‘I was the super-nerdy kid who was also willing to fight.’
Nicholas Wroe of London’s Guardian speaks to Junot Díaz about his favorite books.
When Junot Díaz published his debut collection of linked stories, Drown, in 1996, it appeared that the trajectory of his writing career had been set. Located in the barrios of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, and filtered through the sensibility of a poor immigrant who made it to Rutgers University, the then 27-year-old’s dispatches from his community – “separated from all the other communities by a six lane highway and the dump”, as he said at the time – became a New York literary sensation. Prizes, commercial and critical acclaim, and attendant stories of large advances came accompanied by invitations to fancy parties and an assumption that Díaz had embarked on a long and fruitful career.
As things turned out he attended few of the literary parties – “I discovered early that as an artist there was absolutely nothing wrong with being surrounded by people who were not dedicated to your field” – and the money didn’t last forever, not least because, far from becoming a fixture on the bestseller lists, Díaz didn’t produce another book for 12 years. “Even I thought I would be a writer who put something out every year,” he says now. “But that’s not how it worked out.”
However, despite the silence, his reputation, and, more surprisingly, his profile, remained strong. WhenThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – a novel about a “fat Dominican nerd, complete with Dungeons and Dragons dredged from my own nerd closet, which I’m sure my publishers wouldn’t have expected after Drown” – did emerge in 2008 it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction. This month he publishes his third book, This Is How You Lose Her, in which he returns to the characters and settings from Drown.
“There was a lot of background infidelity in Drown,” he explains. “And I knew I wanted to write another book of linked stories about the rise and fall of a cheater. I also wanted to return to the brother’s cancer. He just disappears in Drown. You never get a sense of what happens to him.” This Is How You Lose Her once again features Yunior, Díaz’s alter ego through whom he engages with the intersection of race, gender, immigration and class. Like Díaz’s brother, Yunior’s brother contracted cancer, although Díaz’s brother survived. Like Yunior, Díaz has a back problem – he constantly has to alternate between standing and sitting – as a result of delivering pool tables to pay his way through college.
“Our cancer stories are different, but what they share is a young person getting an early masterclass in mortality. I put the back problem in the very last rewrite having been working on that story for six years. It was the perfect punchline. The last piece of shit to throw on him. I furnish Yunior with a lot of my stuff so I don’t have to buy anything new and while friends of mine can see small elements of me in him, I’ve spun him a little sharper to stand out more starkly. I don’t go to his extremes of cruelty and nor do I have his Byronesque sensibilities. There is a lot of scepticism today as to whether memoir is real. But when fiction is done at a certain level there is scepticism as to whether it is really fiction.”
Díaz, like Yunior, was born in 1968 in Santa Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. His father left to work in America shortly afterwards, and the family was eventually reunited in New Jersey when Díaz, his mother and siblings – he is the third of five – emigrated in 1974. Just as Díaz’s stories straightforwardly accept that Yunior and some of his friends can be both ghetto kids and college kids – the narratives of street life are seamlessly punctuated by references to NYU, or to tenure or to Joyce classes – he says there was always “a category anxiety around me”. Two of his siblings spent time in prison, while another has gone on to become a lawyer. “I’m of African descent and my sister looks completely black, but I didn’t look black. I was the super-nerdy kid who was also willing to fight. I love comics and SF but am hopeless with technology. I am still better with a pick or shovel, even with my bad back, than I am with computers.”
He says his remarkable use of language – his Spanglish is just one example of worlds colliding – was part of an attempt to unite the various parts of himself. “I was from a very strict and conformist family, so it wasn’t even permissible to cohere between home and the streets. Then came college and so on. In artistic terms it took a lot longer to work out than it should have. There are protocols in writing that are used to simplify things. It takes a while for an artist to work out that they can be broken. One of the contradictions of America’s insane capitalism is that you will meet people like me who have lived in three or four worlds. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that I’m straight and male, but I never saw any value in sealing off my background. I was critical, but I never felt one of the options was to entirely reject it. But it did take a long time for me to talk to my friends at home about the kind of books I read and the kind of politics I was interested in at college. It also took a long time for me to take my home into this larger and more intellectual world.”
At Rutgers in the late 80s and early 90s, both at college and in various bluecollar jobs, including in a steelworks, Díaz was exposed to leftwing politics around race – South Africa and the LA riots – and gender. “It was perfect for me. My father was a pro-dictatorship Dominican who fought on the side of the Americans during the invasion, but even as a kid I was super-left, although it was all a bit messed up and I was also homophobic as hell. I’m still politically radical, unfortunately. My students” – he teaches at MIT – “think it’s hilarious. They find my leftwing ideas quaint and charming and want to have a picture taken next to me.”
While class and race politics were more visibly to the fore in Drown, This Is How You Lose Her is more obviously informed by feminist ideas. “I grew up in a very segregated masculine world and I became fascinated by the way we represent ourselves in public. The disconnect between who we said we were and who we really were. There is nothing sadder than a 40 or 50-year-old man struggling with a mask that they have to be tough and constantly aggressive. I modelled Yunior’s struggle on my earlier self in that it wasn’t until my late 20s that I began to realise ‘this shit doesn’t work’. Over the 16 years this book took to write I always pictured this image of Yunior having this terrible metal mask that he is trying to tear off his face, all the while not sure whether he still has a face underneath it.”
He claims if you are a straight man, the litmus test of your humanity is your relationship with women. The omnipresent infidelity in the book follows Yunior from childhood, when he was dragged along on his father’s “pussy runs”, to his 40s, and the consequences of his own broken relationships take their toll. “The entire culture leads us towards dehumanising women in our imaginations. I and my male friends could not have been as fucked-up in our relationships, or done the things we did in our relationships, if we felt that women were truly human. Because once you empathise that they are indeed human, you become incapable of hurting them. There is nothing that makes you think twice about fighting so much as getting your face broken. Yunior gets a romantic face-breaker and begins to understand what he has been doing throughout his adult life.” Díaz says he is unsure whether Yunior will return – “I write so darn slowly it’s difficult to say” – but while the next book will definitely not be about him, “I would want to write a more traditional novel about his crazy life.”
Since the long hiatus after Drown, Díaz says he has become more comfortable with his pace of working. “I put way too much pressure on myself for a while. It’s easy to self-dramatise, but after Drown I went through so many relationships, so many apartments and so much fucking liquor. What a dick! But eventually you calm down.” And, in hindsight, he sees value in the long wait. “I know good things made it into Oscar Wao that simply wouldn’t have come up if I’d been able to write it in six months. It does take time to see things properly.”
He says as a kid there were so many secrets in his family that he became attuned to looking beneath the surface of things. “For instance we didn’t know that one of our siblings was a half-sibling, but we did know that something was up. That was good training – to be in a family where you really had to keep your ears and eyes open. Then you go into the world and you see secrets everywhere in plain sight.”
His next book will be a “monster, zombie, alien invasion story that my sister might read. Having a reader in mind is just a way of setting the bar high and hoping they give good marks. In this case my sister will be holding up the cards. She is a very smart person who doesn’t like bullshit, so I’m trying to do something straightforward that is also intense and funny.”
As to the wider state of fiction he acknowledges a declining readership and that writers do not have the same general appeal they had 30 years ago. “Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer would be on the Johnny Carson just talking about their new novels. Now you can only get on Jon Stewart if you talk about an issue raised in your novel. Spaces for contemplation and deliberation have been greatly reduced. Most people don’t spend two or three hours thinking or reading. Books seem to be artefacts from a slower time.”
But as an editor on the Boston Review, encouraging fiction submissions from young writers, he declares himself hopeful. “Books are surviving in this intense, fragmented, hyper-accelerated present, and my sense and hope is that things will slow down again and people will want more time for a contemplative life. There is no way people can keep up this pace. No one is happy. Two or three hours to read should not be an unattainable thing, although I hope we get to that stage without needing a corporate sponsored app to hold our hand. The utopian in me has my fingers crossed that we haven’t quite figured out the digital future just yet. After all, the one thing we know about people: they always surprise.”
For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/31/life-in-books-junot-diaz?newsfeed=true