A Brief Conversation with Junot Diaz

Anobium contributor Benjamin Schachtman recently caught up with Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Drown, and many others. His new book of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, is due for release this fall.

Anobium has a thing for experimental writing, the kind of thing that might  have gotten called ‘post-modern’ back in the day. Certainly a lot of your work falls into this category for some critics. Do you see your work as ‘experimental’?

To most readers I’m a pretty straight-forward kind of guy. But I do think that I’m intrigued by fragmentary narrative structures and certain self-reflexivity on the part of my narrators and so that definitely falls under the rubric of the post-modern. On the other hand I’m not post-modern in my attempts to rehabilitative certain concepts that postmodernism has tried to discard like grand narratives and “identity.”

Academically, and sometimes critically, post-modern literature often gets elbowed into one of two categories: (1) authors writing from outside the Western ‘house style’ of realist fiction because they are outside it, and (2) authors writing their way outside the house style as a deliberate experiment (I’ve heard it put crudely as multicultural po-mo vs. white-boy po-mo). How do you feel about this?

Again this seems like a simplistic binary. If offered a for-or-against choice I’m always like neither. What I know is that I deploy certain narrative strategies to describe the extreme experience of being a Dominican, a Caribbean, a child of African enslavement.  Neither realism nor postmodernism has done a very good job of capturing that extraordinary reality because it never really took it seriously in any systematic way.  And so therefore I have my own house style that suits my narrative experiments.  It’s not so much that “I” fall outside of “Western Whiteboy’s House Style”; it’s that the very house was built upon people of color’s exclusion and suffering and that the projects I’m interested in require more than either of these awful lodges can provide.

A lot of work that innovates stylistically seems to shy away from political content like you’re describing, colonialism or slavery. What’s up with that? Or, to put it another way: how do you get away with being stylistically innovative and political?

We live in a society where the mainstream thinks that cutting edge politics is a Jonathan Franzen novel, where writers are always told by artists and critics that politics kills art.  Well, I disagree and I’ve been having a lot of fun artistically exploring the possibility that people who know nothing about my world perhaps are wrong including it in their generalization.

I see a lot of authors do readings, but I don’t see so many get legitimate laughs out of people. Besides being good at it, what attracts you to humor, even when you’re dealing with seriously grim shit?

I’ve always noticed the way life obeys no genre conventions.  Life will give you drama in the middle of a comedy.  And tragedy in the middle of a love story.  And as Alan Moore has put it if you’re lucky some sex in the middle of it all.  The work is supposed to be a tribute to our human-ness and our human-ness includes both the grim shit and the laughs.   I like to hit both notes and a few others.

When I saw you speak, you pointed out that fiction writing was one field – as opposed to,  say, theoretical physics or surgery – where ‘new kids could come off the bench and fuck everybody up’. In your mind, who are the new kids? Who are they fucking up, and how?

Patricia Engel—she’s flat out amazing short story writer.  Julia Otsuka is another extraordinary talent.  Who exactly?  Who ever likes to read them.  I do.  And clearly some other people.  What’s less interesting about that formulation is where the ball lands; what’s most interesting is that people can come off the bench and hit home runs.  Happens all the time in literature.

Second to last: in my own family history, our phantasmagorical bogeyman was – and still is – Stalin (who, for my money, has it all over Hitler for the sheer mind-bending force of his insanity). Still, the more I learn about what Eddie Izzard calls ‘R.O.W. (Rest of World)’, the less I’m sure that Stalin was the most warped kid on the dictatorial block. So I put it to you: Trujillo vs. Stalin?

The only people we can ask are the dead.  The living have their fantasies about how the past suffered.  But only in conversation with the dead can we have a true reckoning with the past.

Lastly, you’ve got a new collection of short stories coming out in September. What are you going for with the new stuff?

Just writing about love.  Mostly the heartbreak side of it.  And hoping someone reads it.

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[Feature image from Darryl Bush/SF Chronicle]

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