Interview: Junot Díaz Talks Dying Art, the Line Between Fact and Fiction, and What Scares Him Most

Interview: Junot Díaz Talks Dying Art, the Line Between Fact and Fiction, and What Scares Him MostPhotography by Steven Brahms.

There’s something going on in the collection about attrition and duration. Especially in that last story—I’ve read break-up stories before, but not one that was so punishing in how far down the line it takes you.
Yunior has got a lot of bills that have to come due. You’ve got to leave this big negative space for the reader to come to the conclusions. One of the big spaces in the stories is why is this guy, unlike most of the dudes that I grew up with, so haunted by his errors? Why can’t he do like Condoleezza Rice says, “Oh, no, we can’t look back”? Everybody says, “I don’t like to look back, I just like to think about the future.” That way we absolve ourselves of any consequences for our actions.

 

The next project will be a future book. It’s been a pain, another one of these books that will take forever.

 

Part of the joke of how the stories work together is, it slowly becomes clear that this guy is deeply haunted by his responsibilities, by his participation, by the damage he’s done. And eventually the contradiction between his repetitious acts plus the way that it weighs on him, it's going to break him. That idea was in place from the beginning. From the first line—“Oh, I’m not a bad guy”—I knew that I was going to smash him by the end. The guy who says that line playfully, bullshitting, would be incapable of uttering that line at the end.

He has to get broken.
But he also changes. By the end, if I forced him to say that line, he would never be able to. That's part of the project. That was my dream, part of the reason why it took so fucking long.

There’s a phrase in the first story: “The momentum of the past.” I feel like that's applicable to your whole project in some ways. Oscar Wao is very concerned with looking backward.
I don’t think you’re wrong. Are you familiar with Harold Innis, the Canadian communications theorist? One of the most important people next to Marshall McLuhan. Innis talks about the “tyranny of the present.” One of the deformations of subjectivity under our current capitalist instance is that it collapses the past; very few people have a real sense of history. We’re taught to not look backward, we’re taught to not think about history. In fact, we’re really feeble in that area—our muscles are underworked. And simultaneously—which is why he calls it “the tyranny of the present”—we’ve been terrorized about thinking about the future. The future is atomic war, the future is that you’re going to have a worse job, the future is global warming that eats us up. And therefore, at both ends, the normal range of our imaginary has been cropped.

This is Innis writing in the '60s, talking about how there used to be a healthy subjectivity that would look forward, backward, and also be present. It wasn't like the Janus two-face, it would be like a three-faced subjectivity. I was wigged-the-fuck-out when I was reading this as a kid in college. I was thinking that I want to create, in some ways, an archaic subjectivity. I want Yunior to be one of these people who has eyes to the past, is deeply in the present, and has eyes toward the future. Even if he only thinks of the future as a ruin, he’ll at least look.

It’s only an apocalypse waiting, it seems.
Or the next piece of ass. That very encounter with Innis, which I only learned about from reading John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, where he mic-checks him, made me realize that this was a part of how I was going to form Yunior. Not only is the project about how I feel people need this three-way approach, but also there’s no way an immigrant is not going to have a relationship with the past. There’s no way that someone who comes out of the nightmare of slavery, the nightmare of imperialism—even when you don’t think about it, that’s almost as good as thinking about it. The silence is powerful, which is what happens with Oscar, who never thinks about it.

It’s there in the negative space.
Juxtapose him against his family history, and you realize that his non-thinking is intentional. I find Oscar hilarious because he never thinks about the Dominican Republic. That says everything.

The future—that’s the apocalypse novel you’ve been kicking around, right? The excerpt that was in The New Yorker...
That’s a piece of it. Drown and This is How You Lose Her, these are what I would call present books. They look backward, they look a little forward, but they’re basically present. Oscar Wao would be my past book. The next project will be a future book. It’s been a pain, another one of these books that will take forever. If I stay alive, and healthy, I’ll get it done. It’s so important for us to play in the future, to exercise our minds around possible futures.

I was reading a conversation from BOMB between you and Edwidge Danticat, and you were talking about that. You were talking about the outskirts of genre and outsider art. I don’t mean outsider art in that—
No, I know what you mean. Outsider practices, or even just reflections.

Right. And that all feeds into your desire to play with the future.
I hope so. I think something interesting might happen. Something very interesting happened by pursuing Oscar as a character involved with narratives that nobody else is interested in. Oscar, what he really wants to do is write role-playing games. His dream fails. I always found that to be so heartbreaking—people who are into role-playing games and read the book, they get it. They get it because they know what it means to be interested in something that nobody gives a fuck about. And in fact, I always felt that Oscar’s move into fiction writing was a compromise, like the poet who thinks he has to write a novel. I’m hoping by staying in the weird zone of this freakish-but-possible future that something will be generated that I’m not expecting.

 

Every character you write has certain limitations. You build a character and you know that there are limitations, you know that there are huge holes.

 

It would complete your three-headed figure.
It closes a circuit that I’ve been dreaming of closing for a long time.

And then what happens?
God, if I can finish this—it's like, have you ever had a partner who says they’re going to whoop your ass? They say, “I’m so mad at you that I’m coming there to get you.”

Sort of.
To have a partner say, “I’m so mad at you, I’m coming to talk to you.” I feel like that. This book has got me so scared about whether it’s going to fail that I can’t even think about tomorrow.

Fail again?
This novel has had a number of forms, and each fucking iteration fucking dies.

Where does it die? Hundreds of pages in?
In three instances, hundreds of pages in. It just doesn’t come together.

The footnotes from Oscar Wao that aren't present in your other work, would they be present in the future novel?
Definitely.

It seems like you would want to play with form there.
Definitely. With This Is How You Lose Her, this is Yunior at his scabrous, unthinking best. Every character you write has certain limitations. You build a character and you know that there are limitations, you know that there are huge holes. Yunior’s limitation is that, while he’s awesome at looking outward, he's terrible at looking inward. So part of what happens is, if I distract myself with something like a footnote, I lose what little of Yunior’s authentic heart appears. I tried a couple of times but it was so stupid. It distracted the reader from a dude who can barely face himself.

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Tags: december-2012-january-2013-issue, junot-diaz, my-complex, this-is-how-you-lose-her
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