Junot Diaz — Dominican-American Psyche

Interview with American-Dominican novelist, appeared in the Sunday Business Post, September 2. 

Growing up in 1970s New Jersey, Junot Diaz was a self-confessed ‘book slut’. The young Dominican immigrant — his family arrived in the United States when he was just six — read everything from Richard Adams and Enid Blyton to graphic novels.

At the age of eight, the voracious Diaz worked his way through all 25 installments of a series entitled the Young American Biographies. ‘They were these hundred page things about famous white, almost all male Americans,’ he recalls some four decades later, perched on a white plastic garden chair on the lush grounds of the Edinburgh book festival. ‘I thought, ‘If I read these I will seem more American’. Not realising that nobody knew any of these people, and reading them made me seem even more of an alien.’

The ‘Otherness’ of the immigrant experience, the disjuncture between the origin country and the destination, has been a hallmark of Diaz’s fiction since he emerged, seemingly fully formed, onto the American literary scene over fifteen years ago. His first book of short stories, 1996’s Drown, explored the childhood and early adult life of Yunior, an intelligent but misogynistic Dominican-American, through a series of snippets and brief glimpses written in the idiosyncratic Spanglish hybrid for which Diaz has become renowned.

Drown was succeeded in 2007 by The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao. A multi-faceted tale of modern life in the Dominican Republic and the US, Oscar Wao is, in the words of New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, ‘so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West.’

The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao, which Diaz won a Pulitzer Prize for, was narrated by Yunior, and the writer has returned to the same character for his new collection, This Is How You Lose Her. In the book’s opening story, ‘The Sun, the Moon, the Stars’, Yunior’s girlfriend discovers that he has been cheating on her and, after an ill-fated holiday in the Dominican Republic, breaks up with him.

What follows is a series of interlinked tales of Junior’s dysfunctional relationships with a string of women and, as he enters his 40s, a realisation of the hurt he has caused others slowly dawns upon him. The book culminates with The Cheater’s Guide to Love, an expertly drawn dissection of Yunior’s growing sense of shame about his behaviour set amid the backdrop his own corporeal failings.

Yunior’s relationship with Diaz — and Diaz’s with his most famous literary creation – is one of the most interesting aspects of both his writing and his personality. A short, well-built man with dark-rimmed glasses, Diaz looks younger than his 44 years. He wears a tight t-shirt, blue demins and running shoes. He speaks in the same sharp, rapidfire sentences that he writes in, but his tone is less snarky, more circumspect. When our hour-long conversation turns to Yunior, as it often does, Diaz talks as one would a close family member or old acquaintance. There are certainly many similarities between  the puppeteer and his puppet: both Diaz and Yunior are Dominican Americans, both went to Rutgers, both are unmarried and childless, both are now professors teaching in Boston (in Diaz’s case, at MIT).

‘I always think of Yunior as the supreme imposter. He fits the bill close enough that he could borrow all my clothes, he could live in my apartment without the neighbours noticing, but in reality it’s a different person’ says Diaz. ‘(Yunior) takes elements of myself and distorts them, puts them under such torsion that no matter how much he borrows my clothes and borrows my vitae, none of my friends would ever say ‘this person is you.’

The character and its creator may be discrete entities, but Yunior often acts as a conduit for Diaz’s concerns and experiences, including the novelist’s acceptance of his own mistreatment of women. Diaz, whose speech is a curious mix of the profane and the prolix, describes growing up ‘in a universe where a lot of dude’s didn’t think of women as people’. Yunior’s journey in This Is How You Lose Her ‘was modelled on that same recognition in my own life where I realised that ‘yeah, you might not like seeing people being hurt but you think of (women) not as being people, and you walk all over them’.’

For Diaz, this attitude towards women is intimately bound up with immigrant, and particularly the colonial, experience: ‘One doesn’t need a history of colonialism to be fucked up towards women but I think it must play a role. One of the aspects of being a colonial subject is its emasculation.’

Whether an acknowledgement of what Diaz calls ‘colonial masculinities compensatory relationship towards women’ actually leads to behaviour change is more uncertain. In The Cheater’s Guide to Love, Yunior finally recognises that he was wholly responsible for destroying his relationship with his fiancee, but would he – or, indeed, Diaz – make the same mistakes all over again?

The author, who has recently started a new relationship, is guarded about the specifics of his personal life but admits that it is ‘much harder to alter your behaviour and face the truth than it is to just go back to being who you used to be.’ Now in his 40s, Diaz is finding the cumulative effect of such destructive, masculine behaviour increasingly burdensome. ‘The accumulation (of memories) has gained a mass where it’s making the forgetting impossible,’ he says, wearing a look of weary resignation. Diaz ‘always envied my friends who didn’t run out of rope’, who could continue cheating on their girlfriends and acting the traditional male with impunity, but like his leading man, Yunior, he ‘found himself backed into a corner. I got tired’.

‘Some of us run the fuck out of rope. We’re not any better but we don’t have the psychic elasticity anymore. Suddenly something about us breaks. If I’d had more rope I’d have probably kept on going but I didn’t.’

Diaz locates the origin of his behaviour in the ‘thin, very, very thin’ ethical imagination he, and other immigrant boys, grew up with. Central to this socialisation was his family, especially his father. ‘My dad fucked us up,’ Diaz laughs, echoing Philip Larkin’s earthy adage about parents’ Freudian impact on their offspring.

The Dominican Republic that the Diazes left in the 1970s was an extremely militaristic society. Diaz senior fought in the army during the 1965 revolution, which followed the overthrow of the democratically elected left-wing government, and lead to the installment, with the CIA’s backing, of the regime of Joacquin Balaguer. The pater familias instilled in his children an adoration of the military – ‘in our household it was what one aspired to.’

Diaz’s reels off his family’s army ties: a brother who served in the Balkans, two more cousins in the US military, a sister that married an army man. His elder brother was on course to enlist before he died of cancer at an early age.

As a bookish child with no interest in military life, Diaz was the ‘febrile black sheep’ in his staunchly working class New Jersey immigrant family: ‘It was very difficult for me, all my brothers used to box. I was terrible at it. My older brother all the time would accuse me of throwing matches because I hated to see people getting hurt.’

Diaz is no longer in contact with his father, who lives in Florida, but he remains very close to his Dominican roots. He returns to Santo Domingo three or four times a year. Although he now divides his time between his apartment in Harlem, in New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, he regularly returns to his native New Jersey, where many of his friends and family still live.

Growing up in a Latino neighbourhood in the 1980s — surrounded by refugees from conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — was a deeply politicising experience. ‘The average American had no news from the wars in Central America but we were watching Spanish language networks where it was non-stop. My ‘80s were so different to everyone else’s ‘80s. Every time they massacred a village it was on the news.’ Diaz soon found himself caught up in the anti-Reagan moment spreading across the American left, a place on the political spectrum he still calls home.

A career as a writer gestated, indirectly, from his youthful political exposure. Majoring in history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, he intended to embark on a career as a historian but found that he lacked the necessary ‘punctiliousness and exactitude’. Besides, ‘all the things I was interested in were impossible to describe outside fiction’.

At university, Diaz’s specialist subject was genocide – as if to demonstrate his knowledge, he tells me, with supreme authority, that the Guatemalan conflict ‘was the only war that United Nations declared a genocide’. His fiction shares this interest in the absent, the untold and the untellable. ‘There is always something missing in an enormous way in my work, the characters are always revolving around this aporia.’ The lacuna in This Is How You Lose Her is Yunior’s fiancee, who features only as reported speech, as a figure on the edge of the narrative.

Diaz knows all too well what it feels like to be on the cusp of multiple stories and places. An immigrant who has found acceptance at the heart of the literary establishment; a Dominican raised in the US; a male struggling with his familial and colonial baggage, Diaz is nothing if not, in one of his favourite words, simultaneous. ‘I trouble Dominicans in Santo Domingo as much as I trouble Americans. They don’t like liminal figures.