Ilk and Cookies
A brief and wondrous interview with Junot Díaz.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Junot Díaz is the “It Kid” in literature today. The author of the 1996 short story collection Drown, he was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead). The novel chronicles the journey of an overweight, sci-fi loving, Lord of the Rings-obsessed, first-generation Dominican-American whose hopes as a writer are crushed by his inability to find love (or even a little action).
Did you have to do extensive “fanboy” research, or was this book pulled from your own knowledge and experience?
Both. Certainly there was a lot of indigenous knowledge from my childhood, but I also pulled a bunch of stuff, I had to read a bunch of books to re-familiarize myself. I wasn’t attempting to be comprehensive or authoritative. I was interested in what an individual’s tastes would look like.
What books or comics captivated you as a kid?
I feel like I have to answer that with a caveat. We were real active as kids, so comic books were kind of disposable. We didn’t obsess over anything. I used to read Fantastic Four; that was a comic book I liked. But, in the end … it would give you the wrong impression that we were more interested in comics than being outside.
What, then, was the seed for Oscar’s character?
That’s very complicated. It’s like making a monster. The interesting thing about a monster is you take an aspect of human beings and deform it and amplify it. The way these things work is that he’s an entirely invented character. You don’t really know where in the world these guys come from.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
I used to write very long letters to my brother. He had cancer and would be in the hospital for long periods of time.
Did you start writing fiction after that?
No, no. I didn’t start writing anything worth the name of fiction until I was in college.
So it’s safe to say you didn’t grow up with the ambition to write?
My ambition was to always live a life of books. I always wanted books to somehow be a part of my life, you know?
Yeah, I do. You’re a professor of creative writing at MIT, and for the last 20 years or so, there’s been a re-evaluation of the canon, of what works become canonical. Is there someone you’d advocate being removed from the canon, and someone else you’d recommend who’s not being studied as much?
Yeah, but I don’t know why I have to hurt someone to encourage someone else. That’s not the way my mind works.
For me, it’s not the idea that we need less books but that we need more books. The canon is something that we all argue with, and we all want to see something more inclusive. But myself, I scarcely feel qualified to be the one wielding the knife. I love many writers who don’t have the respect they deserve. Two of the writers that I think are monumental, and no one reads them enough, are Samuel R. Delany and Francisco Goldman. I think you cannot have a grasp of American letters unless you’re familiar with both of their oeuvres.
Why do you think they’ve been overlooked?
Again, I don’t know. What can one say? Should I ascribe sinister motives, failure of vision on the part of the audiences? I’m more just like, that’s the situation, now I gotta figure out a way to make motherf***ers read these books. The fate of being an artist is that most great artists are typically not appreciated in their period. I mean, it’s a pretty old, clichéd saying, but it’s pretty damn true. It’s not as if the present has any sense of what could be useful for the future. And some writers are just at a level that I think scares us.
Is it that we, as an audience, often need the benefit of time to see writers’ visions as valid?
I think sometimes we’re caught up on the wrong thing. We’re so busy clapping the latest prancing pony that we forget what’s really important is occurring behind the sensational.
Do you feel like you’re the latest prancing pony?
I don’t think I can judge. The future will judge us all. To attempt to abrogate the power that the future has … it’s beyond even my own narcissistic arrogance.
Have you ever considered writing a history of the Dominican Republic?
Ah, naw. I’m better at lying. I don’t really like dealing with fact. History requires a certain amount of precision that I lack. I tend to feel more comfortable with the sloppy recesses of the human heart.