you, marks you forever. But in every other way I’m in the same yola as Ana. In Santo Domingo there’s that same debate about once a year. What do we do with the Dominican writers in the Diaspora, living abroad? In Santo Domingo these categorical questions are especially troubling since my country has a history of genocide based on that very same impulse that wants to carve folks up into arbitrary polities. A place like Santo Domingo can’t exist, financially, without the support of communities of Dominicans living abroad and so what implications does such an economic relationship have on Dominican letters? For people who grew up in the US entirely or in the DR entirely the myths of non-connection are very strong but for those of us who hold the two countries together, for us Shazam kids, we know how much more complicated these matters are. The tragedy is that any time anybody pulls out a machete and tries to slice up communities between us and them we immigrants are always left out. Always. Nationalist can only serve to simplify, to dehumanize.
Dominican ballplayers win World Series rings all the time but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re heroes in the DR. Accolades say nothing about your character or your affinities. Nothing at all.
-- This is how you describe Oscar on page 20:
Junot, di-me can such a human being actually exist?
--You mean a human being like Oscar? Of course he does. There’s one in every damn high school in the country. And who knows: that person might be you.
-- Since I’m Cuban-American, raised in Ithaca, NY my whole life, away from Latin culture in central New York, I feel very close to Oscar and in my introduction I spoke to explain this connection. So—certainly—that person is me, or well, a sort of me. I just want to tell you how much I connected and adored him. Yet, your sections with Oscar are not the only sections of the novel to be proud of and worthy of praise. The first person passages set in Dominican Republic, give a round, full understanding of not only the life of your individual characters but you give a voice—a clear and powerful voice—put into a modern historical context of the Dominican Republic. There is beauty. There is horror. There is real life that a wide audience can reap an understanding of the Dominican Republic’s culture so that does not remain only in American consciousness besides the likes of: Albert Pujols, Merengue and Bachata and the horrors of Rafael Trujillo. There is a question in here somewhere. I know there is. Here: Have you had the desire to tell this story for a long time? and has it always been your intention from page one to make it as expansive and all encompassing as it is?
--The novel attempts to become a world. So it’s no surprise this novel attempted a similar emulation. I knew this was going to be big, not so much in pages, but in the scope of its emotion and historical journey. I’m just glad that it worked out in the end.
--Did you, by any chance model Oscar after Exley’s character in A Fan’s Notes?
--Our Stories was founded to be part literary journal and part emerging writer’s studio. As a requirement everyone who submits to Our Stories is given some short feedback about their work. Everyone. In short, we feel we owe it those who submit to at least receive some feedback. Do you have any thoughts on this system, or on the process of reviewing stories for your classes as a creative writing professor at Syracuse or MIT?
--You can not improve as an artist, as a writer, without a critical exchange. This sounds incredibly generous and productive.
--Language and slang plays a major part in the development of the narrative structure of your novel. In the sections where you use third person, which are the bulk of the novel where we follow Oscar. We are bombarded with not only American slang, but Dominican slang through the novel and in a manner that can be flippant, shooting from the hip and relaxed through and through. There’s ease and grace coupled with hilarity. Tell me, first off, is the use of slang important to you and what larger statement are you sending into the Canon?
-- All language starts out as ‘slang.’ All. I don’t think there’s anything I’m doing that Melville wasn’t doing in MOBY DICK. I wasn’t trying to be anything special. It’s just that if I novel is to embrace a world, THE world, it must embrace all of its linguistic registers. Since the novel is traditionally product of polite bourgeoisie culture it’s always had problems with the saltier elements of a culture. The world, believe you me, has no problem speaking in ‘slang’ and cursing. It’s only the arts that occasionally has a problem representing this.
-- What is next on the list of things to do? Conquer global warming? Running for Vice-president? What’s next on tap?
--Another novel. About the end of the world. I hope.
--Any chance we’ll start seeing Oscar Wao action figures? Maybe a board game? Roll playing game? Movie deal in the works? I mean I don’t expect you’ll hook up a magic card or anything? I know D&D is much more your style.
--Really? You’re the second person who’s said this; there seems to be some kind of confusion. I am not my narrator. Yunior doesn’t like Magic-style games but I like them fine. Shit, one of my best graduate students at MIT did a thesis on collectible card games. But to answer your question: if I write a fantasy novel then you can expect a role playing game. But first I’d have to write a fantasy novel.
--Anything else you’d like to share?
--I love to read. I’m a nerd who grew up doing manual labor and industrial work until my twenties. I still dream about the neighborhood I grew up in. I think the greatest living writer in the US is Samuel R. Delany.
--Thank you very much, it’s an honor.
Junot Díaz is the author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which won the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He is the fiction editor at the Boston Review and an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, African Voices, Best American Short Stories (1996, 1997, 1999, 2000), and in Pushcart Prize XXII. He has received a Eugene McDermott Award, a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, a Lila Acheson Wallace Readers Digest Award, the 2002 Pen/Malamud Award, the 2003 US-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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