The New York Times released their list of 100 notable books of 2007, and we are stoked to have read three of them (and Mothers and Sons kinda killed us so hard it’s a wonder we read anything else), but we’re most proud of our man Junot Diaz and his incredible novel of slang, Trujillo, fucking, not fucking, mongooses, Santo Domingo, Paterson, jogging, tanning, Goths, writing, Akira, love, the forties, the nineties, rings, the boardwalk, immigration, self satisfaction, suicide, and science fiction, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We spoke to Díaz for issue 49, and snagged some extras from the interview for you, which you can read after the jump. Congratulations, Junot!
Praise is pretty free in the industry. It will cost you nothing—you don’t have to give them an advance to give some praise. My problem was that I felt like I had to live up to some of that praise. I guess part of me really wanted a novel as good as [Drown]—which is not to say the first one was a homerun. I feel like I got a really good ninth-inning double, to talk baseball talk. And I wanted that for the novel. I really wanted to fucking pour my heart into something—that’s probably why it took so long. I move so slow, bro. I’ll get done mapping one inlet by the time someone else has mapped a continent.
I think I’m probably more aware of who I could have been than I should be. In other words, there were always real key moments in my life me where things turned around for me. I’m always of those versions of myself that I left behind. So when I think about how much of [a book] is my life, I think of it as how much of it could have been my life. Certainly the novel allowed me to bring and explore a lot of my interests. I have deep interest in genre, whether it’s science fiction or horror or fantasy or adventure; a really deep interest in history, in politics, in growing up in an African-American milieu. That had a huge impact of what my sense of America is. Going to college with a ton of Asians, yo—it all leaped in.
As a writer of color the expectations that you face on a number of fronts are really extraordinary and difficult. People want you to represent some sort of pure, authentic, ethnic, or color. People are looking at your work for affirmation. I always joke around about this but it’s really true—people still read tribally. For all we pretend, people still read very, very tribally. When you’re trying to present a view of the world which is sort of simultaneously critical of that tribalism and simultaneously embracing it, you’re going to run into a whole bunch of different things. And I think as a writer of color the biggest thing that I’ve always experienced is that people assume that as writers of color we’re all experience, and we’re not craft and talent and literature. It’s kind of this bizarre white supremacist pattern which tends to have the international division of labor where you brownies provide the resources and we provide the know-how. In some ways the international division of labor is represented in writing.
God forbid you try to also cut a piece of the action of being a stylist, a formalist, someone who’s interested in structure, someone who’s intellectual, someone who’s literary. If you want something out of these books, these books will not generate anything you need. They’ll just flummox your ass. They’re so not there to appease, or even to provide comfort. They don’t even reflect very well.”
Well, not any one reader should be getting all of it. It’s the nature of art—if you were able to map a piece of art perfectly yourself, it wouldn’t be art. It would be like a math equation. There’s always something missing, there’s always something you can’t fully grasp. For me, it works on a number of levels. One of the places that I like to play is on the level of language. I expect different people to absorb or understand or to be able to deal with different sets of the idioms in the book. To have as close of an understanding of the book as possible, I always dreamed that it would take 12 or 13 readers of the book working together. You’re not supposed to get everything, but you want to put stuff there for certain people so when they get it they feel, like, “Wow this was just for me.” I want the intimacy, but I want people to be forced to ask other people questions—especially people they’re not used to asking. I mean, most Dominicans I know aren’t used to asking sci-fi heads for information.
When you come to a new place, you have a chance to remember and to forget. The curse of humanity—in some ways, if you think about it—is that we do move, we are genetically driven to explore. The problem is that we always choose to forget when we come to the new place, let us not remember who we are and what brought us here. The deep-seated fear we have of actually bearing witness. We’ll go out of our way not to have to bear witness, even to our own selves and to our own lives. We’ll do anything, we’ll create any mythology. And it’s interesting—we’re genetically driven to do the opposite. There’s many contradictions in the human animal—but the one that’s always been interesting to me has been this drive, that explorer gene that we all have, but also that terror to bear witness. When we go to a new place or we enter a new space or become a new self, for some reason or another we always seem to resist the urge to be a true witness. It seems so much easier just to fuckin’ lavish mythology and euphemism onto the experience—or to draw the maps out of those.