[Note: The following interview first appeared in San Francisco Panorama, published by McSweeneys in December, 2009.]
A few months ago, I got a chance to interview Junot Díaz, author of Drown and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The place was Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin. This is a slightly cleaned-up version of that public conversation.Dave Eggers
DE: You live in Boston, and we have a non-profit up there, 826 Boston, modeled after our program here in the Mission. And a former student of mine went to school out there and took one of your classes at MIT. He later convinced you to work with what was then not even a non-profit yetwe were starting to form itbut he got you to come and speak at a high school called English High School. Its a big public high school that keeps getting knocked down, threatening to be closed for lack of funding, and they get some really bad press, and the students were feeling really kind of beat down, and you came in and spoke. Do you remember that?
JD: Yeah, of course.
DE: I talked to one of the students afterward, a few weeks after your visit, and you sort of electrified him, and all the students. There was this one kid, Edwin Gonzalez, who after your visit decided he wanted to be a writer. And he wrote a piece in this book of student essays called I Wish They Would Have Asked Me that 826 Boston published, from the point of view of this girl thinking of committing suicide. Edwins ROTC, a big, popular guy, and yet he wrote this very delicate and beautiful piece of prose. Edwin went on to continue writing, hes working on all kinds of things, and hes now at Brandeis on a scholarship. I think you made a big difference in this guys life, and every time we have a fundraiser in Boston, Edwin speaks, and the first question he asks us is, Is Junot going to be here? Do you remember what you talked about during that visit, or what you talk about when you talk to high-schoolers?
JD: Im sure, look, this is the kind of crowd thats self-selected; in other words, if youre here, chances are youre the arts or you work with young peoplehow many of you work with young people, raise your hand? All of you. See thats crazy. This audience knows the deal. Its no mystery, and we know this, either we know it directly or indirectly: things have really shifted, not only in the culture of education but in the larger society. Young people are more isolated from adults than theyve ever been. Unless youre an adult who is getting paid to somehow be involved with young people, chances are most adults have no contact with young people that theyre not related to. And the isolation is kind of structural and its very deep and its very visible. Its basically divided the country into people who have daily contact with youth who are not related to them, and people who dont. And whats sort of extraordinary about this is that its not fucking rocket scienceyoung people need a tremendous amount of support and they need a tremendous amount of conversation and people to listen to them. And all youve got to do is just show the fuck up [laughter] and actually give a shit [more laughter]. I mean itthe severe lack that so many young people encounter means that very little seems like quite a lot. And thats more of a side statement than anything about what I do when I meet young peopleits just that theyre desperate for us, man. Its that artificial isolation that people pay for the most, you know, and we pay a price, too, being removed from young people the way most people are. That young people are some sort of numerical abstraction has robbed the society of much of its strength. When I came to the U.S., they hadnt gotten this whole thing that, you know, strange adults were gonna rape and kidnap you, they hadnt convinced us of that yet. Strange adults were someone you could possibly talk towe hadnt yet been divided by fear. The reality is that most of the raping, abuse, and attacking of young people was happening inside their families, but hey, no matter, it was easier to convince people to be scared of strangers. What I remember most from English High School was just sitting there and being like Okay. Im here. Lets just chat. Ill listen to you.
DE: Now, after Oscar Wao, you must get so many requests for your presence. Everything from festivals to going to Europe for a new translation of your book to appearances like the one at English High School. How do you sort all of this out, how do you find time to write?
JD: First, I dont have time to write. Second, I have a job, so it helps me cut shit out, and I teach, so that means, you know, theres a real reason I cant do all the cool stuff I would do if I was not working. And I spent ten years writing Oscar Wao, and I definitely didnt spend the ten years being like, Im amazing! This has taken ten years, because this much genius requires a decade! [laughter] I spent the whole time, you know, fucked up, unhappy, really miserable and convinced that Id ruined the whole thing, and all the stuff you get when you spend a really long time lost in the desert. I think more than anything, my basic lesson as an artist has been humility. So when I get a bunch of stuff, like Do you want to come to this thing, do you want to come to that thing? I say to myself Do I want to go to this because I want applause? Do I want applause to makeup for the fact that my mommy never held me enough? Or is this something where I feel I can be of service, is this an event where I can be of service? Thats the way I choose.
DE: When you were here in 2006 for Intersection for the Arts adaptation of Drown, there was an interview that you did here with the Chronicle, where you talked about the pressure you felt when you were still finishing Oscar Wao. You used the word deranged to describe your state of mind after all those years working on it. I wondered if when you finished it, if you figured out a solution. That is, did you reach some new level of mastery, for lack of a better word?
You should always write to the most specific audience imaginable, and from there springs the universal.
JD: The crazy thing about the arts is its not like other stuff where you can build up muscle to help you with the next project. A friend of mine, hes a surgeon, hes like a combat surgeon in Iraq, and we grew up together and immigrated together, and he tells me every surgery makes you even more awesome for the next surgery. Ive never felt that anything Ive written has made me more awesome. So I think for me its going to be a struggle for whatever the next project is, and if youre an artist and you work long enough at this, you begin to understand your rhythm, and what Im beginning to understand is my rhythm is very slow. I felt like my first book was just an accident, but what Im discovering now is that this is my rhythm. I take forever. Friends of mine hear this and they want to fucking throw themselves off a bridge, because the first ten years drove them crazy. Again I wish I could come up with something . . . Melville wrote Moby-Dickdoes anyone remember how many months it took him? Like fourteen months! Fuck you, Melville!
DE: Theres that story about Edward P. Jones that says he spend ten years walking around with The Known World in his head. He didnt put a word down that whole time, but when he finally figured it all out, he wrote the book in three or four months. I tell everybody that. You never know how long its going to take or how youre going to do it, but once you realize your pace, I think thats it. My last book [What Is the What] took four years, and this new one [Zeitoun] took three. It only drives you crazy if you think you should be faster for whatever reason.
JD: And were in a good field. Cause one of the best things about what we do is literally that the people who are into our shit are readers, and were not the only books they have on the shelf. So no matter how long and how much of a struggle it takes for us, theyre always young writers coming out with really good shit, and therere always people like us whove published coming out with shit. Readers always have room and time for us. If you really believe in the readers as much as I do, theres always going to be someone waiting for us. Maybe not the same crowd that read it the first time around, but a good group nevertheless. Readers can be really, really loyalnot all of them, but enough that it makes what we do wonderful.
DE: What was the difference in audience between Drown and Oscar Wao? Oscar Wao is one of those books thats just caught fire in so many different directions. Drown was probably a smaller, more short story or grad student audience, whereas Oscar Wao was read so widely. Book clubs, high schools, everything. Was it a shock to see this new audience emerge?
JD: Definitely. The novel had two different lives. The novel was first published in September 2007, and the Pulitzer wasnt announced until seven months later. What was fascinating was when the book first came out, there were AP articles written about how the book had bombed, because they were like, The book only sold this many copies. This is disastrous. So I remember that in the first life of the book, the audience was hardcore readers. Ill never forget that for the first seven months, you guys, and this is why my heart is in such a strong place for the Bay Area, for the first seven months of Oscar Wao, the only bestseller list where this book showed up for more than one week was in San Francisco. It was only after the prize, after the Pulitzer, that the rest of the country began reading the book the way that San Francisco was reading it. I felt like there were these two periods, and I remember very clearly the first period, and thats the one that has helped me be more clearheaded about what happened after. Its always great when a book finds a brand-new audience. In some ways youre seeing, when you get a prize like the Pulitzer, youre seeing your book in fast-forward. Its picking up the audience it would pick up in a twenty-year period in just six months. So you get all sorts of weird stuff. I can never get it out of my head that for the first seven months, it was really only hardcore book nerds who were like, This fucking book is good. And those were the people in some ways who kept it alive long enough for someone to nominate it for a prize.
DE: And were you writing it with that in mind at all? That is, Oscar Wao is so pure that it reads like its not aware of a potential audience.
JD: When I was writing this book, I was very aware in my head that I was writing about Dominicans in New Jerseyand that while I considered this experience universal thats not the way its usually viewed by the larger world. But its not like I could dumb anything down, because if I tried to write for some sort of vague mainstream audience, I would just lose everything that mattered in the book, I would lose all the awesome specificity and have nothing in the end to show for it. This is a long way of saying, if youre going to write a novel about New Jersey Dominican immigrants, you might as well go for it. Its not like if you reduce the amount of curses, youre going to find yourself more popular. If youre a writer like me, writing about people of color who are not always viewed as the center of the universe, you have to rely on your core readers and on people who are nuanced readers, to keep your book alive long enough for the mainstream to catch up. And I really feel that wayas a writer, had it not been for readers of color who kept it around for so long, and for teachers and writing nerds, I would have been finished. And the only reason I had these readers in the first place was because I was everything but mainstream. I think you should always writeI see this in both our worksyou should always write to the most specific audience imaginable, and from there springs the universal. Its not the opposite wayyou dont write to a very big audience, and assume that thats going to make your work universal. Every book that we continue to read a hundred years later, the thing that really joins it to other books that were still reading a hundred years later is the extraordinary specificity.
If you actually look at the profile of writers doing an MFA program, they look nothing like the rest of our society.
DE: One of the things youre doing in San Francisco is working with the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, and this might be a good segue to talk about what youre doing and what the goals of the organization are.
JD: I dont remember, did you ever do an MFA program?
DE: I took one creative-writing class in college, and I failed miserably. I was run out of there; I was terrible. No MFA program would have admitted me.
JD: Well, I do this workshop here in San Francisco called the Voices workshop, which is a programmatic alternative to MFA programs. Theres like a billion MFA programs in writing. Every fucking schools got one. This is specifically for writers of color and its been a really remarkable experience. Ive been doing it for about twelve years
DE: And its students of any age, its not just
JD: Of any age. And before this year the majority of writers we were getting would be considered nontraditional writers, so they werent coming out of MFA programs or getting ready to go to MFA programs. We got a lot of folks who already had families, already had careers, and really wanted to be writers. Its been an amazing program. Its something that, for us, those of us whove been involved, its really been an opportunity to give nontraditional writers the kind of exposure you could only get by going to a select university. Just having that door available so that somebody whos got a family of five and has always dreamed about writing, whos like a single mom, can get exposure to Cristina Garcia, to Suheir Hammad, to David Mura, to Saul Williams, to Chris Abani, and all these types of great writers, and thats a wonderful thing. Its just a cool way to give back to your community that doesnt always have access.
DE: I wonder what you think about whether the MFA programs in general are doing enough. Because Ive had some frustrating experiences where Ive written recommendations for former students of mine and young writers of color Ive met along the way, and the results havent always been so good. A lot of MFA programs, theyre not interested in a nontraditional learner, or someone from abroad, or someone not from a polished academic background. It makes me furious sometimes.
JD: No, I think youve hit it on the head. Youve gotta understand, whats scary about MFA programs is that theres a huge amount of privilege these universities hoard. They basically have years and years and years of free writing time they can dole out. And whats fascinating is that if you actually look at the profile of writers doing an MFA program, they look nothing like the rest of our society. Theyre almost always between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-seven, so its almost never people with families. That eliminates a ton of folks who should be qualified for this. But because they dont give the students enough money, if youve got two kids theres no way you can get this two years of writing. I think for me the biggest problem is that, again, if it doesnt look anything like the rest of our country, what the fuck is going on? I dont want to read writing from twenty-six-year-old hipsters. I include myself in that category, for real. Its like, sixty-something percent of the adults in this country have got kids. I would love to see that kind of age range represented, because I feel like it would deepen our literary tradition. And its not like MFAs control the bulk of everything that gets written. But its a lot of money and a lot of privilege that they do control. So Im like you, I think that at least a third to half of all MFA seats should be reserved for people with families. And the schools should figure out ways to get the kind of money so that people with families can get two or three years to write, you know, see the way our literature would change. Our literature would change in ways that would challenge all of us.
DE: Good. Lets write up a manifesto. Lets do that tomorrow. But youd have to lead the charge. Youre the one with the MFA.
JD: But we need to be there together. The thing is, Im not saying, Lets take all the twenty-six-year-old hipster MFA students and shoot them. Its that I feel like if these kids are not in a classroom with a couple of forty and fifty- and sixty-year-old people who have children, I feel like everyone loses. And the literature itself loses that as well.
I sometimes think were doing a better job at creating writers of color than readers of color.
DE: Okay, now we should talk about science fiction and Obama. Is it weird to have a president who knows science fiction? I just saw a speech John Hodgman gave in front of Obama, and there were all these Dune references, and seeing that Obama knew what he was talking about was just crazy.
JD: I think thats hot, its a kind of crazy power balance. For those of us who are old enough to have grown up with Reagan as our diabolical Voldemort, what we forget is that Reagan was all into that shit, too, the science fiction. But because hes evil, we dont want to mention it. Reagan was really into all those sci-fi movies, hardcore. And so weve had a bad evil nerd president, but its like the first time weve had one that we like, that isnt a demon and has a fuller range of nerdiness. Reagan was just into the films, he wasnt into reading too much. But when you read biographies of Reagan, you see how much these terrible sci-fi movies he loved shaped a lot of what he did [laughter].
Audience Member 1: This is a question about teaching; Im a teacher. I assume writings your first passion and that teachings a little lower down for you, and I assume you dont just teach graduate students, you get some freshmen, is that correct? Well, my son wants to apply to MIT next year; he told me that his goal in college is not to take a single English class. How do you approach students like that?
JD: Well, you know, I think that at this moment we belong to a country that marginalizes and trivializes the arts. For all the lip service this country gives to the arts, I feel like your child is in some ways voicing the real code of this country, which is, like, Can I avoid this totally irrelevant, superfluous practice? If you live in this country as long as I have, you become really prepared to deal with that. In other words, America can be great training for teaching at MIT, for kids who dont want any exposure to the arts, who are hostile to it, who think its stupid . . . I guess my faith is always the same: exposure to the arts, especially that passionate, compassionate exposure to the arts, always seems to melt the pharaohs heart. The only argument one can make to a country that again and again and again refuses to acknowledge the centrality of the arts is simply through our fight to increase exposure. Give me this youth, and Ill show as much as I can. And that doesnt mean that youll win every person, but out of every ten, if you win one, youre doing more than some of our highly funded arts organizations do. And I guess its good to understand it that way. I dont blame a young person who spends his entire life soaking in anti-arts culture for not liking the arts. I believe that so much is the way this gets distributed in peoples heads, even at an unconscious level. Believe me, this is not the first time Ive heard this from MIT students. I get students walking into my class, and theyre like, If it was up to me, I wouldnt be here. Im like, Ah, yes, America. Now lets see what we can undo.
Audience Member 2: What are you reading right now and what did you read that made you want to be a writer in the first place?
JD: This is the toughest question. Im reading a bunch of stuff at the same time. Im reading Monica Alis new book, In the Kitchen, set in a restaurant. And Im reading that book by ChloeI cant pronounce her last nameis it Aridjis? Do you know the book? Book of Clouds? That book is really, really great, and weird and experimental. And Im reading the WWII historian Max Hastings. Max Hastingshes supposed to be this objective WWII historian, but he really, really hates the Japanese [laughter]. Hes fucking crazy! Hes like talking very formally, and every time he gets to the Japanese, hes like, They have no morals! Diabolical! But when I was younger, I wouldnt notice these things. Now that were older its like, [chuckles] All right, son, calm down. And as far as books can propel me, I will never forget the dumbest story that I repeat again and again and againthe first real year I went to college, the first class that I sat down in, the first book we had to read was Song of Solomon. Song of Solomon transformed my life from reading junk, which I loveI think its very important!to suddenly discovering that it was possible not only to be transformed at the level of fantasybut to be transformed on the most fundamental human level. Suddenly not only did I see the real world that I lived in, but I saw myself in ways Id never seen before. I still think that damned book put me on the road to being a writer. Song of Solomon, beyond everything, is an extraordinary book to encounter as your first literary text.
Audience Member 3: Where do you see writing and literature generally going?
JD: Well, prediction tends to beIm paraphrasing something way smarter than meits like, Make predictions, look like an asshole [laughter]. In general, its hard to understand how art progresses, and I could never have predicted what the reading public is buying now. My sense of it is just that we desperately, desperately, desperately need more stories, and 99.9 percent of the stories we need to access our humanity arent available to us. And all of us who are published writers are literally holding the place of this huge mass silence that exists. But we also have to simultaneously encourage readers. Its sad if a program like VONA or a program like 826 Valencia encourages writers but not readers. I sometimes think were doing a better job at creating writers of color than readers of color. And thats what worries methat Im going to have twenty-five writers of color fighting for a person whos only going to buy one of their books. Weve got to do a better job creating a reading public, and again, I just know that whatever you end up writing, young personand publishingwill astonish those of us who never would have imagined something like your work was possible. I just hope weve created enough readers that when the book club meets up its not just me and you.
Junot Díaz is Boston Reviews fiction editor and author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.
Dave Eggers is founder of McSweeneys, cofounder of the non-profit literacy project 826 Valencia, and author, most recently, of Zeitoun.