All Over The Island
an interview with Junot Diaz
by George Ducker
The votes are in and everyone’s already grumbling about who won the Pulitzers. We’re not grumbling at all. With prizes going to Tracy Letts for August, Osage County and Junot Diaz for The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, it appears that things do turn out for the best sometimes. Below, enjoy an interview with Diaz. We spoke to him by phone in-between repair calls from the people at the Mac store. A portion of this interview appeared, in slightly different form, on the pages of Metromix Los Angeles.
Although the language in “Oscar Wao” comes of as brief and free-associative, you’re proudly an extensive revisionist. How do you deal with re-writing a novel multiple times?
I find myself doing a tremendous amount of re-writing because I want a text to work—at least for me—in an interesting way on a certain number of levels. Yeah, I guess I enjoy the fact that a book like Oscar Wao should feel rather raw and rough, but what lies beneath ends up as an artifact of tremendous deliberation. How does the language work, how do the sentences work? Do the characters fall into line? You can get characters wrong in your head and not be aware of it by being inattentive. It’s like failing your characters through sheer laziness.
But in the end, there’s a story that you have to tell. And the character has to be folded to fit the story. There’s a relationship between the sort of depth of character and how your narrative unfolds. When I first started writing, I just thought it was just like, putting some language together and throw in some interesting words….
It’s just a short story, right? 5 pages. 10 pages and you’re done…
Yeah. (Laughs) You begin to realize that things are not what they seem.
diaz at cornell
You’ve said that the act of immigrating to a different country is comparable with science fiction stories.
I don’t think that folks collectively have a good grasp of what it means. Living in the US, we don’t really understanding what it means for a child to be able to leave the Third World and be miraculously transported to the First. How does a child’s mind grasp that? How does an adult’s mind grasp that? How do you square these worlds?
How would you define a Third World experience vs. a First World experience?
I don’t know. I think about how many of these kids are coming over. These poor kids who were child soldiers and were somehow brought over to the US. It’s like, “Come to our high school! Think about prom! Want to try out for the football team?!” So I guess my feeling is that, Okay, we’re talking an enormous leap, but how in the world do you describe how enormous that leap is? You can describe the world that you left behind and the world you’ve arrived in, but that still doesn’t get at what the distances are between those two worlds. Juxtaposing one to the other doesn’t really do the job of communicating how a person must make these enormous imaginative leaps.
diaz' interview with newsweek
In A Wrinkle in Time, they show a diagram of how a tesseract works. With the ant and the long piece of string. The ant crawls across much faster when the ends are pushed together. But there's all this extra that's hanging in the middle.
That’s a perfect example. In realistic fiction, I don’t think the tool for describing these kinds of leaps are plentiful. But, in genre fiction, writers are always trying to describe what it’s like to leap worlds. The feeling of leaping time, of leaping bodies. So the narrative tools that one might need to describe such a large shift in experience like, say, being a child solider and then showing up at a Wisconsin High School—I think that for me the analogues are found more clearly in genre fiction than they are in realistic fiction.
In terms of genre fiction, are you getting to do any reading for pleasure?
I’ve have been reading tremendously. I’m sort of recovering from book-novel-whatever… right now, I’m reading this book called THEREFORE REPENT! (Laughs)
Does it have an exclamation mark at the end?
What’s it about?
It’s completely nuts. Of course you haven’t heard of it. It’s by a guy named Jim Monroe and it’s put out by a small press. It’s a book about what if the rapture actually happened, and that’s all I’m gonna tell you.
Tell me you’ve got a genre story you’re working on. Something sci-fi or fantasy.
I’m trying to, man. But God knows… That’s the thing. I always think that God knows…I never have any idea whether I can actually write anything. I do want to write something like that, but it’s been harder to get it together than I thought it would be. And by hard, I just mean my own ability to pull everything together.
Genre or not, you’re an extremely slow writer.
Does it come from going back to do the revisions, or is it just strapping yourself down to the computer?
It’s all of the above. I’m one of those folks who always thought that like, “Damn, man. I always thought this was gonna be a lot easier.” But it turns out that it certainly isn't going to be a lot easier.
Was there ever any sort of editorial pressure for you to get the book finished? It was ten years between your first collection and Oscar Wao.
Believe me, by the fourth year, Random House basically took my name off the wall. When I told them I had a book, they were like, “What? Who are you again?” It was only when they read the manuscript were they like, “Okay, we’ll re-instate your contract.” If it had sucked, they would have just said, “Sorry you’re fired.” (Laughs) You’ve gotta be honest…By eleven years, if you don’t have something going…
What were you reading while working through it?
There was a lot of fantasy stuff I had to bone up on. Things I hadn’t read since I was a kid. One guy I read tremendously was Alexander Key. He’s the guy that wrote the Witch Mountain Books. See, in the 70s Disney made these movies: Return From Witch Mountain and Escape To Witch Mountain. I was reading those books and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy but I was definitely obsessing over Salman Rushdie the way that he used multiple South Asian languages to strengthen his narrative. I was also obsessed with the Caribbean writer Patrick Chamoiseau, who wrote the novel Texaco. If you look at Texaco. It’s all there. The way he dealt with Caribbean history—his use of footnotes drew me into that method of telling a story.
Was it presented from a factual standpoint?
No no . He’s another one who has all sorts of weird shit going on…(Laughs) It’s one of my favorite books.
I was also thinking about Salvador Plascencia. Did you guys ever run into each other at Syracuse?
I was a faculty member when he was studying there. But I actually was away…We’d never had a class together.
Who is Elizabeth de Leon?
Where’d you meet?
We’ve known each other since we were kids. From New York State. I say kids, but I mean, like when we were in college?
How did you all meet?
We were doing community work. Typical. (Laughs) We were being community activists together.
Do you get back to Santo Domingo often?
I was just there last week. My family’s all over the island. I’ve got some folks in the capitol, some folks in Santiago. Some folks who travel back and forth from the US to the Dominican Republic.
"All the Tired Horses (Bob Dylan cover)" - Narrator (mp3)
"Coming Back to You" - Martin Gore (mp3)
"Big Red Rose" - Golden Animals (mp3)
With yourself, do you wish to dispel the rarefied nature of being a writer?
Oh my god, yeah. Artists. I thought that being an artist, you could get away from the snobbish hierarchies that you learn in school. Then I became an artist and realized that nobody’s more snobbish or hierarchical than artists. And that’s what the heartbreak was. I was a hopeful nerd. I didn’t think it was going to be just like that.
I love books too much, man. I’m a reader before I’m a writer. A lot of my friends are like, “I would die if I didn’t write.” Well, I don’t know about that, but I’ll tell you what. I know I would die if I couldn’t read. (Sighs) I don’t know, man. “Reading is the greatest,” he said cornily.
In the book, Oscar says at one point, “If we were Orcs wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like Elves?”
The one thing about fantasy and genre books is that characters tend to be quite clearly defined. The bad guys are all swarthy and dark and monstrous and the good guys are all fair and tall and ethereally pale. Beyond just the white supremacist fantasy, there’s a deeper complexity that gets left out of those stereotypes. If you look at the United States, one side definitely imagines themselves to be the good guys: the Elves. As for the other side, they’re wondering how these people can face themselves in the mirror. All I can tell you is that if Sauron had to pick a country, he would swiftly and happily pick the United States.
Have you gotten any complaints from women about the way females are sometimes treated in your stories? I’m thinking specifically of “Alma,” which came out in the New Yorker over Christmas.
Well, of course there’s been plenty of criticisms. People say that they’re troubled by these representations. That they’re sexist. That they’re perpetuating the very thing that they claim to be criticizing. As a writer, of course, you’re going to immediately react “NO! That is not true!” You know? But in the end you have to wrestle with it. You have to suffer those kinds of criticisms. You’ve gotta cross your fingers and hope that what you’re doing is as feminist-positive as you think it is. I have to believe in my heart that what I write is critical of this kind of mentality, in a productive way.
To succeed in anything, you’ve got to imagine and accept the possibility that you will fail beyond your wildest imagination. Otherwise, if you’re not taking any risks…if people tell me that they’re not sexist, well then I say, “You didn’t take any risk in your books because you were worried about being sexist?” Because if you took some risks then there’s a good chance that, at least to some people, that you fell on your fucking face. That’s the logic in my head. I’m not sure if it applies to anyone else.
diaz & ursula k. leguin
Any tips for up-and-coming writers? Other than to go to college and take your class?
Oh man. I don’t think anyone…especially a dumbass like me…I feel like that one of the things that’s occurring is that we’re developing more writers than readers. It’s interesting because just in the nature of the sort of programmatic nature of MFAs…As writers, if we’re not reading colossally, how do we expect our practice to survive? I know so many writers who don’t read. Yet they expect there to be an audience for them. It seems such an unusual thing. I want to shake people and tell them to read, man. If we’re not doing it, then why would anyone else do it? I always tell students in my class that, Yes, working very hard will help you. But nothing will help you quite like reading.
George Ducker is the senior contributor to This Recording. He lives in Los Angeles.
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