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Islands Apart: JUNOT DÍAZ (Unabridged)

SS: And as far as the Oscar movie goes, you’re detached enough that even if they cast Wilmer Valderrama as Oscar, it’s not going to break your heart?

JD: Well, you would want things to work out for the best. Not that I’m bloodless about the thing, but at the same time there’s only so much that you can control. If there’s an adaptation made, I want it to be the best adaptation possible, but I’m not going to fuckin’ throw myself off a bridge if it’s not, because it’s not in my control. You’ve got to be realistic about it. You’re not talking about human beings, you’re talking about corporations. Corporations don’t have feelings, they don’t have sentiments. So you’ve got to be careful about how you apply your own affect toward entities that have no affect. In Santo Domingo they always call it the fight between the rock and the egg. Who’s gonna win?

SS: Has there ever been an adaptation from the book to the screen that really impressed you, or that matched your love for the book?

JD: There’s a lot of stuff. I guess you’ve got to have realistic expectations about what the hell is going on. I think that movie Adaptation is fantastic. I think that movie based off the Haruki Murakami short story, Tony Takitani, was really good. There’s always stuff that’s good out there.

SS: As a diehard Lord of the Rings fan, were you satisfied by Peter Jackson’s films?

JD: I thought they were as good a translation as you were gonna get. When all is said and done, I enjoyed all three movies, but personally, there’s always stuff you want to complain about. I mean everyone loves Ian McKellen, but I thought that some of the roles could have been a little sharper. One of the interesting things about reading Lord of the Rings is you realize that Gandalf is not a benevolent character. Gandalf’s got a sharp-ass edge to him. But for the purpose of the screen, Gandalf was more of a Santa Claus than he was as a character from the book.

SS: Is there a film that captures New Jersey as you’ve experienced it?

: I like The Sopranos just because they use New Jersey well. I’m not saying it captures New Jersey, but The Sopranos has more to do with New Jersey than most films. Beyond that, I’m not sure. There was the John Sayles film about Hoboken, City of Hope. That’s a pretty damn good film.

SS: So the ultimate Jersey film has yet to be made?

JD: I think so. There’s so much about New Jersey that needs to be talked about, which is cool. The whole thing is that there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for young filmmakers to talk about these spaces that no one has dealt with.

SS: Is Redman the greatest MC New Jersey has ever produced?

JD: I mean, I love Redman but I don’t know if I would go that far. There’s a lot of good stuff coming out of there, man. From Lauryn Hill on up. I think there are still a lot of young cats that are gonna come up. It’s just a funny-ass game, hip-hop. Right now, you’re seeing a lot of interesting talent from the South, over the last six, seven, eight years. Regions develop different lives than others.

: Do you remember the first rap record you ever heard?

JD: Of course. Fuckin’ 1979, it was my fifth year in the United States, and my old man brought home Rapper’s Delight — and that was it!

SS: And he played it on the family stereo?

JD: Oh yeah. I mean, one thing about immigrants is they play a fuckin’ lot of music, man. Myself, I’m nowhere near as musical as my girl, for example, but my family was always playing music.

SS: Oscar Wao is a book of the hip-hop generation. Its language, its rhythm, its style are informed by hip-hop and coming of age during the dawn of rap music. You came up in the years before rap became a billion-dollar industry. In the Eighties, rap was still a highly marginalized music that catered to a marginalized population of New York youth. Did you identify with it immediately for those reasons?

JD: I think part of what is interesting about this novel is that it just takes the idiom of hip-hop as a given. And a lot of times in hip-hop literature, they make a big fuckin’ deal out of it. The thing is, once you single it out as an element or as an aesthetic, I think there’s a problem. For me, as someone who grew up in this world just listening to it, we had this understanding that it was just normal. It wasn’t something you became fanatical about, it was just a part of everyday life. Hip-hop for us wasn’t like “hip-hop is life,” it was just normative, man. I thought that that was what was really important in Oscar Wao. I wanted to make the hip-hopness of the book normative, and not something that was sensational. Which I think is very important, because one of the things that happens with this economic shift in hip-hop from a local market to an international brand is that they were really trying to push people into becoming this sensational lifestyle, this almost pseudo-religious practice. And when we were coming up in the Eighties, it wasn’t like that, man. You loved hip-hop, that was that. But you didn’t think of hip-hop as this salvation. Now there’s a lot of corporate money in getting young people to embrace hip-hop in ways that would seem very strange to a lot of people from my era. If you took kids from 1986, 1987 and time-traveled them to right now, I think they would find some of the ways that people are like “hip-hop is religion” or “hip-hop explains the universe” really weird. It was meant to be an organic part of people’s lives, it wasn’t meant to replace people’s lives.

SS: At an early moment in history, Oscar Wao could have found a home in hip-hop. It was a subculture that took overweight nerds with imagination and gave their personalities room to blossom. Just look at the Fat Boys or Biz Markie. Or Erick Sermon, with his lisp. Or Wu-Tang Clan with their kung-fu movies and comic books.

JD: I think that would have been more of a utopian dream. Oscar was just so insular and shy. He’s incredibly shy as a kid. In the end you’ve gotta have some sort of outgoing nature. You might have a lisp and be a fat dude, but you have to be an outgoing person with some charisma. Had Oscar been more outgoing, it would have been possible. But he’s just so shy, man.


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