Ronreads interview: Junot Diaz

Unless you guys have been living under a rock lately, you probably all know that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz was in town recently for the second Manila International Literary Festival organized by the National Book Development Board and co-presented by National Book Store.

Getting to interview him for my newspaper job wasn’t just a big honor, it was also stressful beyond belief. See, I have this thing of melting down right in front of really established foreign writers. Since I know that these authors have done a lot of interviews before, I try to think of the most unique question that I can – which really just end up in disaster, as evidenced by my interview with Neil Gaiman.

For this interview, I tried not to do too much research lest I end up psyching myself out like I did with Neil Gaiman. Aside from reading “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and a lengthy interview he did with the Harvard Advocate in 2009, I pretty much tried to go into the interview with as clean a slate as possible.

I don’t really know if that worked out in my favor or if it relaxed me any, because I was still very, very nervous on the day itself. If it weren’t for the fact that Junot was such a nice guy and such an enthusiastic speaker, I feel like I would have made quite an ass out of myself yet again.

Anyway, under the cut is the complete transcript of my interview with him, while you can find the article I wrote for the newspaper here. And if you guys stick around, I might even announce a little giveaway later on!

For the record: Junot Diaz is a really, really nice guy.

(This interview happened on Nov. 14.)

RONREADS (RR): Anything you’re looking forward to see here in the Philippines?

JUNOT DIAZ (JD): I’ve been waiting to come to Manila since I moved to New Jersey. I grew up with Filipinos, fucking Pinoys are crazy! I plan to see everything I can in the short time. I’m going to come back I’ll tell you that. I want to fucking come back! It’s bananas!

RR: Have you tried balut (fertilized duck egg)?

JD: I tried that in California! God, it’s terrible! I’m not going to try it here, I already tried it once (laughs)! I guess it’s one of those foods that you have to grow up on. It’s like in Japan where they kept trying to feed me nato, which is a crazy-tasting thing. The Japanese loved it.

RR: Have you been able to look at some of the writing of the Filipino authors here?

JD: Mostly from the Diaspora. I’ve read ‘Ilustrado’. The thing about this festival is I have an extra suitcase to bring my books home. I’m nerdy like that.

My sense of it is that the Philippines has a long literary tradition, and yet I really have the sense that the best is yet to come. I still think that there is a hundred million voices here whose work is going to be indispensable literature. The same is true for those in the diaspora. This is an enormously rich important, symbolic, and human country. You can see it everywhere. There is so much young people. The best is yet to come.

RR: What’s the best place you’ve been so far?

JD: I went on that brilliant young activist’s tour, Carlos Celdran. I went on his tour, the Intramuros Tour. It felt like we were talking about another chapter of Dominican history. Fundamentally traumatic, fundamentally terrible. Speaks of how difficult it’s been for us to survive this far.

RR: Did you really start writing because you wrote your brother long letters when he was sick with leukemia?

JD: I think it’s an easy answer. But the more that I reflect the more obvious it becomes that it was just an excuse. What really sort of pulled me into being a writer was the fact that I am a tireless readers. Even if my brother had never gotten sick, I would have eventually found my way to writing, simply because I loved to read so much. Would I become always a writer? I don’t know. I think it’s a mystery how we get where we are. I think it’s like a really bad science fiction time travel story. One little change and we’re utterly different. But it’s books, books, my endless love of books that I blame most for this writing.

RR: Where did that love for reading come from?

JD: I think it’s just being an immigrant kid in the United States trying to figure it out, alone, not being able to speak the language, everyone making fun of me because I was of color, from another country, that I wasn’t able to speak in English.

You gotta remember that we didn’t have the internet, cable, satellite or cellphones. We didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, or any of that crap. We were fucking alone. And if you want to know anything about the world, you had to access a newspaper, or you had to access books. And I wanted to explain how the fuck did I get from the Dominican Republic to Jersey. I wanted to explain who the fuck am I. And equally important, I wanted to explain what the fuck is the United States.

It’s a lot more complicated than you think, especially if you didn’t have years of preparation watching TV. There was no TV in Santo Domingo. We did not have a television. I never saw the United States before I arrived. That’s not true now. My Dominican cousins know more about the United States than I do. Books were an answer, they were a source of inspiration, a source of safety, and a source of comfort. I loved that in books I felt safe and I felt confident.

RR: Did you start out writing in Spanish?

JD: No, I learned to read and write in English. I had my American Thomasite experience.

RR: Was the language you used to write ever an issue?

JD: Of course it was. Even if English was the official language, I lived in Spanish. What do you do with that? You wrestle with it. The fact is I don’t have any answer to the question of Spanish or English. But my constant search for an answer has produced my writing.

RR: I ask because choosing to write in English or Filipino is a debate we’ve been having here in the country as well.

JD: Sure. When people tell me that they speak Filipino, I think “Does that mean Tagalog?” Why is Tagalog called Filipino? I thought it was just one group! I can imagine that being difficult.

RR: Reading “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”, you’ve come up with a way of using English and Spanish in a way that’s entirely you. When did you make that decision to not care whether to use English or Spanish but use them both?

JD: There’s different sorts of approaches. You can throw yourself to the winds and hope it works. You always have to throw yourself to the winds. But before I throw myself to the winds I like to know what it is I’m doing. You should ask yourself how well do you understand your languages. I have an obsessive understanding of English and an obsessive understanding, to a degree, of Spanish. I had a really strong sense of how much intrusion each could bear. How much Spanish can English bear? How much English can Spanish bear? I think by experimenting and by reflecting and reading in both languages, I was able to develop, to an extent, what you can do to a language to change it but keep it still recognizable as itself.

RR: So you wouldn’t call yourself a purist?

JD: I don’t think my books could ever argue purity. There’s no way a place like the Dominican Republic, and by extension the Philippines, should ever have any interest in purity, and yet we’re obsessed with it. It’s always the people that are most mixed that are most obsessed.

RR: Your first book was “Drown”, a collection of short stories. At which point did you decide that you were ready to tackle novels?

JD: I actually started writing novels first. But all my novels sucked. I really wanted to write novels, and I was trying, but they sucked, I’ll tell you that.

RR: When you were writing “Oscar Wao” did you have any idea that it was going to be a special book? Or was it just another book for you?

JD: No. It wasn’t just another book, it was my novel, but by the end of it I was like, “Fuck. You.” I never wanted to see that book again. For me, it was like the girlfriend that burned my house down, took all my money, who stole my child, and I never saw them again. Fuck. You. I hated this book, man (laughs). I just hated it!

RR: Were you surprised at the success of “Oscar Wao”?

JD: I was surprised that anybody read it (laughs)! I gotta tell you, I was shellshocked. After finishing that book, I was crazy. It was very, very gratifying that the book was received by the readership as warmly as it did. But I don’t know if that changes anything. In the end, this book and I had a very uneasy relationship.

RR: Even until now? Or have you come to terms with it?

JD: I’ve come to terms with it. I hope to God I never wake up to it again! We can tolerate each other but I’m not sure we’re friends. We’re like Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

RR: You had to balance several jobs while you were writing. What made you persevere and not just give up?

JD: That’s like the inner mystery. Do you have enough love and do you have enough strength? I’m not a particularly strong person, I’m actually kind of weak. I make so many mistakes, I’ve made so many errors, I’ve thrown my career away a couple of times.

Probably, strength is the wrong word. Do you have enough love, do you have enough perseverance, and it turns out that I don’t have enough love or perseverance for anything but writing. I just kept fucking going. I kept going.

I look at parents who work two or three jobs for their kids. They never run out of love. Some do, they run off, right? They leave the kids. They fuck the kids up. My dad ran off, but my mom didn’t. And the question is am I gonna be my father or am I gonna be my mother when it comes to the thing I love most. And I guess I found out I’m like my mother.

But it wasn’t an easy struggle. Like most parents, you have to get up everyday to this annoying children and have to make a decision not to walk out that door and never come back. As kids, we forget about this. We think it’s normal. I don’t know if there’s any mystery. I think you have to discover if you have the perseverance and love inside and try to nurture it and be good to the love and perseverance you have because those are the muscles you need.

Junot Diaz with fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones.

RR: Were you concerned about exoticizing the Dominican Republic when you were writing “Oscar Wao”?

JD: It’s part of the conversation between the Diaspora and the folks who are at home. I think part of what happens is that it’s very difficult for the people back home to realize that they’re not the only conversation. That there’s suddenly a new set of voices involved with the conversation of what makes who we are possible. The Philippines can no more deny its diaspora than the Dominican Republic. The question is, is the Diaspora that sends all this money home, that makes all of this possible, is their point-of-view relevant? We have no problem taking their dollars. The question is do we have no problem taking their art? And again, I don’t see anybody out there saying you exoticize us, you’re always trying to talk about our poverty, that’s why you send us money. Oh no! They’re like “Yes, we’re poor. Yes, send us the money.”

I think this is a conversation we need to have. You are likely to get writers from the Diaspora exoticizing as you are writers back home trying to silence the Diaspora, trying to maintain themselves as the center of the conversation. I think both tendencies are true. Are these the only tendencies? No. I think that is a valuable discussion we need to have today. No matter how much people yell or throw stones, I think people need to talk about this. More than the bodies outside, these artists are the ones who remind us how big our Diaspora is, who remind us that we are fractured across the world. That means that other people have authority, that other people can say what they want. And man, do writers back home hate that. I can’t decide whether the people at home are more worked-up about what I write or the fact that I have the audacity to write about home.

Who doesn’t have that problem? Even with Jose Rizal! He spent too much time abroad. He’s a doctor. He wrote in Spanish. When it all comes down to it, we’re always looking to disqualify ourselves. But we’re in no rush to disqualify Americans. We’re happy! But me and you, we’re more likely to check each others passports than we are to check these idiots’ passports (points to a couple of white tourists). One of these morons could walk down the center of the worst part of town and nobody would say shit. But if me and you walk down there are we’re not from there, we’d get slapped up. I just think that this is the colonial condition. And yet I still believe this is an important discussion. Both sides of the divide can learn form each other, because there are writers who exoticize, but there are writers who don’t. If it wasn’t for Dominican writers back home, I wouldn’t write as well about the Dominican Republic.

The exoticization of the Third World is a significant deformity. If the Dominican Republic becomes a caricature, if it becomes an exotic projection of my libidinal fascination for a return to purity, that’s not literature. My thing as a writer is can I make the Dominican Republic new even for people who live back in Santo Domingo. And I gotta tell you that there are some Dominicans, not all, back home who go, “Holy shit, has this kid ever left?” And there are other people who say that I’ve exoticized them and that I don’t understand them. That’s great. I like the conversation.

The crowd at the Powerbooks event.

RR: What’s the biggest difference between readers from the Dominican Republic and the United States?

JD: It’s hard to say. It’s very hard to generalize about a society that is divided across colonial calss lines that has all sorts of cultural lines. In the Dominican Republic, you have a white-skinned, Iberiaphilic eltite who is quite different from their children whom they send abroad to the United States to study, who is quite different form the intellectuals and the writers and the poets and the artists who are not elite, who are not white, and who live in the country in Santo Domingo, who is different from the poor barrio kid who is going to college by the skin of their teeth, looking at photocopied books, who is different from the deported and the returning Dominican now living back at home. It’s hard to generalize how everybody reacts because every single division has a whole series of reactions. If one white elite tells me that he likes this book and one white elite tells me that he hates it, how do I generalize that? If two-thirds of the people you meet say you suck but one-third says you’re great, and you’ve only met 0.01 percent of the people?

For all the criticisms that I receive from the Dominican Republic, the only reason I have a career is because of Dominican folks in the Diaspora and back home from the island. I have always felt a very strong support for my project, and it is a very weird project. It’s a project that’s not meant to make anybody comfortable on any side of the split. It’s about race, self-hate, rape, and why white guys are so happy to be in these countries and why we like to make them happy. Fuck it, I’m more than happy to make mistakes and get it wrong on the way to get it right.

RR: What’s the most gratifying reaction you’ve gotten from a reader?

JD: I think the most gratifying reaction any writer can get is that someone read their book and it meant something to the reader. Before you write anything, nothing exists there, there’s nothing, and then one day you write something and suddenly there’s beauty. Not for everybody, not even for the majority, but maybe for two or three people who suddenly find that you write beautiful? That’s an amazing thing. When somebody finds that something you pulled out of the ether absolutely beautiful, that’s great.

RR: Do you have a process when you’re writing?

JD: I write early in the morning, always. If I go out in the world, I cannot write anymore. Once I’ve entered my social self, no more writing. I certainly love movie soundtracks. I play movie soundtracks when I’m writing.

RR: What was playing when you were writing “Oscar Wao”?

JD: Oh my God! Conan the Barbarian, Last of the Mohicans, Blade Runner, and the soudntrack to The Seven Samurai.

RR: You said in a Harvard Advocate interview that you’re planing on writing a black “Akira”?

JD: I’m always saying I’m going to write a black something but I really don’t have any idea.

RR: Have you heard of the “white” Akira?

JD: Yeah. The worst. The worst. I don’t even want to talk about it. The stupidest, stupidest thing.

RR: Do you have a favorite book?

JD: I deeply love books. I look back and I’m glad that some of them were my first books. I loved “Watership Down”. Fucking loved that book! That book is brilliant!

(Some photos taken from the National Book Store Facebook page.)

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2 thoughts on “Ronreads interview: Junot Diaz”

  1. I think it is a fantastic interview – you pulled a great many insights from an incredible writer, so to provoke him into the kind of responses he provided, means you did an excellent job. Thanks for sharing the interview. Really enjoyed!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words!

      I got the sense from talking to Junot that he’s just so passionate about what he believes in that a lot of great insight pour out of him with very little prompting from me! XD He’s such a great person to talk to.

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