I saw Salman Rushdie speak at Columbia University about nine years ago. He was a good performer. Put it this way, he had enough charisma to defend the Iraq War, which had started a little over a week before, to a Columbia audience without getting booed. Everyone had an important question for Rushdie. He only had time to take a few and the last was met by a collective groan: “Do you have any advice for young writers?” As people filed out of the theater a few minutes later, you could hear a chorus of undergraduates calling the poor questioner a tool. Rushdie’s answer had been equally dismissive: “If you need my advice, don’t do it.”
I thought about that night, as a study in contrasts, after I saw Junot Díaz speak at Seattle Town Hall last month. Díaz was an expert performer. He paced the stage with perfect posture, gave shout outs to his fellow Dominicans and then his fellow New Jerseyites. He treated the audience’s questions as precious gifts of silver. Almost every comment was “beautiful.” A middle-aged teacher relayed her students’ questions about Drown, which they had recently studied. A young comic book geek of color talked about how good it felt to be represented in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz was there to celebrate the act of reading. When someone asked him what advice he had for young writers, he recommended that they spend less time writing for the approval of other writers and more time writing for readers. He much preferred hanging out with readers than writers himself.
It’s hard to draw a line between this gentle social democrat who seemed so comfortable with his body on stage, as prepared to run for Congress as to appear on Oprah, with Yunior, the acerbic narrator who has lain at the center of Díaz’s fiction for 15 years. Díaz chronicled Yunior’s childhood in his first short story collection Drown and reintroduced him as an angry, smart, and oversexed young man in Oscar Wao. Díaz’s third book, This is How You Lose Her, is made up of nine stories, telling the story of Yunior’s failures in love.
Díaz and I spoke by phone three weeks after his appearance in Seattle, and a few days after he was awarded a MacArthur. A few days after we spoke, This is How You Lose Her was nominated for a National Book Award. He was in New York. What follows is a pared down version of our conversation.
The Millions: I saw you on stage at Seattle Town Hall a few weeks ago. And you were peppering your talk with very academic words – “subjectivity,” “heteronormativity,” “hegemony” – none of which appears in your fiction. When you write your fiction, do you find yourself writing with two voices in your head? One is [that of] the former Rutgers student activist. The other is Yunior’s, which does not have this vocabulary.
Junot Díaz: To move the metaphor towards optics, I’m not certain if it’s that bifocal. I think it’s a lot more complex than that, especially with a character like Yunior who has proven himself in a number of texts to be far smarter than he wishes or allows others to be aware of.
[O]f course – if we’re going to use the tech terms my students [at MIT] use – there’s language that may not appear on the interface but is a deep part of the operating system…A character like Yunior is really aware of these words. He changes his words to best effect. He has no interest in anyone really knowing who he is and in anyone understanding the depths of his complexity. And this of course goes hand in hand with all his failures across the board with women.
TM: You’ve spent about 15 years of your published life and longer, just considering when you started writing him, living with Yunior. What has it been like living with someone like this for so long?
JD: I find someone like him very difficult because as a construct inside me he rarely talks about the things that emotionally matter to him most. He’s so damn elliptical… You think he’s a piece on a chessboard and he’ll do anything I tell him to. But that’s not really the way it works. Each character is a game. And once the rules are in place you got to follow the rules of the game. Even in breaking the rules there are rules…
One [of the] differences [between us] is that I would have made the obvious hardships and dramas vis-à-vis his family [more front and center]. But as a character he doesn’t like to make that stuff front and center. He will state [a problem] or he will dramatize it in the most subdued way. And people are paying attention to other things and rarely notice. I feel like if it were up to me and I just wrote a realistic essay about this character’s life it would be far more frightening [to lay] out the details of it than the fictional representation in the way that Yunior tells stories. He’ll mention stuff that’s happened to him but it’s always on the back burner. Part of me longs for a character who is, how do we say it, a stereotypical memoir-esque character who wishes everyone to know the hardships that they suffered and wants to parade all the traumas around. But he’s not that guy…
He’s been a fascinating person to create and to do work with. In many ways, I owe him both my career and much of my art. But my god, what a difficult cat. He never likes to say things straight.
TM: Out of the nine stories in This is How You Lose Her, you make one attempt in “Otravida, Otravez” to write from the point of view of a woman. Why is that in here?
JD: [T]his of course makes no sense to anyone, but for me it’s one of the larger projects in the book. And this is my thesis in This is How You Lose Her: Yunior’s inability to imagine or sympathize or think about women in interesting ways. It’s revealed at the end of This is How You Lose Her that the book that you have read is the book that Yunior has written. And so we know that he has written “Otravida, Otravez.” And it’s an attempt for Yunior to say, “This is the best I can do with female subjectivity. Does it show that I’ve changed in anyway after everything I have done or doesn’t it?” So in my mind it’s all connected.
The average reader is going to be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” The average reader is going to be, “Okay, I need a little bit more help than this.” The average reader is like, “Well that’s a real nice ghost framework, but it’s not present enough at the textual level.” I understand that. I feel that, like a fool, I always try to hide more than I should.
TM: Do you think Yunior could sustain that voice for the length of a novel, not just a short story?
JD: I would raise serious questions about that. [laughs] I don’t know. I think of my own abilities. I think that I, perhaps, might be able to do it. It’s very different when I write the sections of Oscar Wao from Lola’s perspective and “Otravida, Otravez,” from Yunior’s perspective. It is very different when you try to write a piece where there’s no hidden, filtering subjectivity. It’s just my [own] male subjectivity and not this other male subjectivity, [Yunior’s], that I’m trying to critique and also hide behind.
I think I would be bad. Let’s say that in both cases maybe I’d be able to do it but it would probably be very bad.
TM: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” read like a dark comedy about depression as much as a tragic coda to the collection. There was a long distance between your first and second books, which you linked in one of your interviews to your battle with depression. Was this story your way of writing about depression?
JD: It’s weird, because of course we use whatever experience we have to model whatever we end up writing [about]. So there’s no question that my own depressive state helped me design Yunior’s. But I think part of what mattered to me in this was that larger project. We see a character like Oscar Wao in the novel able to be public in his family that he’s depressive, that life isn’t always easy. [And he does that] even in a culture that like many cultures looks down on many kinds of mental health issues or tries to silence them…
And then I was really interested in Yunior’s character because Yunior is this guy who tries through his body to avoid psychic issues, to use his body to sidestep the psychic weight of trauma. And you know when you’re reading the book what you begin to notice – and again this is my own obsessive egghead shit – is how Yunior begins to somatize slowly his psychic states. He’s not able to address them emotionally. But his body is reacting to the shit that he has to put up with. Whether it’s him biting his tongue and bleeding out or other things that happen to him. And it’s a slow progress. By the end of the book you get that his body can no longer be a block or a shield. His body absolutely collapses as it somatizes fully his own depression, his own misery, his own grief. Grief not only about breaking the heart of the woman he loved but grief about everything that comes before.
There was a silence about depression in the larger culture that I inhabit but even in my own work. I thought [it] would be great to break [that silence] a bit. But again you end up organizing this stuff as an artist. So you do this weird shit where you plot the mental breakdown through the whole book. And you hope that the nerds will figure it out and if not – fuck it – you hope that someday someone else will just enjoy it on another level.
But depression fucking sucks, dude. Depression sucks. And part of you thinks, “Well if I have to deal with being fucking depressed, I’ll figure out some way to make some art out of it.”
TM: You just got your MacArthur grant and I’m assuming you’re going to use that to write your big science-fiction novel.
JD: I’ve had plans before and they haven’t come to shit. So fingers’ crossed, man. That would be the dream.
TM: A number of high-brow literary writers have dipped into science fiction: Colson Whitehead, Kazuo Ishiguro, and even, arguably, Philip Roth in his alternate history The Plot Against America. Do you see any mistakes these writers have made that you fear repeating?
JD: I guess my interest in the genre is actually in the genre. I don’t want to write literary fiction’s take on genre. I actually like the genre. I think that nobody who reads science fiction, no one who reads apocalyptic literature or reads alternate earth literature is confusing Philip Roth’s book for one of the classic texts in the genre. So I do think that there’s stories that are so squarely within the genre that there’s no possibility that they can be slipstreamed, that there’s no possibility for anyone to say, “Oh well this might be fantasy but it’s fantasy for the high brow set,” like someone might say about Lev Grossman’s wonderful novel, The Magicians. “It’s fantasy, but it’s not that kind of fantasy.” And I guess I’m just interested in that kind of fantasy.
I don’t think I’m worried about mistakes as much as I’m interested in writing squarely in the genre and not what is often called slipstreaming. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not colossally privileged vis-à-vis other people who write squarely within the genre. You get the notice that they never get…We are not talking about the hundreds of books written by people within the genre that cover the same ground as some of these literary people but we are talking about these literary people. And the reason we’re talking about them is they’re fucking privileged.