In Person

The Immigrant Factor: Junot Díaz and Rawi Hage in conversation

By posted at 6:21 pm on November 25, 2008 0

covercoverTheir personalities couldn’t be more different. Junot Díaz: casually amiable, chatty; Rawi Hage: quietly reflective, a bit reserved. Actually, not a bad double-act, as they seem to complement each other. And in addition to each desperately trying to catch his breath after a whirlwind year – Díaz fresh from countless accolades for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Hage fresh from winning the IMPAC Dublin award for DeNiro’s Game, and out with a new novel Cockroach – both of these 40-ish writers are also of, and writing about, immigrant cultures.

Díaz immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as a child, and is still deeply rooted to the Caribbean culture. His protagonist, Oscar, is similarly the product of a Dominican-American family, and the novel takes us through several generations of Oscar’s family in the Dominican Republic and in America. Add to that the intensive footnotes which, read in full, are like a Master Class in twentieth century Dominican politics. For his part, Hage emigrated from Lebanon to Canada (via New York) as a young adult and now calls Montreal home. DeNiro’s Game races and ducks through the streets of wartime Beirut, but his latest novel is set in the Arab immigrant community in Montreal. As both authors and their protagonists are immigrants (with that extra layer of experience that comes with transplanting oneself or being uprooted from one culture to a radically different one), this immigrant factor adds that layer into novels that are already rich and textured.

When I was in school, and from an immigrant family myself, I was taught that one distinction between Canada and the U.S. was in policies of assimilation. Not of the Star Trek “Borg” variety. Nothing quite so ominous. It was America the Melting Pot, Canada the Cultural Mosaic (where, the theory goes, immigrant families retain much of their culture through a series of multicultural policies.) But, policy differences aside, I’m not fully convinced the day-to-day distinctions were ever as great as we were led to believe. Walk through the streets of Toronto and the mosaic is readily apparent, but so too is it in New York. Go to some more rural parts of Canada, and it feels every bit the melting pot as similar parts of the U.S. How much of one’s culture one retains is often a consequence of how much one is able to retain, or indeed wants to retain, given the nature and, often, the logistics of the local community in which one settles. But I digress.

Last month, Junot Díaz and Rawi Hage shared a stage at the Toronto International Authors Festival in conversation with moderator Rachel Giese. Some highlights from Junot Díaz’ responses:

On Oscar: Díaz was asked what intrigued him about the Oscar character. “I wanted to write about the kind of person who buries himself in the kind of activity that most people think of as frivolous.” Obsessed with comic books and sci-fi, Oscar is “a crazy nerd,” Díaz added. “Impenetrable. You couldn’t pay him to take advice.”

On immigration: Díaz said that, depending where they’ve come from, immigrants often harbor a resentment towards foreign policy of adopted countries. Since Trujillo, the brutal dictator who bent the Dominican people to his will for several decades, was a “military-trained stooge of the U.S,” the Dominican Republic is effectively “a member of that growing group of nations that has been occupied by the U.S.”

On the “Dictatorship of Narrative”: This is the idea that because the novel is the product of a single voice, the novelist dictates, and the reader empowers him. The end result is obviously different than citizens empowering a political dictator but, Díaz notes, “similar muscles are being worked.”

On the mix of styles on his novel: “We live in different genres,” one day it’s sci-fi, the next it’s a western. So it made sense to use different genres to explore the varied characters. Díaz’ own mother is very rational, empirical – if she hasn’t seen it “or if a physicist hasn’t written about it”, then it doesn’t resonate for her, but on the other hand, his grandmother believed in saints. You make room for all at the kitchen table. So, too, in the created world, you use all genres.

On Spanglish: (as it’s used liberally in the novel, often without explanation). We read individually, but we learn to read collectively, in school and at home, constantly asking questions, Díaz said. So, when we read a novel “individually” we should be able to ask what the word means. Not everything needs to be fed to us on the page. So, although we read novels individually, we understand them “collectively”. Books are a “community maker.” A novel also “gives you a set of strategies” to respond to the world, Díaz added, noting the different styles and tones in a novel depending on if a character is speaking with friends, or with his boss, or with family. In this way, literature is instructive not only in telling a story, but in setting examples for human interaction. Life lessons.

On Fanboy culture: “Fanboys don’t know what to do with a fanboy of color,” Díaz said, noting that the comic book and sci-fi fan base is still a conservative group. And, to add insult to injury, he’s never been invited to a convention. Not once.

On the “silences”: There are huge chunks of Dominican history, Díaz states, in which the events haven’t been represented by any language.

Some highlights from Rawi Hage’s responses:

On “fabulism”: Hage was asked about use of fabulism in his second novel Cockroach, (but at this point in the conversation, he was still in shock from Díaz’ revelation that authors are dictators.) Hage collected himself and said that he is interested in madness, the madness of writing. Characters in crisis seek escape. This was drawn from seeing a friend in a shelter during protracted bombing in 1980s Beirut. In that moment of crisis, his friend lost it and retreated into madness.

On his fragile style: Hage is trilingual, and English (which he writes in) is actually his third language. He spoke Arabic at home, French in school, and English in college. Together, they produce his style. It’s a fragile style, Hage concedes, and could easily have been rejected, could easily not have worked as well as it did.

On the “silences”: The Lebanese civil war was not recorded by historians, so artists rose to the challenge. And through fiction, history is revealed, breaking the silence.

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