- Voyaging Across Arcs:A Conversation with Junot Díaz
The satirical talk-show host Stephen Colbert once teasingly asked junot díaz, who migrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was six and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), if by winning the prize he had not robbed an American of the possibility of earning a Pulitzer. Quick on the draw, Díaz responded that since Pulitzer himself had been an immigrant, he would have been happy to know that the prize had gone to him. This ability to swiftly turn a challenge to his advantage speaks to Díaz's savviness in manipulating political and aesthetic form and to the energy with which he has engineered a now storied literary career. He marked his literary debut with Drown (1996), a collection of short stories that gives sharp-witted eloquence to the complexities of being Black, Latino, and immigrant in the United States. Drown introduced us to Díaz's maverick mixing of a finely crafted, minimalist prose, with [End Page 495] the brio and humor of Black American English and the rhythms of Dominican Spanish, which is never italicized or translated. It also introduced a literary landscape that interlaces New Jersey and the Dominican Republic that, in so doing, challenges conventional representations of migration as splitting old and new worlds. But it was his 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and a subsequent collection of stories, This Is How You Lose Her (2012), that have given full range to his voice, which has matured since Drown, becoming at once more dynamic, more playful and, at the same time, more grounded in history. In his hands, the interrelation between the African diaspora, the effects of U.S. imperialism, and the exodus of Dominicans to foreign lands caused largely by the U.S.-backed Trujillo dictatorship, sharpens. And it does so through his effortless intertwining of diverse vernaculars. Much of the power of Díaz's fiction comes from his sensibility, by which I mean a mix of irreverent wit, understated but potent intellectual vigor, and the chispa, or spark, that comes from street knowledge. His wit is a lot like that of the late actor-comedian Groucho Marx, who was fond of playing with the old saying that American streets are paved with gold. When immigrants get here, Marx said, they learn, first, that the streets are not paved with gold; second, that the streets are not paved at all; and third, that they are expected to pave them. This is one of Díaz's most powerful gifts: that he uses a disarming sense of humor to write an immigrant literature that guards against the commodification of the immigrant tale and the reduction of the immigrant to a type.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
On a wintry March afternoon in 2016, I visited Díaz's apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a place that he has called home since at least 2003. Sitting in his living room, I could not help but see his apartment as a kind of art site: a place that has paid witness to the evolution of Díaz across two decades. Surrounded by his books, we talked about what migration does to one's sense of space and time, the challenges of writing immigrant fiction, the distinctiveness of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway show, Hamilton, and the rise of the reality-show figure then running for president. [End Page 496]
You've talked about immigration as a form of space travel and have drawn potential links between science fiction and immigrant fiction. How do these insights relate, if they do at all, to the way that you think about setting when you create stories?
I think a big part of what has interested me as an artist is my experience with the process of an immigrant coming to terms with or navigating their new world. I am very interested in this idea that, for an immigrant, the...