“I was so used to the life I led; I understood its layouts, its gravities, its physics, its weather. Then suddenly you enter this other realm of experience. This world is so completely new, that I find myself having a strange immigrant relationship to it. I’m not at all at ease.
“I’m cautious about what I do inside this world. I’m still so conscious and self-conscious that I’m waiting for the moment to be able to slip back into my normal world.”
Junot Diaz is speaking about his induction into the world of literary success, but he could just as easily be narrating the quintessential immigrant experience.
Diaz is intimately familiar with what it is like to be an immigrant. Born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, his family immigrated to the United States – specifically, New Jersey – when he was six. Issues of migration, belonging, and identity thrum beneath the surface of almost all his works, even though he claims “most of my work is about being a bad boyfriend and being a bad son!”
In his two collections of short stories, Drown (1996) and This Is How You Lose Her (2012), as well as his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao (2007), the 48-year-old Diaz weaves stories that are at once personal and expansive.
(See Star2‘s Booked Out column on The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao here.)
If on the one hand they display the complex politics of being a part of the Dominican diaspora in the United States, on the other they revel in the author’s nerdom with their comic book heroes and sci-fi references.
‘Novels Are A Relationship’
During our interview at the Singapore Writers Festival earlier this month, where Diaz was one of the headliners, he talks about the challenge of writing stories on immigrant or minority communities that received mainstream attention in the Western publishing world.
“We’re not considered accessible. With our strange names and strange countries of origin and strange practices, we’re considered these bizarre, exotic mysteries that perhaps some people are interested in, but not the mainstream. We seem to evoke in the mainstream mind this daunting complexity, this ominous otherness.
“And literary fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s not easy to read. But if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that people will follow you anywhere if you create characters that are in the kinds of trouble that makes sense to people,” he says.
And yet, the writer hat is one he wears rather uncomfortably.
“I wish I was much more normal when it came to my literary work; I wrote my first collection because I found that I could not avoid it anymore. For most people, writing is something they love and are always looking for more time to do. For me, it’s the thing I wish to escape the most from.
“I happen to have a talent for writing, but it’s something that causes me no end of bother. I guess I ran out of excuses when I wrote the first book.”
The success of Oscar Wao, he says, made him even more avoidant about his next project.
“It’s strange to be the kind of writer who writes best when they’re being ignored. I write best when everything in my life is completely quiet. The problem with having all this wonderful success is that when you’re being applauded, nothing in your life is quiet. I have to wait for all of it to die down so that I can get back to the hard work of avoiding writing – which will eventually lead me to writing.”
While he is busy avoiding writing – “I move so damn slow, if I were a colonial power, I’d be undone centuries ago. Nimble, I am not!” – Diaz’s next published work is a bit of a surprise: a picture book titled Islandborn, illustrated by Leo Espinosa.
Born from a two-decades-old promise he made to his goddaughters to write a picture book that featured Dominican girls like them, Islandborn also deals with themes like immigration and multiculturalism.
Eventually, Diaz hopes to write another novel.
“I find short stories less difficult than novels and profoundly less satisfying. Short stories are like a wonderful date that you never get a call back from, whereas novels are a relationship; and even if they go badly, there’s something very satisfying about it.
“I was supposed to do another novel like, 10 years ago. So I kind of have to go back to being a novelist again somehow. I think I’m worried about that.”
‘I Long To Be Understood’
The self-deprecating tone he takes when talking about his writing evaporates, though, when our conversation turns to civic engagement.
A vocal advocate of immigrant rights and marginalised groups, Diaz is active in the Dominican-American community and is co-founder of the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, which aims to encourage writers of colour.
“I’m better at serving others than I am at serving myself,” he says.
“Individualism seems very exhausting. My own parts that are individualistic, are so oppressive, such encumbrances. Every time I find myself interested in me, I want to vomit on myself!”
The Donald Trump era of American politics has only convinced him more than ever in the importance of individuals participating in civil society.
“People are always talking about how democracies are really fragile, that the social contract that binds us together is more fragile still.
“And Trump has shown how many people in multiple communities are susceptible to racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric. And how many members of the targeted communities are absolutely delighted to wallow in these dangerous rhetorics.
“All of us are caught in a racial oppression matrix, all of us are participating, often as victims and perpetrators at the same time.
“This is, in fact, part of the warp and woof of a society like the Dominican Republic or the United States. It is a system, and therefore it is difficult for people to recognise, and there is enormous payout for people to pretend it does not exist. That all of us are involved in it, is what makes this so disturbing.”
Talking to Diaz, it becomes too easy to think of him as the living embodiment of the kind of displacement and identity struggles he writes about: the child of immigrants, the reluctant literary superstar, the advocate for change.
But like the superheroes he so loves from his comic book worlds, each of these are but parts of a larger whole, and like a secret identity, it is in the other, lesser-known self that he finds respite.
“In my normal world, none of my friends are writers or are interested in writing, and I can be a bigger part of who I am without being a writer. I can be understood more complexly.
“When I’m only understood as a writer, it’s difficult, because it’s such a narrow part of who I am. Like you’re used to dancing or running, and you find yourself in two ankle boots strapped to a wheelchair. And I long to be understood as someone who doesn’t have a couple of books in front of them.”
Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic in 1968, and spent his early years living with his grandmother and mother while his father worked in the United States. The family was re-united when Diaz, his mother, and his four siblings (he’s the third child) emigrated to the United States and joined his father in the state of New Jersey.
Diaz developed a love for reading early in life – one story that often comes up is about Diaz walking four miles to the public library to borrow books when he still in primary school.
He completed a BA in English at Rutgers University in 1992 and worked as an editorial assistant at Rutger’s University Press before pursuing an MFA from Cornell University. He currently teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the fiction editor at the Boston Review; he is also a frequent contributor to The New Yorker magazine.
He is active in the Dominican American community and is a founding member of the Voices of Our Nation arts foundation, which helps writers of colour. Diaz lives with paranormal romance writer Marjorie Liu and splits his time between Boston and New York City.
He published his first collection of short stories, Drown, in 1996; he then discovered that he’s a slow writer – it took him 11 years to publish a new book! But The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, which came out in 2007, was worth the wait, as it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The family saga is said to be based partially on Diaz’s own experiences growing up as an immigrant in New Jersey.
This Is How Your Lose Her, another collection of short stories, came out in 2012 to critical acclaim. Diaz describes the collection as being “a tale about a young man’s struggle to overcome his cultural training and inner habits in order to create lasting relationships….
“He finally gains, after much suffering, a true human imaginary. Something that for the average guy is very difficult to obtain, considering that most of us are socialized to never imagine women as fully human.” (“The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Junot Diaz”, The Rumpus, 2012.)
This Is How You Lose Her was a finalist for America’s top book awards, the National Book Award for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
His next book, an illustrated children’s book called Islandborn, is scheduled to be published in March next year.
Over the years, Diaz has been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award.
A poll of US critics in January 2015 named The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao as “the best novel of the 21st century to date” (The Guardian). In February this year, Diaz was formally inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. – Wikipedia/IMDB.com/The Guardian/Global Times