Catching Up With Junot Díaz
What’s your trick to reading and perceiving the world effectively?
For me, to read or see the world clearly, one must fight the unseeing that the culture teaches us all so avidly — that requires diligence, mentorship, scholarship, vigilance and an unwillingness to believe that you got shit right. And of course, a whole lot of practice. If you want to be popular, chances are you ain’t going to see what needs to be seen because you’re so desperate for approval. Breaking with the economy of approval will also open your eyes.
What are your thoughts about social activism as a writer? What should activists (who are writers at the same time) look out for?
Look out for? I’m not sure what they should look out for. But we need everybody to engage in civic labour and sacrifice, whether they are writers or not.
The more we help, the more we engage our solidarity muscles and our solidarity imaginaries the more likely we are to one day be free.
Back in 2015, there were negative sentiments towards your Pulitzer-winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — how was it like reconciling the difference in the impact the novel had on readers and critics around the world?
I must have missed this. I don’t really read the “reviews” as they say. As for the impact of any work, I did the best I could. The reaction of the readers is not something I can control — which for me makes me glad. It’s not my job to make you like my book. It’s my job to write the best book possible and to try to bring readers to it. But the book’s evaluation? That’s up to the reader.
When was the definite moment you decided that the American dream was far from ideal?
When I first stepped out of the plane from the Dominican Republic and realised that in the United States, the very air in winter could kill you. And later that week when I realised that we were living right next to a landfill.
How did you cope with that realisation and eventually building a home out of a country like that?
I was six years old. I didn’t know any other life. One copes the best one can. At first by displacing and avoiding and later by rage and acting out. Later, by mourning and by fighting to make the world a better place. I’m not sure if I really have a home.
I know I’d die without NYC and the Dominican Republic but is that the same as a home? Sometimes I wonder if people like me have homes — if, owing to our lives, we are not permanent wanderers, even when we’re standing still.
If you could reinvent the American dream, how would you?
Well, if we’re just dreaming here I’d first destroy the racialised gendered white supremacist neoliberal empire that arose from the infinite agonies of slavery and then spend the next couple of centuries repairing all the hideous damage our civilisation has inflicted on the planet.
Power play and blind bias is inherent in all, if not most aspects of the modern society — what’s your advice to tackling such situations on a political and social front?
Cultures teach us how to be unequal and how to be inhuman. Naming injustice and exploitation and then forming the necessary communities to destroy injustice and exploitation are tried and true methodologies for liberation — so I tend to stick to those.
You once said that your dystopia engine doesn’t seem to be up to task (of our current political climate). How have your observations in the last year contributed to your perception towards the current dystopia we’re living in right now?
Well, that we’re all currently in a political hell and that hell’s archfiends are vile xenophobic white supremacists seems to be more clear with each passing day. What this past year has taught me is that it’s going to take a long time to undo the political miseducation that’s convinced a whole lot of folks that voting for a child molester is preferable to voting for someone from another party.
In the old fictional dystopias, the bad governments used to spend a lot of energy indoctrinating their “citizens” to their groupthink. What’s obvious is that they only had to defund public education for a couple of generations to get the same result.
Finally, can you name 5 books that will inform any educator, writer, and activist?
• They Can't Kill Us All – Wesley Lowery
(A shattering account of the police killings and the young activism that sparked one of the most important racial justice movements since Civil Rights: Black Lives Matter)
• The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
• Stamped From The Beginning – Ibram X. Kendi
• Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde
• The Beast – Oscar Martínez