To hear the novelist Junot Díaz talk about writing is to have your mind augured open to new ways of processing the human experience and to feel swept up in the poetics of the real. A Dominican Republic native who moved to New Jersey at age 6, Díaz teaches at MIT and writes primarily about the lives of working-class Dominican immigrants, particularly through a character named Yunior de Las Casas, a “deep Jersey boy” but also this “wild Dominican kid.” Here’s the opening of his new story collection This Is How You Lose Her:
I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds — defensive, unscrupulous — but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees, though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.
Díaz is also the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection Drown and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Last week, he was named one of 23 new MacArthur “genius” grant winners, and two days ago This Is How You Lose Her was named a National Book Award finalist. (Last week, we featured a new conversation* with another MacArthur winner, Washington Post narrative journalist David Finkel. You can find that chat here.)
Díaz visited the Nieman Foundation back in the spring, to talk about his work. For narrative journalists especially, who draw from the mechanics of fiction (concerns about structure, voice, character, etc.), the insights transcend. Too much writerly control ruins the story, Díaz says. You can learn a lot about narrative construction by analyzing Star Wars, he says. New Jersey is an allegory for marginality, he says (that’s the kind of thinking that generates story in any discipline).
Here he is, in a previously unpublished excerpt of his talk at Lippmann House:
On capturing truth
There’s an enormous amount of theorizing and certainly there is an enormous amount of biographical material about the sort of division and connections between fiction and journalism. Famous sort of progress in terms of becoming novelist and also (fiction) writers become top journalists, reaching for the more nefarious cases of Steinbeck and the Vietnam-era Edgar Rice Burroughs, who sort of gets a cushy job being a journalist. For me, I’m sort of interested in this question because after all, we can think of the divisions and what’s at stake here. In fiction, it’s impossible to discredit. No matter what the hell you write, you can’t discredit. In that way, journalists have this large tension: There’s a relationship with the real that is very, very important, and it’s all sorts of demands on that, but when we think about it, of course, and I think this is very important, when we think about it, the nature of experience, the nature of what we call the Real, with a capital R – that which we encounter in the everyday world – the sort of complexity that makes up the social experience of human beings, the thing about it is that it is so stupendously complex that the very nature of these lives requires multiple frames to understand. In other words that you can write as much nonfiction and as much journalism as you want about a single event or a single moment or a single person or a kind of movement, and completely miss everything about it. You’re not going to capture the damn thing. The nature of what is human is its real and strange multidimensionality. So what ends up happening is that it is possible to write endlessly in nonfiction about a subject and then have somebody come turn around and write a novel about it which captures the thing better than all the nonfiction writing. A friend of mine said: You can spend all day looking at all the historical records about child slavery in America – read primary historical documents, look at all the stuff that’s being done about it – and yet Beloved is much more likely to get people to feel not just effective but to have a kind of awareness that no numbers and no historical work can capture.
Now, it’s not that one is superior to the other, but that you require multiple lenses to begin to approach reality. What I’m really interested in is that fiction has a way of providing a lens for all sorts of experiences and all sorts of nuances that fall outside of what we would call the accurate, outside what we would call empiricism. So I’m really interested in Foucault’s concept of works of art having what’s called a truth effect: that you can create something that’s entirely fictitious, entirely make-believe, like Beloved, a novel about child slavery in the American South, 1800s, and yet it produces all sorts of knowledge and insight that wouldn’t be accessible if it wasn’t for this lie. In other words, this lie produces a whole bunch of truths. That interests me endlessly.
I’m no good at journalism, guys. Everybody else does that stuff way better than I do. There are so many of you who do this work in enormously important ways and approach it across a number of unique mediums, but I enjoy very much the fact that the lies that I write about the Dominican Republic in some way produce truth effect, produce knowledge. That they produce awareness. They produce news of the world. When I think about the way we’re working around this stuff, I very much approach it from this idea. This came to me, being trained as a historian – I came out a history guy. I wanted to be a historian. That was my fact. In fact, I was on my way to a Ph.D. in history. I took a side detour saying, “I kind of like to write stories.” And one of the things that happen when you come from the Caribbean, where there are more absences than presence, what you discover is the historical record has been entirely fragmentary. It is basically a literal second archipelago and mostly what there is is sea. Most of what there is is emptiness and silence and abstinence, and the areas I wanted to enter as a historian were absolutely gone. There was no recovery. Unless you’re going to jump into a time machine, this shit ain’t getting recovered.
Well, there’s two approaches. You can give the fuck up or you can realize that there are creative approaches that allow people to do sort of reconstructions that might be intuitive but for all their intuition can generate enormously interesting material about this absence. Even the recognition of the absence by you making that plunge into it, is not a bad product. I became a writer, you guys, because genocide and extermination eliminated my central subject and my central subject was what we would call the longitudinal presence of folks in what we now currently call the Dominican Republic. That was how I began.
Artists are always sifting through the imaginary. It’s pretty mythic in the sense that there’s no understanding of it. We create these little stories that try to explain why we come to our material. But they’re really little myths. There’s no approaching your imaginary; it’s the nature of it. I always thought that what happened with me was that these Japanese immigrants came to the Dominican Republic right after the Treaty of San Francisco. I don’t know if you guys remember the historical awareness, but after the Treaty of San Francisco, Japanese people couldn’t actually leave Japan because this was the American occupation and nobody could leave. And so after the treaty, you have all these bombed-out super-poor rural communities being wracked by all of these changes, and you began to get all of these communities going to Latin America. And a couple of thousand poor Japanese made the biggest mistake of settling in the Domican Republic during the dictatorship, and they came and their passports got taken away and everything they had was basically robbed. I have friends of mine who are Japanese Dominicans and their relatives who landed in Brazil and Columbia and Peru – they’re doing fucking great. All the ones in the Dominican Republic got jacked. Because the dictatorship wasn’t looking for anybody to prosper. What ends up happening with me was that I grew up in this universe of Japanese Dominicans. I had access to them. I saw them. People talked about them. And in my mind, Japan existed. My best friend in college was a Japanese immigrant. We immigrated at the same age – he was 6; I was 6, from Santo Domingo. And you know Japan – strange, the way we create our sense of place, very distributed. Japan became not only my kind of cultural and historical imaginary but a part of my social imaginary.
And I think I also felt a lot of historical resonances to the kind of catastrophic trauma and attempts to reprocess and contain those traumas. I think if I could think of countries that seem utterly different – you would say the Dominican Republic and you would say Japan except you know really those Europeans were fucking looking for Japan and they found us. Which is why the central region of Dominican Republic is actually a full corruption of the old word Sibonga, the old word for Japan. A lot of this stuff just fell into place in my mind. And certainly I think I went to the (Japanese) tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disaster zone because my friends still lived in Japan, and because we wanted to volunteer and show the hell up someplace, clean up some trash or something. And it’s kind of messed up but I’ve always been attracted to what news and what human record comes out of calamity.
My material starts of my unconscious. If I observe too much control over my material, I destroy it. Most (failed writing) that I see, the reason the shit doesn’t work is because there is no play in it. There is nothing in it that we would call the human. There’s no play. There’s too much control. You’ve eliminated the story because instead of listening to what the story is, you put your own wishes and your own dreams on it. The same with my journalist friends. There is the story and you’ve kind of got to be open to where the story is going to take you. If you begin to impose your ideas already before you really look at the material, it’s bad journalism. I think one of the things that ends up happening is our tension as artists, our tension as writers, is the tension between having an enormous amount of discipline and preparation, which is what it takes to be a journalist and a writer – and you’ve got to have an enormous amount of craft – and a tremendous ability to resist the overwhelming urge to impose on your material. The overwhelming urge to be like: I know what it is; I want it to be like this thing.
A lot of times you’ll follow a story as a journalist – like my friend Frank. He follows stories and it’s like, “Damn, I was hoping it was going to be X story and it was Y story and now it’s a fucking bust.” Dude, the urge just to tweak it one inch and lie and make it my story is incredibly powerful. Of course, this becomes not journalism. And for writing, once you put that much more control, once you go by the tipping point, it stops being interesting — it stops being art.
It has always seemed to me that one of the president’s primary responsibilities is to be a storyteller. You seem to take a very intellectual and vigorous approach in terms of looking at the narratives in speech, newspaper and other constructive forums. Being an immigrant, if you learn a language when you are aware of learning it, the language becomes explicit in ways that it is for people who don’t remember primary language acquisition. I speak English very well these days and English is not natural. English stands between me and myself all the time. I hear myself talking – my little brother was born in America. He’s like, I do not hear myself talking. I finish a conversation and I sift it afterwards. I’ll be like, “Did I say this?” and, “Did I do that?” I will hear stuff from people and wonder if it’s idiomatic, if it’s an error, if it’s a mishearing. Which is what happens when you are an immigrant because you’re wondering if the communication glitch is you or its just part of the real, which is, there’s communication glitches. People misuse words all the time. So language became very explicit for me and what ends up happening is it becomes an obsession that for someone like me becomes hypertonic. I came to be very interested in the idiom of – we would call it the standard idiom of narrative. What is the structure behind the storytelling? When I was coming up, storytelling was commonplace. You know – it’s sort of like you learn about stories in ways that you don’t remember, so it’s like primary language acquisition. You don’t remember that stories are in fact a language to acquire. And so I became really interested in thinking about story as a language we acquire so therefore by sort of breaking down its pieces and learning its grammar you get far more facile with it.
What I’ve learned is that people who have a primary language are obsessed with the myth that there’s something normal about that. They’re like really, really obsessed with – that people like me have to have our passports checked. The fact is, hundreds of millions of people live like this. Hundreds of millions. And they’ve been living like this a really long time. It’s an enormous privilege to have a stable place where you can acquire a language without any other ideas or other language forms intruding. So my thing is, it’s so normal for me to feel language is very distinct and apart. A friend of mine said it best. He said, “Did you ever walk across a classroom or walk across someplace you don’t think about it? Now walk across that fucking place when 25,000 people are watching and the lights are on and everyone is just – can’t wait for you to fall.” Walking across a classroom when nobody is watching, that’s when you have a primary language. Walking across when the lights are always on, that’s when you have to think.
On his place among the great storytellers
Thomas Mann said – what did he say, the quote? “The value of my work I do not know and you cannot tell me.” And that’s the truth. It’s like art isn’t judged by the present. We like to think that it’s judged by the present. We like to think that I’m writing so that we can have today’s applause, but that’s very thin near-beer. Most of us writers, even if we don’t want to articulate this way, who we’re writing for hasn’t arrived yet. That’s the true judgment. And so I guess I wouldn’t be able to give my grade other than a zero. The test hasn’t started and I haven’t showed up. That comes in the next generation.
On analyzing narrative in Star Wars, comics and Lord of the Rings, etc., in his classes
The idea of teaching narrative is that one understands that they have affordances. “Affordances” means they do shit better than other media. So I’ll give you 200 pages, write me a dance. Knock yourself out. Summon Toni Morrison, summon Noah. Summon all the great storytellers you know and write me 200 pages about dance and I’ll show you a five-second clip with my cell phone and it will be better representation of what dance is than anything you could write.
The thing is, written word has a terrible affordance around movement. We’re not very good at describing movement. Film is awesome at describing movement. But what the written word does have is that it is an excellent, excellent way to represent human subjectivity. It’s really superb. The closest you get to feeling that you inhabit another person’s consciousness, another person’s subjectivity, is in novels, short stories, poems. Part of the reasons I chose Lord of the Rings and Star Wars was about something else, dealing with the mythic. Thinking about the mythic. Thinking about what myths are and these stories that are not specifically authored. And that’s really interesting. Powerful stories with credibility and authority that are not specifically authored. Kind of cool. But I was more interested in the way that depending on what medium you choose, you have certain strengths and certain weaknesses, and as an artist you can play to those strengths and into those weakness. There are plenty of people who understand that writing is really bad to describe motion and yet have figured out really awesome ways to use that shortcoming to describe motion.
If you’re not really aware of what the affordances are for each different genre I think that it limits the storytelling. For me, I just kind of was into what can be told in 24 episodes of television. What can be told in a novel? What can be told in five seconds and how that shapes the way you can tell the story. My friends who have to write in 800 words for a newspaper, they quickly figure out that this is the limitation and what can you do with 800 words? It’s a way of playing. I was interested in strategies for telling stories in these kind of areas. Star Wars is an easy thing to talk about. It’s so simplistic in some ways and makes these really wonderfully clear and lapidary building blocks for talking about stories. If I sort of try to unravel – let’s say I try to unravel The Bluest Eye for people. It’s a lot harder to follow. I love The Bluest Eye. It’s a Morrison novel. I can take it to pieces. But my students – I start talking about The Bluest Eye and they’re like … I’m like, “Okay, scratch that.” Luke Skywalker? They’re there. Part of what you want to do in any teaching enterprise is you want to get these kids to know the language. They learn to speak the language or dance a dance, you’ve done your job, even if you’ve had to use cardboard to do it.
On the publishing world
I haven’t seen any longitudinal study on this, but certainly one of these things that’s happened in the publishing world is that the publishing world has increased the tension on writers to produce more and to produce faster. Novelists in some ways have become closer to pulp writers than they ever imagined because there’s an enormous amount of pressure coming from everyone for a writer to generate their novel fast. I mean, of all the writers I know I’m probably the slowest there is. And I think the window is narrow. They really want people to churn this out. And I think that for me certainly my sense of what we’re doing is that there is a different project that you can generate based on doing it overnight or one year, versus sitting on it until it’s done. I’m not saying that one is better than the other. Moby Dick only took six months, you guys, and Moby Dick is going to outlast us all. So I don’t want to create this false hierarchy that there’s some sort of valor in spending 11 years to write a book. But certainly for me the thing that I was interested in took a lot longer. I do think it’s hard now for the average artist to resist the mechanistic pace of production that is expected. I think that there’s this sense that you’re doing something fundamentally wrong when you take too long to write. And I see it in my students all the time. I see it in my students and I see it in young writers. The pressure is enormous. For me, I’ve never been very good at pressure. I come from this military family. Very, very conservative military family. That’s the thing they love. They love that rhythm, circuits of capital. My nature is always to resist them and it takes a while.
On short stories, novels and success
The thing is, some books you hit, you guys. Some books, you know you got. You just know it. You know you’ve got it and some books will trouble you until the day you die. You sit around thinking about the mistakes you made and how, shoot, a better way of saying this is this, is a book of short stories that is coming out. The problem and the promise of short stories is that a short story can be perfect. It’s the nature of the form. You can perfect a short story. Why? You can hold every single word in a short story in your brain at once. You just can. A novel can never be perfect. The promise and the curse of a novel is that the novel always reflects human imperfection. There are always flaws in it. And a novel is so generous. Guys, I have not lost a wink of sleep on my novel because the novel by its nature is flawed. And that’s that. Why is it flawed? Because it’s a very human process. You – hundreds of pages and you can’t keep all those hundreds of pages in your imaginary at once. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to have oversights. Short stories – I guess I could close my eyes and know all the mistakes and how my talent wasn’t equal to those mistakes.
On reading his own work in print
I don’t read them. I mean you can’t answer them. Part of the experience of reading is that – when you read a book there’s a gap in the book where you pour your subjectivity so that the book is sort of a motor and your imagination is the fuel. The problem with being an author of a book is that you can’t close that circuit. You know the book so well that you can’t activate because to just – I don’t know why. It’s so weird. We write books because we love them, but the only person who can’t enter the book that you write is you. I could read them, but I won’t get anything out of them because they won’t activate, you know? They just won’t activate. They’re too familiar. Too close.
Part of education is to, one, increase the sum total of the critical-mindedness of whoever is being educated. And this is just my ethos around it, but, two, is that you’re trying to increase the opportunity for education to happen. And what education is, is that it’s possible for someone to encounter material, to encounter their peers, and to encounter themselves, and in that encounter be transformed by themselves, the material and their peers. Transformation is what we’re after. You have a utopian dream when you care about teaching. You want to make yourself irrelevant, and who doesn’t dream of a time when you don’t have to make your students super critical-minded? This world is always trying to devour them. We’ve got a bunch of charlatans and thieves and mendacious crooks out there who will do anything possible to manipulate what’s most interesting about our civilization. You want – certainly as a writer you also just want company. I mean, it’s nice. The thing about being around young artists is this is a society that thinks of art – I think this society thinks of artists just as the absolute last person picked for the kickball game. That we all are beyond unnecessary. That there’s absolutely nothing that arts can really provide and no matter what the lip service of this idea is, if you’re an artist, you feel very strongly about how marginalized we all are. So it’s nice to be around young people who are interested in arts. Nice to be in a world where being smart and thinking about art isn’t exactly getting a foot in its butt. It’s being honored and sort of safe.
I do think there’s a part of all artists, myself included, who are very much speaking directly to people now. I mean how could you not be? You can’t abjure away your present just because you have these highfalutin dreams about art. For me, the audience, which judges my work, who will tell me whether it matters or not, is the future. I do think it’s important to always leave a space – if you have a table where you have your audience, that there should always be a couple of chairs absent for the future. I do think that a lot of people do this unconsciously. They pitch to the future without even knowing it. I just happen to think about it consciously and it helps me deal with feelings of disapproval. You know, if the future gets a couple of votes at least there are two people who are not voting me down that day. Do you know what I mean? As an artist, there are so many artists who are not having my experience, who are being rejected and ignored and discouraged. And if it wasn’t for those two seats there, that are a probably thumbs up, how could you function? As an artist, even if you’re successful for a moment, there’s going to come a time super fast when everybody is going to be like, you suck. No one is going to buy your books. Editors don’t want them. Publishers don’t want them. No one reads them. And you better have those two empty chairs at the table or you’re never going to do the work you need to do.
I think most people have an adult (definition) of reading which doesn’t really square with what reading really is. And what I mean by that: Most of us forget how we learned how to read. And how we learned how to read is that we learned how to read with other people. Unless you come out of a fucking comic book, you did not learn how to read alone. You learned to read as a collective. And the other thing that you should remember, but we never do once we become adults, is that almost our entire youthful formative reading experience was predicated on the fact that we didn’t know a large part of what we were reading. Reading begins and ends with this. What does this mean? I think the nature of reading is that we have enormous amount of experience with enjoying stories where we don’t understand a third of it. What ends up happening as we get to be adults is that we forget how much unintelligibility and how much not-knowing is a normal part of the experience, and I think whether I’m using Spanish and people don’t understand Spanish, whether I’m using intellectual grad-student speak and people don’t understand that, or whether I’m using nerdish and people don’t understand that – for me the thing is in my mind I always know that as a reader, as a person who loves a book, that person is going to love the book and they ain’t going to get even half of it. And so it’s okay for huge chunks of the book to be unintelligible. You know? And I think when I sit down to write, I sit down to write with all my languages present. I have such a weird, exploded self. I come from a super-gangster neighborhood in Santa Domingo. I grew up super-poor in New Jersey. Super-poor next to the largest active landfill in the tri-state area. I was one of those kids that got picked out and sent to gifted and talented classes, who got selected because I could score super-well on tests. I have all these kind of weird worlds and all these kind of weird languages, and when I write it’s the only place they come together.
On getting published
I’m so atypical, you guys. Honestly, I’m incredibly atypical. I went to an MFA program. On my way to a history program, decided to forget history. I sent my first story in after sitting on it for three years. I re-wrote it for three years. Got that story published and got an agent and got a book deal in like four months. So whatever. You hit the lottery sometimes. And it wasn’t that hard. I have friends of mine that write better than me who their experience has been hellish.
I think this is a really important question. I always talk about this guy and about understanding our relationships to marginality and what we would call the magical. There’s this dude from New Jersey and I don’t know if you know this part, but his name is Robert Smith. I’m obsessed with this idea; I’m obsessed with this notion of elsewheres and somewheres that he produces. This idea that there is something very unusual with living a mile from the most important powerful metropolis in contemporary imagination but belonging to the sector that is most ridiculed and ignored. Being from New Jersey, you can see from many places New York City. But you might as well not exist. It’s a very, very interesting juxtaposition. In some ways it felt very familiar to me, being from the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is 60 miles from the United States, but who the fuck knows anything about Santo Domingo? You would think we were on Pluto. And I do think there is interesting subjectivity worthy of art to explore because I think most people are going to find themselves in that New Jersey/Dominican Republic situation, where the center of power – the New York City, the Emerald City – is going to be right there next to them but they might as well be a million miles away. In fact, most of the third world is organized like that. You go to Santo Domingo – you see what I’m saying. You go to Biandini and you take two steps and there’s a motherfucker with no running water. And while we don’t want to minimize the physical material suffering of people there’s a cognitive space there that I think is very interesting from an artistic point of view. We were so colonized. New Jersey people are deeply colonized. People to the north are like vassals of New York City. People in the south are vassals of Philadelphia. I’ve never met a state like that. I’ve been a lot of places in this country and it’s the most deeply colonized place I’ve ever seen. And when I tell people I’m from New Jersey and I don’t got any alliances to either of these places, they’re like, “You’re crazy.” I like New Jersey for what it is. That was my defense of my state.
On the health of American literature
My sense of it is that literature in America, the novel, the short story, is not only alive and well, but I think it’s absolutely in a peak moment. There are people that are writing that are so interesting and so fascinating and not getting any recognition. What’s ended up happening, I think, is that there’s the polity being divided in a real George Bush way, where Jonathan Franzen will get the attention of 5,000 writers. You know, people are reading less and they’re reading very narrow. So there are so many really interesting people that are not being grabbed. And it feels incredibly, incredibly healthy to me. I was talking about my friend Francis Goldman. Very few people read his novel. This guy has a novel called Say Your Name, and it is without any question the best novel of the year. But you wouldn’t even know this book was published.
On digital media and storytelling
Digital space. Super-interesting because so many of the young people are working in new media these days and I know there are a lot of people here at Nieman and certainly a lot of people at Harvard doing it. From my sense of it we are making this stuff up as we go. I think people haven’t gotten their hands around what the hell has happened. Entire new areas appear in ways that weren’t there before. The entire publishing business has changed. In five years (since I last published a book), nothing that I used to do is the same way. Nothing. And I guess there’s a lot of opportunities. I find a lot of young people doing super-interesting stuff. But I also kind of agree that the people on top are making a lot of hay from all the free work of all the people on bottom. There’s an enormous amount of work going into it, but outside of making a fun app for your iPhone there’s no way for people who are doing cultural work to get paid. And all these aggregators are taking away the stuff. There are also new stories that are being told that are really, really interesting. I’ve got a lot of students who are working in digital media making real interesting video games that are real narrative, that kind of questions some of the reward dynamics of standard video games, and I would argue some of these video games are really anti-capitalism. I always feel like the old man my kids are coming in with stuff and I’m like, “Wow. It’s exploding.” Most of my kids that I used to teach narrative to were kids who only wanted to work in pen and paper – books. Now a large section – I wouldn’t say dominant but a large section – is learning narrative because they’re working in digital media. And that’s a huge shift for me. I had to learn about affordances. I had to actually figure out what the hell a video game can do that nothing else can do. You have to relearn all this stuff.
*Storyboard’s mission is to explore narrative in its various forms, and occasionally we look to masters in other disciplines and draw from their storytelling ideas and expertise. Sometimes we run outtakes from Nieman Foundation events – in addition to journalists, policymakers, scientists, academics, and many others, the foundation has hosted poets, singer/songwriters, screenwriters and fiction writers. (Paul Harding spoke with us recently about his Pulitzer-winning novel, Tinkers.) Check back for other such conversations. Today’s excerpt, like those of most of our published chats, has been edited lightly for length and clarity.