Q&A with Junot Diaz

23 August 2013 Sophie Quick

Q&A with Junot Diaz

Photograph by Nina Shubin

Junot Diaz is in town for the Melbourne Writers Festival. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised from the age of six in America, Diaz is the author of short-story collection Drown (1996); Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007); and a second short-story collection, This Is How You Lose Her (2012). Here he talks with Sophie Quick about translations, illustrations, collaborations and growing up poor.


I read that the first novel you attempted to write was set in Australia – an Australia that in all ways resembled the Dominican Republic. Can you describe it?

First of all – the landscape I grew up in the Dominican Republic is actually like the only desert in the entire Caribbean. A place called Azua. In my mind, it had this very arid, very tough very forbidding landscape. When I was 13 [having immigrated to New Jersey, aged six] I saw that movie Walkabout – we’re talking about 1985. On top of that, there was this kids’ TV program in America called Wonderworks. They had an episode set in Australia. I didn’t know anything about Australia, but parts of what was represented looked exactly like the landscapes from my own childhood. So when it came to trying to write my first book, a Stephen King rip-off, I’m like: ah I’ll set it in Australia! But what the fuck did I know about Australia? Absolutely nothing, it was just a way for me to write about the Dominican Republic. It was really kind of ridiculous.

What happened in the story?

The plot was incredibly bad. There was a crashed plane – oh my god, I’m so embarrassed. What was wrong with me? Killing people by the hundreds. It was about an evil spirit that possesses this young bride. You could tell my parents’ divorce was really getting to me!

How involved are you in the Spanish translations of your books?

I don’t have the time or the talent [to do it myself]. With my first book, I was well involved. For my novel, I was seriously involved. [The translator and I] did an enormous amount of work together that was like sentence-to-sentence. But with This Is How You Lose Her, I read what she’d done – and this translator had already built so much of a sense for how to translate me – that it was so much easier. I come from this perspective of being a reader. I know, in the end, it’s about the book and the reader and I don’t mind that the translator interprets it. The book that’s mine is the original language one.

You’re famous for a street vernacular that mixes Spanish and English slang – it’s pretty distinctive. But your books have been translated into many other languages. It’s hard to imagine how that would be possible…

I think translators love that challenge. My French translation won a really big translation prize. Nearly everyone who reads it in French says it’s probably better than the original!

In what ways are responses to your work from readers in the Dominican Republic and the Spanish-speaking world different to those in the English-speaking world?

I’m a person who doesn’t read any of my press. I’m nervous enough as it is. But my sense is that in the Caribbean, being politically committed as a writer is not seen as unusual. The conversation that politics is politics and art should be art – that makes no sense at all to the average person in the Caribbean. So there’s that – a different sense of contextualising. But I think it’s funny. Americans are like: ‘This is kind of Dominican stuff; it’s not American’. And in the Dominican Republic it’s like, ‘This is set in New Jersey; it’s not really Dominican’. So it’s great! Neither side really wants to recognise you. You’re like the redheaded stepchild.

You grew up poor and have said you’ve seen American society “from the bottom up”. What do people who have not experienced poverty fail to understand about it?

My mother raised a family of five throughout the 1980s, always on an annual less than $6000. It was the banal set of hardships: all of us sharing clothes, never enough to eat. Constant insecurity about everything. When I think of that childhood, what I most remember is the humiliation, the shame and the fucking fear. The fear and insecurity. And how there was no space for us to talk about it. It all fell under a vast silence. Even though we were surrounded by poor folks – the shame creates a wall.

Poverty is debilitating and it follows so many of us. In college I read The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan – it finishes with this incredibly wealthy Jewish immigrant, who is still utterly haunted by his childhood in poverty. I connected so strongly with that. Because, you know, now I’m 45, solidly middle class, can pay for sushi if I want to. And yet none of it has gone away for any member of my family. All my family compulsively eats at the same hour. We’re five siblings, we live in totally different places, but having been hungry has made us absolutely neurotic. All of us have a set schedule and God forbid we’re a little late to getting to food. All of that panic from childhood comes rising up.

There is a lot of violence, including sexual violence in your books – but it’s dealt with in a way that shows how abuse can work in cycles. What are you conscious of when writing about violence?

I’m not taking a moral, schematic view of my characters. There’s no question that violence, whether one is a perpetrator or is a victim – it deforms us. I mean it sucks that the older brother, Rafa, in This Is How You Lose Her is a violent sociopath and one has to condemn this. But also this kid is kind of a damaged human being. To present a balanced view of him allows me not to replicate the sort of representational violence that is in many ways equal, or as dangerous, as the violence that a character like Rafa perpetrates.

The character Yunior, a semi-autobiographical figure, is at the centre of all three of your books. Do you get tired of talking about him?

Well, this [between The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her] is the shortest gap I’ve had between books. The last gap was 11 years! So the truth of it is that I almost never talk about him. We gotta support writing and reading everywhere. I mean, compared to how much I hear about what kind of beer I should drink – turn on the radio, the TV, go online – there’s more chatter about what kind of liquor you should be drinking, than you’ll ever have in your whole life about art. So for me to spend a couple of weeks of the sum total of my life talking about art – even at its most facile level – it’s better than talking about beer!

The new deluxe edition of This Is How You Lose Her will feature illustrations by Jaime Hernández, the artist behind the Love and Rockets comics. Is it scary to allow another artist to expand on a creative universe – Yunior’s world –that you’ve spent about 15 years putting together?

Well, I love [Hernández’s illustrations] and my publisher already knew that I was obsessed with this guy [when they approached him]. But really I exert all my control in the creation of the book. It’s the same with the translation: afterwards I tend to understand that there has to be a role for collaboration, for other people to pick up your story and run with it. Is there trepidation that someone is going to fuck it up completely? Of course. It’s not a game if you can’t lose. But I don’t mind the risk of losing because the game is so much fun.

See Junot Diaz at the Melbourne Writers Festival or the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Follow Sophie Quick on Twitter @squickens.