The Wondrous Words of Junot Diaz
Novelist Junot Diaz exudes an otherworldly level of awesomeness. The author and 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient is on the phone discussing his third book, the linked short-story collection This Is How You Lose Her, which chronicles the relationship detonations in the life of Yunior, a brainy-yet-emotionally-clueless Dominican immigrant in urban New Jersey. Diaz, who will be reading at Bard’s Olin Hall on Monday, April 1, at 6 p.m., sprinkles his conversation with phantasmagorical words. Explaining how writers are different from the characters they create, he says, “I’m not characterologically composed.” Reflecting on his early life in the Dominican Republic, where he was raised by his mother and grandparents (he emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, when he was 5), he says, “My loyalties to the landscapes of my youth share similar vocabularies to my grandfather’s.” Water and rain are “hydrological concerns.” The five senses are “sensorium.”
Mastery of language, and the ability to constantly surprise (with words like f—-ing) and engage, are the merest of his many, many talents. Diaz’s three books — Drown (1996) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) preceded This Is How You Lose Her — have won just about every award there is, from the Pulitzer Prize to the National Book Critics Circle Award; he’s won the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize, and teaches at MIT, where a favorite curriculum point is the narrative structure of the Star Wars movies. He’s the kind of guy who writes an essay for The New Yorker about how Obama lets us down, then goes on PBS and talks to Bill Moyers about his essay. And yet This Is How You Lose Her dumps you so firmly in the stinky landfill projects of the Jersey netherlands that you’ll wonder if you’ll ever make it out. Not a page goes by without unforgettable insights tossed off like street-corner lingo. I’m learning Spanish slang: el mujeron is a butch lady, sucio is—well, let’s just call it sugar that’s bad for you. Here’s a bit of cheesy language he’d never stoop to: whatever he says or writes, Diaz dazzles. —Karen Schoemer
Karen Schoemer: Your books are set in rugged immigrant neighborhoods, and you yourself have lived mostly in big cities. Do you have any rural longing?
Junot Diaz: No, I seem to be a permanent urban cosmopolitan. My grandfather was a farmer. He had an evangelical dedication to the land. I was raised by my grandparents — they’re more central to me than to some other folks. Even in those days I spent most of my time in towns, so it was a different world. The way my grandfather thrilled at the land and at animals and at plants and at seasons and at hydrological concerns, I seem to be overwhelmingly directed towards the urban.
KS: In This Is How You Lose Her Yunior lies, cheats, covers up, refuses to own up. You must love him to write so poignantly about him, but are there times when you just hate him?
JD: I have a very, very ambivalent relationship with him. He’s incredibly laconic; he’s not overwhelmingly voluble. Yunior is also not confessional. It’s not as if I can get him to speak directly or comprehensively about his own heart. He’s just difficult, the way that his problems and shortcomings line up. They’re not easy to deal with, even for someone like me, who invented him.
KS: Is it harder to write about him when you don’t like him?
JD: Almost everything I write tends to push me to pull away. That’s my baseline. If I’m not in flight mode from my characters, I don’t think I’m writing.
KS: Yunior is constantly rating the women he’s sexually involved with. There’s a lot of sex, but very little intimacy.
JD: That’s one of the strange contradictions of someone like Yunior. There’s an entire generation who’s grown up with an abundance of sex yet a stunning paucity of intimacy. Yunior longs terribly for intimacy, but he’s pretty much incapable of it for most of the book.
KS: Do you think the women in his life have equal responsibility for the lack of intimacy?
JD: I’m not sure I would say there’s equal responsibility, because we’ll have to talk about the way society’s organized. I don’t think society’s organized in an egalitarian way. Usually someone has more privilege, so that skews the question. I do think that we all play parts in systems. I don’t think Yunior is possible without a certain amount of complicity from the women that he’s messing around with. A better way of saying it is, someone’s f—-ing these guys. The way the system’s organized, there are plenty of women who are happy to reward this lunatic.
KS: I’m overwhelmed by the sadness of the women’s lives—the mother who’s unable to straighten out her husband and sons, the girlfriends who shriek and scream at Yunior in frustration.
JD: Yunior’s a careful and close study of these women’s suffering. The descriptions of women’s hardships and emotional tribulations come directly through Yunior, not through me the writer. Yunior is the one who takes a special note of it. Yunior’s inability to engage and address his own suffering is balanced by his awareness of women’s suffering in the social universe.
KS: Does he develop that awareness over the course of the book?
JD: I think he always has this awareness. I just think he’s not able to act on it. I’ve never seen a male character who more meticulously records sexual and physical and emotional violence towards women. I mean, think about it. Have you met another male character who is so embedded in the system of masculine privilege, yet simultaneously is scrupulous about accounting for how much sexual, physical, emotional, ideological and patriarchal violence women are exposed to?
JD: I’ve read almost everything Rhys has written. She’s a colossal New World feminist voice.
KS: Why do these kinds of breakdowns between men and woman keep happening, if we had people like Jean Rhys trying to illuminate them in the 1930s?
JD: Systems are not changed just because one person bows out. Systems are built to withstand a lot of folks saying, “I’m not going to participate.” The other point is, we’re all invested in these systems. Our identities are caught up in them. We have an attachment at a deep level of our sensorium.
KS: When you do a reading like the one at Bard, what do you hope for? What do you look to get out of it yourself?
JD: Well, I’m a reader, and one of the great things about these moments is that I get to hang out with other readers. Sports fans get together, political wonks get together, folks who are into knitting get together. Almost every group has their occasions where they get together. They have the custom of assembly. This is an opportunity for people who are into reading to get together. It’s our moment of assembly. It’s selfishly a great moment for me, because I get to be around my tribe.
Junot Diaz Reading
Monday, April 1
Bard College, Olin Hall
Time: 6:00 pm