by Allison Isaac
When Junot Díaz published his first book, Drown, it was met with critical acclaim from countless media sources. Described as “mesmerizingly honest,” “powerful” and “convincing,” Díaz’s work has been published in The New Yorker, GQ, The Paris Review, and African Voices (among others).
About 12 years later, the Dominican-American writer has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (2008) with his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz took the time to speak with Mosaic Magazine about the trajectory of his career, the challenges facing writers of color, and the unrelenting issue of identity.
AI: How did you convince your family, as well as yourself, that you were going to be a writer, especially coming from an immigrant background?
JD: I didn’t. I think I probably have the worst, dullest story about this. I didn’t realize that I was really serious about this until my first book was published. It was really kind of half-assed, where you do it, but you don’t really commit yourself, you’re still afraid. Years after the book came out I still wouldn’t say that I was a writer. I think I had internalized so much of my family’s ideas about being an artist. I think that the biggest challenge for me as an artist was never the material, it’s always been myself.
AI: Oscar is quite different from most of the other protagonists in your short stories. How did you and Oscar find each other?
JD: I kind of have the same narrator, the same alter-ego in most of the work, and Oscar was just a fascinating contracanto, countersong. There’s something really illuminating about putting those two guys together. If you’re a smart kid of color, chances are, you’re a freak, especially if you’re from a poor immigrant community of African descent from the Caribbean. These are not places where people are very familiar with the smarty-pants, hyper-literate little kid. And I thought our alienation, vis-a-vis the immigration process and the racial voyage of the New World, plays itself out in a really interesting way if you happen to be smart. I think nobody catches as much shit for no reason. I mean, plenty of people catch shit–try being gay in my community–but I mean nobody seems to catch more unwarranted, bizarrely irrational, strange shit, just for being smart; you’d think that would be a positive thing, even by the most bigoted of standards. But I watch little kids who are smart in these poor, immigrant communities–not always, but at least in my experience–grow up beleaguered, ridiculed, and their most fundamental identity questioned because of the very fact that you’re a smarty-pants, which means you’re some sort of secret traitor. People are always like, “You’re so white, you’re not like us.” And I thought it was such a fascinating way to talk about Dominicans, or your “local” culture and also the culture that has received us.
AI: Tell me about the fukú in the traditional/folkloric sense, as well as the way you used it in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
JD: There’s no definitive answer to the first part–it’s folkloric belief, therefore, it’s shifting. You can ask a thousand different people what it means and you’ll get a thousand variations. It’s understood as a curse, sometimes linked to the deeper history of the New World, to Christopher Columbus in a fundamental way. But other times it’s just some sort of bad luck that can be afflicted on you, or that you can acquire through your actions or misdeeds. I took the form I found most telling and in my opinion, the deepest: bad luck brought on by the history of the New World, by the nightmare that was conquest and enslavement. And there are plenty of sectors in the community who believe that we’re all living under the historical doomsday cloud that was produced first in the Caribbean but expanded slowly outward. In my book, that’s present throughout, and the other thing that’s present is the idea that at a more local, personal level, that all the histories that are invisible to us and also unacknowledged, still exert a tremendous amount of influence on our choices. In the most simplistic way–and I say this, understanding that it’s simplistic–who we find desirable has everything to do with what happened in the first hundred years of conquest and enslavement. How desire is shaped for those of us who survived this…fundamentally a child of that traumatic experience…I mean, where did we learn about light skin being beautiful, where did we learn to desire white people more than we desire ourselves? Where did we learn to have such poor relationships with our bodies? All of this stuff is generalized within any given experience, but I think it’s been made far more acute, far more extreme, and far more painful and pragmatic from the fact that most of us were enslaved and owned and raped for hundreds of years. And I guess those things don’t go away so easily; I think we’d all like to believe they do. I think we’d all like to believe that we are unaffiliated agents in the world. Maybe as an individual you might think so, but when you look more closely at our behavior on a collective level we seem to have a lot in common. And it all seems to have a lot in common with the way we were wounded in that initial New World moment.
AI: As a writer of color, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of color, what sort of passport do you hold in the literary world?
JD: The same passport I held before. I don’t think I’m the sum total of my prizes. They always tell you white folks get two, three, four, five chances to reinvent themselves. We’re often just given prizes so we can be destroyed and ignored, and reminded of our position. Being an artist of color in the United States–whether one is given laurels or not–I would not describe it as any safer or more stable than being your average person of color in the United States. I see all these wonderful artists of color who’ve done tremendous work that nobody cares about. The idea isn’t that one individual gets a pass, you don’t feel safe or home on an individual level. The idea is that 10, 20, 30 people like you of your generation are getting the same thing. I guess I’ve never felt that this is a natural or safe state to be “The One.” I mean, maybe other people really like that shit, but in my mind I think that’s problematic of a system that really doesn’t acknowledge and reward enough of the activities of lots of different sectors.
AI: There’s a lot of Spanish in the book, but the Spanish isn’t translated. What sort of reaction have you had from non-Spanish speaking readers?
JD: I love it: You get on Amazaon.com, and you see the reaction from mainstream readers, there’s been a lot of straight up xenophobic hate. Like half my comments are, “Don’t read this book, it’s all in Spanish. It’s by a Latin American writer.” But the real reason I did it wasn’t to piss anybody off. The real reason I did it was books are there to form a community, books are there to invite you, as a reader, to reach out to someone who can explain the bits you don’t understand. A novel is read individually and approached collectively. It [the Spanish] wasn’t there to alienate or to create any political statements–I mean, they are, of course, their own political statement–but at the most fundamental level…I mean, my friends who all speak Spanish don’t know any of the comic book stuff. For them, that sticks out more than any of the Spanish. But an English speaker is so traumatized by the presence of the Spanish that they don’t even notice all the other alien words. They’re just like, “Eh, comic book shit.” So we naturalize some things and make “others” out of other things.
AI: What is the community like among Caribbean writers (outside the Caribbean)?
JD: I think it’s really strong, but maybe that’s because the writers who I really like and want to spend my time around are Caribbean people. I think of Colin Channer, Edwidge Danticat, Hannah Menendez, Nalo Hopkinson…it’s so strange because I feel like in so many ways we’re much closer than we would be at home. The dream of the Antillean Federation lives, I think, in exile. But again, my point of view is probably really skewed because I’m really into that. I think of my boy, Alejandro Aguilar, all of these Caribbean cats, we’re all in it together.
AI: Where is home?
JD: I always joke around that home is getting ready to board a plane to Santo Domingo or the United States. Home is an oscillation between two places I’ve never felt completely comfortable in, and yet feel totally comfortable in. I don’t have anything to compare it to, I’ve never felt like I was a divided person. How can you feel like you’re a divided person when all you’ve known is two countries? I’ve never felt any identity confusion at all, because to have identity confusion would mean you knew this moment of utter clarity, and then suddenly had this moment of non clarity. I assume everybody is as mixed up vis-a-vis their place of origin as I am. I just refuse to pathologize this. I see all these white kids who leave their hometowns and never go back and don’t want to talk about it, and I’m like, “Okay, and who’s more fucked up?” Immigration makes explicit a very human condition. It’s not to say that being an immigrant is the same as leaving your suburb of Toronto to move to the city. But what I’m saying is, to me, it seems like an extreme version of something everybody deals with all the time: Who am I? What really is my home? Why does nobody in my “culture” understand me? It sounds pretty normal, but because we’re immigrants, we’re taught that it’s more than that.
AI: You’ve spoken about writers of color having to be spokespersons for their entire ethnic group, but also how not wanting anything to do with their community is equally as toxic. How do we find the balance?
JD: First of all, you’re no spokesperson, period. If you just take that right off the table, you’ll be a healthier person. One particular, bizarre, overprivileged writer–because if you’re writing you’re overprivileged no matter what the fuck your source background was–is not going to be speaking for anyone besides [himself]. I think many people can find communion in your work, I think many people can find things that are representative of what they believe is their collective experience, but that has nothing to do with you directly, that’s your work. You got to make sure to let your work do its work and you do your shit. I think if you take that off the table and take off the table being a sellout Uncle Tom, self-hating doof, once you get those two extremes out, everything else in-between can be quite healthy. The idea isn’t that it’s a situation that gets settled once and for all, it’s a journey. But both of these poles represent particularly odious byproducts of the colonial experience. And I think that if anything makes for good, clean living for a person of African descent, it’s to confront and demolish a lot of those toxic colonial structures within ourselves.
AI: Do you feel any pressures/responsibilities from your community?
JD: Of course. We’re in a situation where most of our community is not given any advantage or opportunity. In fact, the system is organized to guarantee that a huge sector of our communities is neutralized. And so that means that a lot of people have a lot riding on me. People want you to tell their stories, or they want you to be the promised child. Recognizing that sometimes there are unrealistic but understandable demands on you as a person doesn’t mean that you’re in any way beholding to them. My question is: Do these demands, do these expectations outweigh the enormous privilege I have? It seems like an incredibly small price to pay to be the one person who didn’t get raped so much that my spirit was shattered, who didn’t go to prison because of a simple mistake or because we have such an unfair system that prosecutes us at 10 times the rate of white people. I just think of the enormous privilege I have. And while I know its weight can be something we wrestle with, I just put it into perspective. I’m like, holy shit, what a small price to pay. At least once a reading in the United States, people are like, “Why don’t you tell this story?” And I’m like, “Because that is your story. It sounds like something you want to do.” A lot of times, we look at people and we say, “Why aren’t they doing this?” But what we really want to say is, “Why am I not doing this?” And I think that that’s more important.
An accomplished writer, Alison Isaac has contributed to numerous publications across North America and the UK, including Pound, Urbanology, Jamrock and Sheeko magazines. Her thoughtful and poetic reviews on an eclectic mix of artists ranging from Zaki Ibrahim to DJ A-Trak have appeared most recently on Okayplayer.com. Alison has earned a degree in Communications and Spanish from York University as well as a certificate in Magazine Publishing from Ryerson University.