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Islands Apart: JUNOT DÍAZ (Unabridged)


SS: What was the moment when hip-hop went from being the music of marginalized kids like Oscar to being the music of dudes who would bully Oscar?

JD: I think the kids who were listening to hip-hop would bully Oscar too, before and after. It wasn’t just kids in New York. The diversity of hip-hop was present right from the beginning. But what’s interesting to me, when I think of the transition — now I’m not talking as an academic expert in hip-hop, I’m talking as a consumer of it for the last 29 years — I think that things really became corporate, dicey, between [Public Enemy’s] It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. And that’s when the shift begins to happen. When It Takes A Nation came out, I could never have imagined hip-hop being transformed and being changed the way it was, then when Fear of a Black Planet came out you could already see the beginning of it.

SS: What did you hear in Fear of a Black Planet that struck you as different?

JD: No, no, I’m not talking about the album, I’m talking about the time. If I could date the change as someone who’s listening in the moment, when It Takes A Nation of Millions dropped, in 1988, we were like, “Oh man, this is the shit, yo!” There wasn’t so much corporate money in it then, but by the time of Fear of a Black Planet, you could see that corporations were starting to figure out, “Yo, this is a movement.”

SS: What rap albums can you recite back to back?

JD: You got the wrong guy. When it comes to memorizing lyrics, I’m terrible at it. If you want the albums that we killed nonstop, back in those days it was all about Special Ed. We fuckin’ loved Special Ed! What’s the name of that dude who sang that fuckin’ great song, “Your Mom’s In My Business” [by K-Solo]? We loved that cat. We were just into a lot of fuckin’ different shit. Stetsasonic was a big deal back then. Jungle Brothers. And there was a lot of fuckin’ weird crossover, man. Everybody who listened to hip-hop in that period, at least the people that I knew in New Jersey, they all fuckin’ loved shit in the Eighties. I think the dance scene and hip-hop scene were a lot closer than they are now.

SS: What music do you listen to when you write?

JD: Mad different shit. A few years ago a friend of mine got me down with Lord Quas and MF Doom, and I’ve been loving these guys, man. Anything they put out I’ve been running out and getting. Dude, I’m still one of these people who couldn’t understand why Company Flow didn’t just keep being brilliant. But the difference between 30 and 40 is when I was 30 I had mad time to focus on music. I mean, I just picked up Santogold. Gimme a break! You’re slow, man, you just don’t have as much time, you got other things in your head.

SS: What does your writing space look like these days?

JD: It’s a small bedroom, which has a really big desk made out of salvaged wood. And basically, there are books lining every part of it. I just have books galore.

SS: How has that space changed over the years?

JD: You get older, you get a steady job, you can buy shit. My old writing desk was something I bought from a school throwaway sale. But nowadays I can buy a desk that’s bigger than five feet wide. I have a chair that doesn’t damage my back that my girl gave me. Shit, 10 years ago I would have never had a chair like that. I always bought a spine mangler.

SS: Beyond the textural research for Oscar Wao, were there specific photos, records or even foods that you kept close to better evoke the people and the period you were describing?

JD: A lot of music, man. Music that never made it into the book. It was a lot of New Order, a lot of Joy Division, OMD. A lot of fuckin’ Tribe. A lot of Big Daddy Kane. TV shows. I spent a lot of time going over the old Battlestar Galactica, the old Buck Rogers and the old Three’s Company. You got to put your head in it. The historical work just involved a lot of long hours in the library. A lot of archival research. I read an enormous amount of books, opening with some Spanish and different fields. Still, my best research about the Dominican Republic came from books written about Guatemala and Nicaragua. You have to kind of stroll wide.

SS: There is also this feeling for the presence of ghosts — symbolic ghosts obviously, but real ghosts too. There’s a real feel for the supernatural. You’ve said you were very empirical growing up. Have you ever experienced a real haunted house, or seen a ghost that rattled that empiricism?

JD: Sure, it’s called the Dominican Republic. The whole island is a fuckin’ haunted house. I joke with my friend, it’s not an island — it’s a haunting. So many people died so horrifically on that island over such a long period of time that the echoes still resonate. To particularize or identify one specific moment downplays how significant this texture, this atmosphere, of living in the dead in that one place, how present that is. How omnipresent.

SS: From one angle, Oscar Wao is a severe horror story. What are the elements of a horror story?

JD: A horror story is identified classically as an intrusion narrative on the present or the normative reality. That’s how it’s technically defined. For me, there might be horror elements but the intrusion element of this book was the horrific violence that was brought on by the European incursion into the Americas and how the violence, the horror, the disorientation, the dislocation and the trauma continues to resonate in the present.

SS: At the end of the book, Junior describes two recurring dreams in which Oscar visits him. In immersing yourself in the research for Oscar Wao, did Trujillo and his era ever infiltrate your dreams?

JD: That’s too easy. Trujillo made up my dreams all my life. One writes a book like this because one has a very deep connection. Like many people of my generation in the Dominican Republic, I grew up in the shadow of the trujillato. I didn’t need to do any research to have Trujillo haunting my dreams. That was a birthright.

SS: The first person thanked at the end of Oscar Wao is your grandfather, Osterman Sanchez. If you could have your grandfather back for one day, what would you take him to do in your Washington Heights neighborhood?

JD
: I don’t know. I’m one of those people who tends not to play too much with the dead. A day with anyone we’ve lost is a fantasy that the living should try never to entertain.

SS
: What is your favorite view of New York City?

JD: My favorite view of New York City is from New Jersey. Boulevard East.

SS: What records remind you of New York?

JD: Oh, I’m one of these people who thinks that Mobb Deep’s The Infamous is a perfect way to recount the madness. The sort of mad, optimistic, thuggish braggadocio of New York.

SS: At what points in your career did you feel like you were failing with your writing?

JD: The whole time I was writing Oscar Wao.

SS: You’ve said that Oscar Wao wasn’t your only novel since Drown, it was just the only one that was any good. What was wrong with the other ones?

JD: Set a person on fire, throw them off the Empire State Building, then have them run over by a train. To give a triage of what’s wrong with those books, we don’t have enough time.

SS: Did they get finished?

JD: One of them got finished. It was even worse than the one that didn’t get finished!

SS: Publishing a novel opens up a dialogue between the author and his readers. In a way, a novel is like a letter that the writer mails out to thousands and thousands of strangers. What’s something the readers of Oscar Wao have shown you about the book that you hadn’t seen when it was yours alone?

JD: I think the readers have really taught me that there’s beauty and power in this book that tormented me to go along. And that was one thing that I really didn’t believe.

SS: What’s the greatest compliment you’ve received about writing?

JD: “Please write another book now.”

 

 

 

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