Junot Diaz

Danny Shot

Junot Diaz: Engages the World
Danny Shot
phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4

In a wide ranging discussion, Junot Díaz waxes poetically about the abandonment of Haiti, U.S. immigration policy, the benefits of a strong work ethic, school days, the overarching theme of his works, the 99%, Tyler the Creator’s new album, and his disdain for that question.

DROWN CAPTURED MY ATTENTION the moment I saw it, sometime in the late 1990s. A black and white photo of a nighttime rundown city street placed atop a sparse white cover with the simple gritty typeface words: “DROWN – Junot Díaz.” The stories of DROWN were a revelation, offering a fresh vibrant take on a tired genre: the short story. Moreover, the young author was from New Jersey, and he spoke my language. Well, maybe not my language but a grainy, realistic, musical Spanglish: an alchemical amalgamation. The critics noticed as well, “Graceful and raw and painful and smart . . . His prose is sensible poetry that moves like an interesting conversation (The Boston Globe), and “Díaz transfigures disorder and disorientation with a rigorous sense of form” (New York Times Book Review). More importantly, my students noticed. I convinced the librarian at the school where I taught, Samuel Gompers Vocational and Technical High School in the South Bronx, to purchase a couple of copies of Drown, which soon joined Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets as the library’s most stolen book. That’s no small praise.

I kept up with Junot Díaz’s writing over the next decade catching the occasional story in The New Yorker or The Paris Review. In 2007, we saw the publication of Díaz’s magnum opus The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Wow! Here was our 21st century Moby Dick and Invisible Man rolled into one: a singing, soaring, wildly funny, tragic story of immigration, alienation, and obsession. And, it was set in New Brunswick, New Jersey of all places, and I could walk the streets of my old college town with the rotund ghetto nerd protagonist Oscar. Díaz also took us to the post-Trujillo Dominican Republic where the ghosts are real and lurking around every corner. But aside from the setting, truly original characters, and inspired footnotes, it is sparkling sentence after sentence that deems this novel a post-modern masterpiece. The critics once again recognized Díaz’s genius awarding Oscar Wao numerous publications’ Best of 2007 lists, The National Book Critics Award, as well as the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

A collection of short stories entitled This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead Books) is forthcoming in September 2012. He is currently working on a science fiction novel that he says, “has something to do with Dominicans and the end of the world.” Writer, activist, teacher, realist, sci-fi enthusiast, and sociologist, Díaz is more than the sum of his parts, firmly believing that the writer must be engaged with the world around him or her. During the course of our interview, I found Junot Díaz to be friendly, thoughtful, and thoroughly grounded. It felt more like a conversation with a friend than an interview with a famous author. And that’s a good thing.

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This issue of phati’tude is based on the idea of Latino identity and you often identify yourself as a Dominican writer, and at times you refer to yourself as a Caribbean writer. In your mind, is there a difference?

We’re talking about overlapping identities, about simultaneous ones. I for one am a Dominican, a Latino and also Caribbean. There’s a lot of overlap, but depending on how one is thinking about your identity matrix or how you’re interacting or building solidarity, there’s a different stress. There are plenty of groups in the Caribbean who are not Latino, yet as a Caribbean myself, I’m linked to them very intimately, very palpably both on a cultural and historical level. It’s the way most identity tends to work: It’s extremely complex, but also it’s something that functions easily and elegantly for many, many people. In this case, I don’t have as much problems negotiating between these poles, but it helps to imagine identity as something that draws upon powers of simultaneity.

Obviously the Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti, and you’ve been active in raising funds for Haiti. You’ve also mentioned or been critical of the treatment of Haitians by the Dominican government. Julia Alvarez deals with Dominican-Haitian relations in her novels, and I know you read her stuff. What do you see as the main issue standing in the way of these two peoples who share the same island yet have had a problematic relationship for years?

This is one of those issues that’s extremely complicated and yet rather prosaic. There’s nothing unsurprising about groups taking advantage of each other, groups being in conflict with each other, and groups feeling that another group is invading them or there’s too many of them, or that immigration of these so-called undesirables should be resisted by every mean possible. We see that this is the default setting of America’s vision of Mexico and its other southern neighbors. So it’s not surprising that a county like the Dominican Republic might have the same kind of attitudes, politics and reflexes towards Haiti.

Yeah I understand that.

If we’re asking what the hell is really going at a larger level, we couldn’t do justice to it in this Q and A. As we well know, Haiti has been utterly abandoned, has been completely taken advantage of by the larger Western capitalist, has been ravaged and been victimized by basically most of the global powers, the U.S. and France leading the pack. We in the States have been the chief culprits to abetting in Haiti’s evisceration; there is responsibility enough to go around. These ‘attacks’ have made Haiti impossibly vulnerable, impossibly poor. Then of course you have the internal situation in Haiti — political leaders and factions who through their opportunism and cruelties, have compounded Haiti’s misery. And then there’s the Dominican Republic’s anti-Haitianism, a brutal racist ideology that has old roots in Dominican political culture, an ideology that the elites within the Dominican Republic love to fan, love to provoke, in order to mobilize people away from examining what the hell the elites are doing — which is usually stealing and fucking up the country. We need to talk about what’s going on with the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but I suspect this is a way for other nations and groups to evade their own responsibilities, their own hand in Haiti’s catastrophic actualized. The DR’s anti-Haiti madness must be talked about but so too must we expose always the world’s anti-Haiti madness. We can’t have one without the other. Otherwise, Haiti becomes all about local brutalities and not the larger global brutalities that have made a Haiti possible. On multiple levels, the Dominican Republic has added immensely to Haiti’s miseries but so has the U.S. and France. Even if Dominicans were the most gentle, wonderful neighbors, you would still have Haitians dying and suffering in ways that are unimaginable, absolutely unimaginable, so I guess whom do we blame — or better said how do we talk about a situation like this? First by talking about it and second by making sure you round up all the suspects. Otherwise, the problem will continue.

You mentioned the Haitian-Dominican community. In New York is there such a thing? Do Haitians and Dominicans interact?

Well, I was speaking mostly of Haitian Dominicans living in the Dominican Republic.

Oh, okay, I wasn’t clear.

Haitian-Dominicans like African-American.

Right, got it.

Now I am no expert.

(Laughs) I’m not holding you to that.

I’m no expert as far as how many interactions Haitian and Dominicans in the States have. I do a lot of work and have a lot of friendships in the U.S.-Haitian community, so if you ask me are there a lot of connections, I’m going to say yes. If you ask someone like my crazy uncle who I don’t think has spoken to a Haitian since he arrived to the U.S. ,he would be, like, absolutely not.

So let’s go back then to the Dominican Republic. Because in Oscar Wao, Trujillo is everywhere, and you know I’ve taught Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies to my students. But to you, what does the persona of Trujillo represent, because he was gone before you were born?

When we speak about Trujillo, we’re speaking also about the Trujillato, about the deformative effect of a 31-year fascistic coercive cult-like regime, a regime of a charismatic egomaniacal leader. What happens when one single perverse personality inflicts itself on a fragmented, isolated, already traumatized from colonialism community like the Dominican Republic? After all, we’re not talking about a country like Cuba, which historically has had diverse wells of intellectual, artistic, cultural, historical waters to drawn upon in the face of its tyrannies. For a time, Cuba was the heart of the former Spanish empire in the Americas, and certainly Cuba was at the crossroads of the Old World and the New World. The Dominican Republic while sharing some of these strands, some of these contacts, was far more isolated; its communities far more atomized, which made it highly vulnerable to the kind of sequestration Trujillo inflicted up on it. “Sequestration” — I’m thinking in Spanish.

“Sequestration” sounds like an English word.

Yeah — like being held hostage and this isolation made it very vulnerable to being imprinted by a leader like Trujillo. For many Dominicans, Trujillo and the Trujillato often represented their first contact with what we call modernity, with the nation. Just imagine the damage one personality could do on a nation that’s cut off and isolated. One of the reasons we have such ferocious anti-Haitianism in the DR is because one of Trujillo’s most notorious moves was to further isolate the Dominican Republic by carving a bloody ditch between it and Haiti. The genocide of 1937 was as much about brutalizing Haitians and Dominicans as it was about securing Trujillo’s control of the Dominican borders. A control that allowed him to keep the Dominican people more isolated, more vulnerable, cut off from traditional competing solidarities to the West. When we’re talking about the Trujillato, we’re not just talking about Trujillo; we’re talking about the immense vulnerability, the immense isolation of many sectors of the Dominican community that Trujillo seized control of and began to shape — shape would be too nice of a word, began to pound and form in very terrible ways. This shaping, this deformation, continues to be present in what can be called the Dominican character. It might be semi-invisible, but its power is no less significant.

Okay. Good, thank you. You were talking about your uncle before, and much of your writing revolves around family dynamics whether it be Drown or Oscar Wao. What did you learn about yourself and the world around you watching your parents’ relationship? I mean I have some ideas from Drown, but just from watching your parents as a boy growing up, what did you learn about the world from observing them?

One of the things that I discovered very quickly was that adults spend a lot of time hiding shit and that this idea of secrets and this idea of putting a very positive face on whatever the hell is happening struck me very deeply. Where I grew up your house could be on fire, and my mom would be like, “Oh gee that fire sure does provide a lot of warmth.” Not because she wanted to put a positive spin on things but because she wanted to obscure what was really happening.

Yeah, I know I’m like that. I have two kids.

I had a rather tumultuous childhood with parents who — you must understand I care very deeply about my mother — but I certainly wouldn’t wish my childhood on anyone. I guess some people with shittier lives would prefer it to theirs — we weren’t on the complete bottom of the horrorscale by any stretch of the imagination — but if I had my way I’d keep healthy kids away from that sort of upbringing. Growing up in my family I learned very quickly that I had to be independent. For all the support that I could get from my folks, there was an enormous amount that wasn’t being covered, wasn’t being given; it was very clear to my child’s mind if I didn’t step up there would be a lot of problems. In my family, if you waited for your folks to resolve anything, you were going to be waiting a long time. I’m not always sure I had much of a childhood in the way my friend’s children are having childhoods right now. Another thing I learned from my parents, on a positive note, was a tremendous work ethic, an enormously valuable skill set. My parents they gave us the work ethic, and that is not something you can buy. Let me tell you I love my younger family members; I love the new generation of kids but if there ever was a work competition between my 16 year old self and my 16 year old cousins, I would crush all of them combined. That may sound like boasting, but if you grew up immigrant the way I did, that’s just the way shit was. I feel that anything I’ve done that’s been useful and productive comes out of the fact that my parents took the time and the energy to press upon me the value of work, the value of being disciplined. That has been the motor, the fuel that has driven me everywhere I’ve gone.

And I imagine that’s what got you through high school and into college, away from other friends or influences.

I’m telling you it’s like having a super power. That shit is useful always. A work ethic.

I agree. So let me ask you another question. In Drown and Oscar Wao, you present really strong female characters, and you raise questions about how to define masculinity. How important are notions of masculinity and femininity to you as a writer and as a person, Junot Díaz?

Certainly masculinity has been a singular preoccupation of mine for many years. It seems that from the moment I entered college and began to become exposed to feminism and to the various critiques of masculinity and patriarchy and to lot of the writings, a lot of the political activism produced by feminism that I began to feel as I’d finally found the other side of my artistic calling, my great topic, my great scheme. I had Santo Domingo as my artistic focus but I needed something else. I could feel that in my bones, and the feminists at Douglass College of Rutgers University gave it to me. Some people are obsessed with Napoleon, some with WW2, my freak became how masculinity and patriarchy work in a very specific narrow New Jersey Dominican community. It just absolutely took hold of me, partially because I was the son of someone who considered himself, and was considered by the community at large, as fantastically masculine. My father was considered in many ways a tribune of Caribbean masculinity and living under such a person, with this kind father who was attempting to bootstrap all his sons up to that same level of manliness, provided me with a real scary insider’s view of some of these processes. An explicit view of how this kind of very specific Dominican masculinity attempts to transmit itself across generations and how it’s acquired, how it required training, rigorous repetition, many brutalities, and what is its great toxicity. This stuff gave me as a writer and as an artist lots of fucking energy, lot of inspiration. I wanted to explode these patriarchal scripts, to draw maps to their silences, to inform against myself. My dad’s attempt to make me into a hyper-masculine subject fucked me up for life and so I figured the one thing I could do with the damage was expose. To misquote Caliban: Father, you taught me your language, and my profit on it is to curse it.

Would you consider this one of the legacies of Trujillo? Didn’t he embody that?

Trujillo rode — sort of like a surfer on a wave — Trujillo rode into already functioning patterns. Trujillo in many ways just rode the wave of a very American, very new world, very Spanish patriarchal design. Trujillo tweaked it, but the Trujillo masculine regime would certainly be recognizable to someone in the 1800’s in the Dominican Republican and certainly be recognizable to someone in the 1800s, in let’s say, the territory of Nevada. It’s a very new world thing, very new world pattern, a very new world dysfunction if we can call it that, one that’s had a great amount of reach and that had at its heart the foundational experience of the plantation. And if I think about what’s my great American theme, I always say Dominican masculinity.

So let me ask you this: When you went to Rutgers, you went as a freshman?

I did. I transferred in as a freshman from Kean College to Rutgers.

Okay, were you in some state of culture shock with this view of yourself and then going to Rutgers with all these kind of people?

It was a brilliant, important experience; it was like the best awakening any young person could have. To have the opportunity to realize how delusional the person I was when I came to Rutgers. There was a realization sometime in my freshman year about how backwards ass crazy I was. The fucked up ideas and simplification and biases and ideologies that I clung to. So exciting to be given a chance to work on myself, to change those things — those early years in college that’s a time when you’re open to be educated, to be transformed, and in terms of a lot of my fucked-up ideas from my youth. At Rutgers I was transformed towards a more progressive, activist world-view.

That’s impressive.

I don’t know if it’s impressive.

No, it is because I went through the same things.

To wake up and discover that you can change direction and realize that you really are interested in being educated, which means being transformed, that’s just, you know . . .

Yeah, I went through the same thing. I just shudder to think how I presented myself as a freshman. I didn’t realize it as quickly. For me it was an ongoing process. I grew up pretty poor and I wasn’t expected to go to college, and I just came in there, and I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, and it was a culture shock for me as well.

It was certainly an ongoing process. Let me say I was just less moronic as the years went on. There was never an end point to the de-moronicizing.

I understand that. I’m with you there. Since we’ve gotten to Rutgers let’s talk about New Brunswick for a minute. I recommend The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to everybody. But what stands out to me is the sense of place. I’m from New Jersey, and I went to Rutgers — and with Oscar I walk the streets. I had friends in Demarest Hall — we used to always hang out there. And Greasy Tony’s is there, and I get a certain feeling of place with Perth Amboy and Drown. How has growing up in New Jersey impacted your writing, and how you see the world?

It’s been fundamental, absolutely fundamental. I joke around, and I say the Dominican Republic is the New Jersey of the New World. New Jersey is the Dominican Republic of the United States.

I can’t say that, but I do understand totally.

I certainly see it like that because in one way New Jersey is one of the most misunderstood and maligned states that lives in intimate proximity to the most stupendous metropolis in our cultural moment. Not to put too fine a point on it (after all there are many, many differences) but the Dominican Republic is also very misunderstood and maligned, and it lays within 60 miles of the U.S. and yet in terms of its marginalization, it might as well be on another planet far far away. I always say this, but I do believe the artist Robert Smithson’s ideas of somewhere and elsewhere is very useful here, where New York is a somewhere and New Jersey is an elsewhere. If New York is the ultimate somewhere, then New Jersey is the ultimate elsewhere only a mile away. If the U.S. is the ultimate somewhere, then the Dominican Republic, which lays within viewing distance, the colonial egg from which the American imperial eagle sprang, is another elsewhere, very marginalized and yet such close historical proximity. That relationship between marginality and being so close to the heart of the powers of the world, that in many ways provided me with the grammar, my sort of artistic and literary grammar, my critical grammar and my ethos, if you will.

That makes sense to me. We’re going to switch for a minute and move to politics. As you know there’s a presidential election coming up, and I’ve got to admit I’ve been enjoying these Republican moments the past few weeks. Do you think that immigration will be an issue, or not? What reforms or changes would you like to see in U.S. immigration policy?

I watch these debates and I wonder: Can we, as a country ever take the racist white supremacy fear-mongering off the table? That could help us have a clear debate and a clear plan of action in regards to immigration. That would be utopian. When you look at immigration policy going back to the Reagan period, it was nowhere near as fucked up as it is now. Immigration was not this enormous bugbear by which politicians drove fearful whites into the voting booth, but it has become that. These political parties, Republicans specifically, and the Democrats aren’t far behind, are jumping on these well-worn wedge issues, but what they do when they hit us with wedge issues to try to rally their troops, what they do is make it impossible for there to be a discussion that would help our nation move logically and progressively towards resolving a real problem or issue. You’re using this harsh racist rhetoric to get votes for your parties, but what you do is inflict enormous amounts of damage on your actual community, on your country but also on the people who are being victimized by many of the laws through which this stuff sets off. All this fear mongering, the amount of suffering, the indifference people have towards this. It’s astonishing that as a nation we’ve abandoned the kind of ethical center around immigrants.

Yeah, it seems like the 1920’s to me.

It is unimaginable. Unimaginable. It’s one of the most ridiculous things. This is the way the country is wired now. You can’t really have an honest discussion about immigration now. You can’t say to Americans, “You, my dear Americans, are fucking addicted to immigrants the way you’re addicted to your cocaine, to your weed, to your cheap fucking shit produced in other countries.” America wants to have it both ways. It wants to smoke its crack, but it wants to drop bombs on the people who make the crack. We want to live a very wonderful life provided to us by immigrant bodies and immigrant suffering. At the same time, we want to stick knives straight in the backs of those immigrant bodies because that makes us feel better while we’re enjoying, while we’re benefiting from all their work.

So let me ask you this: In a few sentences you went from utopian to unimaginable. What other political issues would you like to see addressed in this presidential election?

Well I want to ask fucking Obama why did you fucking deport more Latinos than any president in modern history.

Is that true?

Close enough to the truth. We know straight up what the fuck is devouring this country and none of those issue are going to be talked about because our political leadership is so deranged and absolutely disconnected from reality, and is so intent on guaranteeing that no one sees this reality and for this reason, we’re not going have any of the conversations we need to have. Obama has not been interested (until now that it’s time to be re-elected) in inequality, disparities on economic equality, in the rapine of the rich against the poor. He hasn’t. So now he has to talk about it because he needs a stump to get reelected. Okay, fine, knock yourself out. Better late than never. But the reality is that we have a totally rotten to the core national imagination — corporations are considered human beings, we have no interest in economic justice, in educational reform, in understanding why our country is so incredibly sick on so many different fronts — we have no interest in that — and no one is going to talk about it. We’re just going to go along and say that a 50 percent dropout rate for high school students is a great idea, the fact that income disparities increase every single year over the last decade, that’s fine, and the fact that more people are under pharmaceutical regimes, whether it’s being a drug addict or being under some kind of medication, that’s fine too. The fact that we’ve lost, unlike Japan, we’ve lost the ability to have high-end technological manufacturing jobs that Japan and Germany have been able to maintain, oh that’s absolutely fine. No problem. Gay marriage, Mexicans, black people and abortion, that’s the real problem bringing American down. Abortion matters have been quiet of late but these candidates will get to it, believe me.

Let me ask you the next question, you sort of half answered it already. The Occupy Wall Street movement has managed to get a lot of attention. The mainstream media has often cited the lack of focus or clear goals in the movement, and for me it was pretty damn clear. Have you followed the OWS movement at all?

Well, deeply, of course. I am a member of the 99 percent. And as an old activist, I’m thrilled to see so many people fired up and through their activism changing the national discourse. Mitt Romney on the defensive because he’s a predatory zillionaire? Who would have thought it! One other note: It is the absolute essence of journalistic hypocrisy that the deranged nonsense of our political leadership goes unquestioned, but the very clear directives and objectives of a youth movement organizing around the abuses of Wall Street are persistently questioned as being unclear and somehow vague. I mean it was unbelievable. The OWS is vague, but what comes out of Newt Gingrich’s mouth and Mitt Romney’s mouth, that’s okay, that passed?

So do you think the movement will have an effect?

These kinds of predictions always make you look stupid. But I’ll give it a shot anyway: You can draw a direct line between how disaffected, how completely marginalized this growing demographic of young people across the world are, you can draw a direct line between the OWS and the revolution that threw Mubarak out. As many have pointed out what we may be seeing are the first tremors of a seismic upheaval, that it may take years to fully come into being, but I do believe that eventually there’s going to be the same kind of reckoning that occurred in Egypt in the U.S. You can draw a direct line from Obama being elected to the OWS movement; it was basically a youth movement that got Obama elected. Of course, as soon as he was elected, Obama abandoned the youth movement completely; he has absolutely no interest in their issues and keeping them engaged and keeping them politically active. The youth section did not go away. It appears stronger, and it appears in the OWS movement. Even if the OWS movement seems to have retreated, the youth that fueled it, their disaffection, their desire for a better world, is not going to go away. The numbers are going to increase and eventually people are going have to deal with it. This election right now is an attempt by both political parties to pretend that there’s no such thing as this new young demographic. It’s a bunch of old white men and one old black dude farting at each other and running the same old toxic lines against each other, and truly none of them are addressing the new generation of active young people — the people who powered the OWS — and eventually that blindness, that stubborn disregard is going to cost these self-assured political assholes.

Yeah, I see it as already having an effect. I don’t think it’s so far been monumental, but I do see that the conversation is changing.

I agree with you. We wouldn’t be having this conversation about Mitt Romney’s taxes if it weren’t for OWS. OWS has made it more difficult on a very simple level for Romney to run.

It’s almost an embarrassment, his running, even for the Republicans. Might be because he’s a Mormon, I’m not sure. Let’s switch gears. Let’s talk about teaching because I’ve been teaching forever. How do you like teaching?

Without question I love my students. For me teaching is a wonderful experience. I love my job. It’s part of my civic engagement. There’s no better way at giving back to a community than to help educate its youth. It’s fantastic but it’s terrible for my writing.

Tell me about it.

It’s probably the worst thing. What takes away most time from my writing is certainly teaching.

It almost comes from the same place to be a really good teacher, to be a creative teacher. It almost comes from the same place, and it’s a shame.

Yes. Absolutely.

What I like about teaching, being that I’ve been doing this for 27 years now, I’m always learning things from my students, and the world is constantly changing. Do you learn stuff from your students?

Yes, endlessly. We are in a classroom every day. Imagine a football player that never gets old — or at least gets old more slowly. Imagine if you could stay in the game 30 or 40 years. The amount of shit you would learn at the end of that. Brother, I’m like you — my students — every time I’m in there I’m like goddamn, what a privilege I’m having to be in this constant learning place. Sometimes you feel like your class is at its best, you feel like you’re playing football with an all-star team, and you’re learning a lot of shit in the process. But let’s also be honest, when your class is at its worst, you feel like you’re carrying 40,000 pound bags of salt. But hey, it’s the world – the world is that way. And the salt is a small price for all the learning, for being around young people nonstop.

Let me ask you about music. I just finished reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison with my students, and there are times in Invisible Man, each chapter almost, when he just goes off, and the prose sings. You have moments like that also, I notice, when you just sort of go off. What rhythms are going on in the background when you’re writing in your mind?

To talk about musicality after you mention Ralph Ellison — he thought very deeply on music. He was one of those guys who just had it going on. I have not thought on music in any way that is . . .

But it’s in there. There is a musicality in your writing, especially in Oscar Wao. Even my students who read it over the summer talked about that.

No, of course, listen, I come from a community that truly lives and dies on its music. It’s an Afro-Caribbean nation. We’ve forgotten more about music than many countries have ever known. In the family and the community, music was as important an element as ambition, as important an element as education, and of course, it’s going to leak into your work. It’s going to form a strata, an armature, a baseline. I’m certainly conscious of wanting to make language do something musical; I want to make the language play rada. It helps that I was one of those kids who danced; I was one of those kids who they exposed to music very very early and that helped at each part of this writing process.

So what do you listen to know?

God, I’m a typical very old man.

Ha-ha. What are you, 40?

Yeah, 43. What ends up happening is that you don’t have the time to follow music like I did when I was young. So of course I’ve been listening to the new Romeo CD. That’s the Aventura lead singer who went off and did his solo thing. I’ve been listening to a lot of reggaeton mixes that my crazy friends put together. Of course, I love Calle 13.

That’s one of the best things about having children. When I was 50 my kids were 19 and 16. I didn’t have a chance to be the tired old man. They were bringing new stuff in always, which I’m so thankful for.

Yeah, right now I have Romeo on and I’ve been listening to Calle 13 like crazy. I love Omega, who is my absolute motherfucking man. Just one of those things that makes you go, “Oh shit.” I love that guy Tyler the Creator, his album Goblin — That shit is nuts!

I just see his name, and I laugh every time that that’s his name: Tyler the Creator. So let me get to the next question. You’ve cited Julia Alvarez, Salman Rushdie, and Edwidge Danticat as influences, or as at least fellow travelers. Are there any writers you’ve read over the past few years that just knocked your socks off?

Wow, I really loved Yoko Ogawa — I’ve been obsessed with Yoko Ogawa, in translation, she’s a Japanese writer whose had a couple of books out in the U.S. She had The Diving Pool, Hotel Iris, The Housekeeper, and The Professor. Ogawa just blew me the fuck away. For me she really had it. You could feel the world in her books and the human heart at struggle with itself.

I’ll look for her work; I’m not familiar with her.

Of course I really love that novel that won the National Book Award, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. She’s another one. Then, of course, there’s a young writer whose first book was incredible. Her name is Chloe Aridjis — Book of Clouds — and she’s amazing because she’s like part fucking Mexican and part Dutch and has talent to spare. Her novel is really awesome: great, moody, impressionistic. Loved it. Fucking loved it. You know who else is really cool for both music and writing? Do you know the Dominican writer-singer Rita Indiana? I really love her work.

Really? What does she write? Does she write novels?

Yeah, she wrote these small novellas. There’s one called Papi, which is really fantastic and her music is all over. You’ll love her.

Do you ever feel pressure or responsibility, and sorry for putting you in this position, almost to speak as a voice of Dominican Americans or immigrants, do you ever feel pressure to speak for a whole group of people?

Oh that question. People of color are always supposed to stand in for their group. You’re never going to ask Rick Moody does he feel pressure for speaking for white people. That’s the question that reveals our society’s racially insane logic. If you’re a person of color you’re naturally thought to be representative of a collective — shit you are a collective — but we don’t conceive of white people that way. White people are allowed to be individuals, to exist beyond their whiteness, but I will never be allowed to exist beyond my colored cultural otherness. No way. These types of questions reinforce and reify that perverse white supremacist logic. Me, I tend to drive the white writers crazy; I will ask them that question in the middle of a panel. How much of a burden is your whiteness?

How do people respond? Do they usually laugh?

No, no, because I’m a person who knows how to drive it in. Listen: I am always asked to stand in for a collective because that’s sort of the racial logic of the U.S. But I’ll tell you that I am absolutely an artist by my nature, and if you’re going to make large claims about Dominicanness, about the African diaspora, about New Jersey-ness from my very individualistic point of view you’re in for a really long night.

It’s been four years since Oscar Wao. What are you working on now?

Well, I’ve got a collection of stories, another book of stories coming out in September, and I’m working on a novel.

Want to give us any hints about the novel?

I’m hoping it’s going to be Dominican Science fiction. Not much more to say about it. Hopefully it entails the end of the world.

It is 2012, you know. Better write it quick. Okay, last question: What advice would you give to young writers just starting out who have been influenced by your talent and by your success?

I mean I’m not so sure there are many that have been influenced . . .

No, no, no, stop. There’s been a lot.

What I was going to say was that I meet so many young writers that don’t read at all. They don’t read at all, and if they read, they read little. And I always ask my young writers when they ask me, when they say, “Professor Díaz,” or “Junot,” “What can we do to be better writers”? I say, “Hey, don’t write for three years and read three-hundred books. Those of you who do that will be better off than those of you who spend three years writing, I promise you that.” One of the things that has happened is that we’ve increased the pressure on all kids to be more professional. We want kids not to be artists anymore; we want them to approach creative writing in the way you approach being a dentist. And you can’t do that. So many young people I meet want to go from undergrad to grad school and then be a writer like it’s a career in dentistry they’re pursuing. The problem with that pace is that it denies you time in the real world. You’re an artist because of your engagement with the world; you’re not an artist because you’ve pursued your professional degree with avidity and without any questionable gaps in your resume. It’s the gaps in the resume that make you valuable as an artist, not the efficiency with which you rack up your degrees. So in some ways I always argue with my students. I’m like (a) you need to read — I don’t care about your writing, reading will take care of that, (b) if you want to be a real writer, then you have to be an artist and (c) to be an artist you need to have an engagement with the world. If you’re pursuing your art like a professional degree — hey I respect you and I’m sure your books will be great — but for real, those are never the writers I’ve been interested in at all. So if you’re saying there are people out there who were inspired by me, they might be less inspired if they knew the way I conceive of myself as an artist, as someone who comes out of reading and engagement with the world, and not pursuing writing as if I was a dentist. And so many of my kids are in a rush to be famous and to be published — it’s all about the dentistry input that’s seeped in and infected the arts.

That’s also about being 19.

Well, no. You talk to people of different generations and one thing stands out: Kids these days are under incredible pressure to show profit. They can’t even conceive of a world where they can be artists and engage in the world for 5, 6, 7, 8 years without showing any profit, without any resumé timeline or corporate logic. I do believe the pace of life has become more machine, and less art orientated. I can’t imagine a harder time to cultivate an artistic ethos — but I can’t imagine a time more in need of artists. So that’s the grumpy me. My advice is to read and to imagine yourself as an artist. Your work will last a lot longer than if you imagine yourself as a dentist who writes because this is your way of handling the corporate capitalist exigencies of our contemporary moment.

Well, let’s go back to the wide-eyed bushy tailed you. When you were 19 . . .

I knew I wanted to be an artist.

And you knew it was going to take some time?

I just knew it was going to come out of my engagement with the world. There’s no question about that. The reason I write the way I do is because as an artist I was connected to the world. Listen, I will probably prove this for the rest of my short life. If a book takes 11 years, it takes 11 years, but if you’re a dentist writer 11 years writing a book is unimaginable. You would never do that because you got to show profit. You’ll write two or three inferior things rather than what your heart really needed to write. But again, self-serving. This is a description and a narrative and a set of poetics that is deeply self-serving, but I mean where else can you speak from than from what you experience.

Yeah of course, that’s what I’ve asked. I want to thank you so much for giving me your time.

No, for real, thank you guys for this.

DANNY SHOT was the head of Long Shot productions for over 20 years, which included Long Shot literary and arts magazine and Long Shot Books. He has appeared throughout the country and his work has been widely anthologized in books and literary magazines.

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