Q&A: Junot Diaz on writing, Yunior and books that make him angry

The DP sat down to pick the Pulitzer Prize winner's brains on his work

· November 28, 2012, 2:06 am

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Junot Diaz, best known for his 2007 prize-winning novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” spoke with Daily Pennsylvanian reporter Shoshana Akabas before he spoke as part of the Penn Humanities Forum Tuesday night. The gamut ran from the author’s thoughts on his characters to the writers who influenced him in his college years.

Daily Pennsylvanian: If someone asked you to describe your writing style and what your books are about, what would you tell them?

Junot Diaz: That’s a good question. I guess I would have to say my writing style is … I think of it as a disobedient child of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic if that can be possibly imagined with way too much education. You can never do it justice. It’s sort of like describing a kiss versus having a kiss. To read the book is to have it.

DP: Your book recommendations are all over the map, from Dexter Palmer’s “The Dream of Perpetual Motion,” to Anjana Appachana’s “Incantations,” and Krys Lee’s “Drifting House,” to Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars.” How would you describe your reading tastes? Do you make a point to read things that are outside of your genre?

JD: Yeah, but in my mind they’re all connected to the fact that they’re fucking good and that they feel incredibly honest. But I guess those are meaningless generalities outside of my own head. I guess I don’t know what my genres are because I keep discovering new kinds of books to enjoy. I never realized that I love anthropology as much as I have the last three or four years. I read a lot of economic theory. I didn’t know I liked economic theory. I seem to be pretty omnivorous.

DP: You’re still discovering new areas that you’re interested in?

JD: Yeah, That’s what it seems to be. I don’t know. I mean sure there’s tons of shit I don’t know. I’m not interested in religious tracts.

DP: Yet?

JD: Yeah, yet.

DP: A few years ago, writer Yann Martel started a campaign to send biweekly books to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, to get him to read more. One of the books he sent was “Drown.” What is the value of politicians — or anyone who is not firmly rooted in humanities — reading fiction?

JD: It doesn’t seem to do anything. I admire and applaud the gesture and at the heart of that gesture is the great hopefulness of art: that art will make a person or a community more humane. And by humane, I mean, in the most traditional sense, more human, but a nerd like me can’t help but think about “Heart of Darkness” [a novel by Joseph Conrad] where being the universal genius and being the best-read person didn’t stop Kurtz, and, in fact, may have empowered Kurtz to become the genocidal lunatic he is. There’s a lot of argument to be said that culture doesn’t in fact do what we want it to do when someone’s mind-set is already inhuman, you know? Sometimes it creates a justification for that inhumanity, by lending the person the sheen of civilization.

DP: So what helps Oscar see “the beauty, the beauty” at the end of “Oscar Wao”?

JD: I believe as much in the hope of literature as the hope of art. That there’s transformation. I think citizens seem to be more readily transformed than political leaders. So I guess for me when I think about Oscar’s transformation, his transformation is the realization that — and it in some way reflects his openness — the realization that he has is that what he really longed for in the end is intimacy and not sex. Most of us, I think it takes a long time to realize the errors of our patterns, but Oscar sort of gets it on the first go. He’s very open-minded. I like that about him.

DP: Has Yunior, the main character in most of your writing, taken steps to do that?

JD: I mean, my last book argues that he has, possibly. The book raises the possibility at the end that he has, but it’s really up to the reader to decide that or not. It’s nice to empower the reader with the final decision as to the disposition of your characters’ transformations. The reader is empaneled to be the judge, and I prefer it that way. I was talking to a woman just now in a class and she was like, ‘This book made me so angry. I am still so angry at this book.’ She’s like, ‘I am so angry. I haven’t read a book that made me this angry in a long time.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s a possibility too. And you’re empaneled now. What is your judgement?’ And I think we can guess.

DP: What books have made you angry recently?

JD: Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” I think it’s probably one of the best fucking books of non-fiction we’ve had in a decade. I mean, who thought a little waif-thin white woman could produce such an extraordinary document about the third world. I mean, my god. That book just drove me really up the wall. What else? … Oh, a book called “Cruel Optimism,” … a book about the contradictory nature of what is it about the identity of people, what is it about people’s willingness to believe that consumer culture can provide answers, can provide transformation beyond all reasonable proof that it cannot. This book is an extraordinary document about how this idea of people’s cruel optimism, human’s ability to be optimistic in some ways imprisons them in the face of the kind of post-modern stage of capital we’re in right now, and it’s a really frightening and infuriating book. Talk about anthropology.

DP: Do your characters face that issue?

JD: Some people. I mean, the thing is that this is a larger argument about the way the world works. So, I would argue that Lola’s mother, Belicia, really believes that if she finds the right man and gets a certain amount of money, that’s going to allow her to transcend all the historical weight and all the historical consequences of her life. I think she’s the perfect example, in a small sense, of what’s going on in that book.

DP: Going back to Yunior, in an interview with Gregg Barrios at the LA Review of Books, you mentioned that, to understand Yunior, the reader has to consider his personal history. What from Yunior’s history do you think ultimately leads to his trouble with women later in life?

JD: I think it’s not so simplistically determined. We’ve got to remember, we’re not writing parables. Parables lead to one-to-one correspondence, but I think what one should take into account is what the book, at least the last book, makes explicitly clear is, uh, let’s see: He has a father who despises him, a mother who thinks of him as basically just an adjunct to his older brother. He has an older brother who is a great danger to him, in fact, an older brother who is rather cavalier and I don’t think would lose any sleep if he accidentally murdered his brother.

DP: On Yunior’s relationship with Rafa: that was central in “Drown” and it’s also a big part of “This is How You Lose Her.” It seems like in that relationship, maybe more than others, we see two sides of Yunior in a very compressed space. There’s the caring side of Yunior when he checks up on his brother, and the rough side and they’re in the space of a single paragraph. Can you talk about that relationship and how his brother brings out those two sides?

JD: I mean, he loves somebody who doesn’t like him. What’s the difference between Yunior and a lot of the women that Yunior ends up dating except that he takes over his brother’s position? Yunior loves his father, his father despises him. He loves his brother and his brother doesn’t give a fuck about maiming him. He is incredibly loyal to people who loath him, and yet, the people who actually care about him deeply, he’s incapable of mustering up that loyalty for. And so I think that he’s just like many of us. He’s an incredibly complex character. We often long for things and then are incapable of practicing them in other contexts.

DP: Does that relationship change when Rafa gets sick?

JD: I mean, other than Yunior’s feeling even before the brother’s dead, with grieving the brother, I mean, nothing like death to change you. I think Yunior gets changed. As long as his brother was around, he was his brother. When his brother disappeared, I think Yunior is left poking at the ashes, saying ‘What the fuck was this? Why, why why?’

DP: I understand that what you’re currently working on is the first thing that’s not directly narrated by Yunior. Do you miss Yunior?

JD: Not really.

DP: What’s it like to change narrators after so many years?

JD: He’s always been a tough one to write about. He’s not loquacious, and he’s not forthcoming, and he obscures. So, for me, he’s always been incredibly hard material. So, it’s what it is. He needs a rest, and I could try to find a narrator who might be a little more forthcoming, a little bit more prolix, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

DP: Here at Penn this semester, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is being taught in a class on the dictator novel. How does Oscar Wao work or not work as a dictator novel, being taught next to Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Feast of the Goat,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch”?

JD: I think this novel, in my mind, posits dictatorship as a normative part of the continuum of authority, and I think the dictatorship novel often sees dictatorship as something apart, as something abnormal, as there’s something wrong with the world, there’s something very special about it. But I think this is a novel that literally says: What’s the real big difference between New Jersey and the Trujillato? And that’s a fucking weird claim to make. That is a very, very weird claim to make.

DP: And it sort of goes along with the parallel between Yunior and Trujillo, and being a narrator and being a dictator.

JD: Certainly, and it’s also what is it about masculinity? Why is it that so many of us live in dictatorships at home and in our relationship, but we draw the line at social and status dictatorships. There’s something really fucking weird about our willingness to alter: these really fucked up, asymmetrical power relationships.

DP: There was a lot of excitement on campus for this talk and your writing has certainly struck a chord with college-age readers. What did you read in college that was influential, and if you could make one book required reading for all college students, what would it be?

JD: I think for me the transformational reading experience in college was a series of U.S, third world, women, feminist writers — we’re talking about Audre Lorde, we’re talking about Gloria Anzaldua, we’re talking about Cherrie Moraga, we’re talking about Bell Hooks — we’re talking about a group of women writers, all of them feminists, most of them gay, all of them women of color, writing at a point in time where they were making extraordinary interventions about sexuality, about gender, about white supremacy, about patriarchy, and about love and freedom, that, for me, in some ways created the road map for myself as an artist and myself as a civic person, as an activist, as someone involved in the community. And I think the body of work that was being created at that time by that group of women would be incredibly valuable, and would be incredibly useful.

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