Islands Apart: JUNOT DÍAZ (Unabridged)
Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)
JUNOT DIAZ in New York City, 2008 / Photograph by MICHAEL GREENBERG
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
The following piece originally appeared in the third-annual 20 Interviews issue. Here we present the full unabridged interview. Click here for more on 20 Interviews
ISLANDS APART: JUNOT DÍAZ
By Sam Sweet
No doubt about it: Junot Díaz is the first Jersey flag-wavin’, gangsta rap-lovin’, Dungeons and Dragons-playin’, comic book-collectin’, still-strugglin’ writer to ever win a Pulitzer. His debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was released in September 2007 to critical acclaim, and when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following April, Díaz was besieged by a second wave of attention.
The novel introduces us to the title character, an obese, nerdy and painfully shy Dominican-American adolescent who lives with his warring mother and sister. Oscar’s household is weighted with anger and unhappiness, but Díaz refuses to rest on the hardships of the immigrant experience in the United States. Over the course of the book he unravels a personal history for each of his principal characters, revealing a web of intergenerational suffering. The author’s point is that pain has its own genealogy, and for Dominicans, the roots lead directly to the 31-year reign of Rafael Trujillo, whose dictatorship Oscar Wao describes with devastating clarity.
Epic in scope and crushing in its emotional pitch, Oscar Wao is nonetheless more personal than it is historical. Awash in references to Dominican folklore, science fiction serials, Eighties goth rock, and dorm life at Rutgers University, Oscar Wao assimilates the many facets of its author’s life. Díaz identifies as a reader before he does as a writer, and more than anything else, Oscar Wao is the testimony of a mind consumed by bibliophilia and delighted by the fathomless feed of American popular culture.
These days, Díaz balances his role as an associate professor of writing and humanistic studies at MIT with his newfound responsibilities as a globally celebrated fiction writer. A New Jersey homeboy at heart, he will spark a conversation about the latest rap radio singles then suddenly launch into a lecture on postcolonial identity theory. Of course to Díaz there is no difference between the two. Like Oscar Wao, he is the proud personification of contradiction.
Stop Smiling: Alan Moore recently said that he’s come to believe that nothing good can come of almost any adaptation and the vast majority of them are pointless. Do you share that viewpoint?
Junot Díaz: I don’t know. The thing is, Alan Moore is brilliant and he’s closer to it than I am. I’ve never had anything adapted. So I’d be talking out my ass to be talking about that. I think it’s an incredibly complicated process. I think it’s probably best for people who’ve actually had their shit adapted to comment on that.
SS: What about the impending adaptation of Oscar Wao?
JD: Well, there’s nothing impending about it. They just gave me a little check and they haven’t done anything with it. So no worries yet.
SS: Is there anything they could do with the film version that would really upset you?
JD: Think about it. I’m the kind of person who believes in the philosophy of Hemingway and Faulkner, that once you sign on the dotted line, that shit ain’t yours. My expectations are not that high.
SS: Is it that easy to detach? As a movie fan — and the book is packed with film references — is there a part of you that would like to help guide a screen version of Oscar Wao?
JD: No. It sounds fucked up but some people, when they do a project in their mind, will see both a book and a movie, and therefore they’re really invested in the idea of seeing it in different mediums. Oscar for me was always a book. In your mind, you always think, maybe a movie would be nice, but you don’t feel the same personal engagement. There are other projects that I have in mind that I want to write, that I will write, and that I see myself being far more involved in than any screen adaptation.
SS: Like comic books, for instance, and graphic novels?
JD: Well, with the next novel I write I think one of the stipulations will be that I would be allowed to be involved with it if anyone is interested in adapting it as a film. But for Oscar, not so much. I’ll be honest, Oscar for me was always a labor of literary love.
SS: Can you envision a cinematic translation of the book?
JD: I can envision it, but I’m not so committed that I want to give up six months to three years of my work. That’s the whole thing, you have to really believe in the project in this new medium to take that further step. The next thing that’s really exciting me is another novel. Of course I can think of plenty of things that would be great onscreen, but I don’t think they are so great that they could pull me away from my next novel.
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?
JD: 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.
SS: 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.
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.”