Dominican-American author Junot Díaz writes in a smooth blend of Caribbean slang, erudite English, and hardcore nerd lingo. In 2008, his bilingual and footnote-peppered book The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao received the Pulitzer Prize, solidifying Díaz's place on the literary landscape. A year ago, he released his most recent work, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of nine short stories in novel form that capture love, loss, and struggle in Caribbean-American communities.
In 2007, comic artist Jaime Hernandez was asked to illustrate two of Díaz's stories that would later be published in This Is How You Lose Her for the New Yorker. Hernandez makes up one third of Los Bros Hernadez, along with his brothers Gilbert and Mario. The three siblings are behind "Love and Rockets," an alternative comic strip about the lives of Latina women. Six years after his original art for Díaz, Jaime Hernandez was asked to illustrate the remaining seven stories. Díaz said of the collaboration, "It’s kind of just out of nowhere, one of those beautiful occurrences you can only dream about." Complex got on the phone with both the author and the illustrator to discuss the project.
When I found out that this this was going to happen, I think I was more excited about that than having my first book accepted.
Were you a fan of Jaime’s work before you did this collaboration?
Junot Díaz: I’m a tremendous fan. I had been reading Los Bros Hernandez since the '80s, and in many ways they were my essential inspiration and an important model for me in my art. I adored them. When I found out that this this was going to happen, I think I was more excited about that than having my first book accepted.
When you first saw the illustrations, were they what you had in mind? What was your reaction?
JD: You have to understand that it's an incredible gift to have someone of the stature and of the ability and of the genius of Jaime Hernandez interpret your work, and what’s extraordinary is, if you’re like me, you basically sit back and accept the wonder of it. So I was super pleased and super moved by the work. Jaime is one of the greatest draft people we have, and it’s really just remarkable.
In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, you talk about how you write from a reader’s perspective. How do you think this illustrated novel changes the reading experience?
JD: I think it creates another channel which the reader has to work with. The way that some readers sort of ignore footnotes, some readers will resist illustrations because in some ways it goes against what they’re imagining. And what’s really wonderful about illustrated volumes is they are just an excuse for the person to think about the work visually. When there’s not art there, you can be comfortable saying, “Well, whatever this character looks like.” When there is a piece of art there, you are suddenly like, “No, this is not what this character looks like” or, “Yes, that’s just what this character looks like.” And I think it becomes an opportunity for a reader to sketch in their own mind their vision of the work. I always joke with my friends: an illustration is almost as good as a blank page for a reader that has a strong imaginary connection to the work.
With this illustrated version, readers will have a preconceived notion of what characters look like, but it seems like you believe that this won’t ruin their mental pictures of the characters.
JD: I think that readers live a long time with a book. If you think about the hours that are involved, there’s no way that an illustration will gain dominion over a reader who has spent four, five, six, seven, eight hours in a book. In the end, their first loyalty as a reader is to the actual book. And I do think an illustration is a wonderful channel of information, an opportunity to be creative, a way of thinking about the visual world of the text.
In a previous interview with Complex, you talk about how we need to find ways to get people to pay attention to art when they have less time to do so. Do you think this project is a part of that?
JD: I certainly think that these type of collaborations are windows into a relationship or windows into certain artistic practices or just an opportunity for us to geek out at an artistic level. The funny thing is, I have to tell you, I think that my writing will be for many of [Hernandez’s] fans something completely new, and probably some of my readers are not familiar with [his work]. It's one of the best parts of collaborations—collaborations are when you throw a party and invite two entirely different worlds to it. And what is possible when you invite these two worlds to a party is what most draws me to collaborations, what’s most promising about them.
Some of your writing has some pretty hardcore nerd references, particularly in Oscar Wao. I imagine that Oscar would be a fan of Jaime’s work, which makes this sort of a perfect collaboration. Were you at all thinking about these parallels when this opportunity came up?
JD: When I was given the opportunity, it couldn’t have been given a better gift. Yunior and Oscar in the book, and in my mind, were both familiar with Los Bros Hernandez, which is why they both kind of mic-checked them. The spirit of Los Bros Hernandez in some ways has filtered through so much of my work. If it’s not a natural pairing, to me it felt almost necessary. To me it’s sort of a homecoming.
I certainly think that these type of collaborations are windows into a relationship or windows into certain artistic practices or just an opportunity for us to geek out at an artistic level.
In many ways, your work is very oral, involving Spanish, English, and slang, and with this illustrated version you are adding a visual aspect to your novel. What does it mean to think about your work visually instead of orally?
JD: For me it always just feels like an opportunity to play. For the reader, it’s an opportunity to integrate to deny new elements. Some people are going to look at some of the characters and think, “You know what, that works for me” and other people are going to think, “That doesn’t work for me.” As a writer, what’s fascinating to me, is many times we’re capturing the emotional truth of our characters, and we forget that we’re not always filling all the lines of their physical world. And when you're a visual artist like Jaime Hernandez, those questions cannot be left out, and I think that there’s something really wonderful about the blank spaces that all narratives leave being utilized by an artist to express himself. I mean the spaces are there, why wouldn’t someone try to make use of them?
What was the transition like from drawing your own characters to illustrating someone else’s story?
Jaime Hernandez: It was a little difficult reading the stories to get an idea of what the characters are like. Sometimes there’s very little description, and I had to guess on some of them. In the end, there were only a few corrections by Junot like, "This guy should be built, less skinny," or something like that. Other than that, I was allowed to create the characters myself.
What was challenging about adapting the novel visually?
JH: Location was because a lot of his stories happen in places where I’ve never really lived, a lot in New York and then some in the Dominican Republic. So trying to capture that the best I could because I don’t live there and of the few resources I had, I was a little nervous about that. I tried to just capture the feeling of the stories, the temperament.
What came naturally?
JH: Well the easy part is, he writes the way he writes. And what he writes about is kind of the same thing I do in my comics. It centers around people more than anything, and that is up my alley. So if he’s got somebody with a certain personality, I know how to put their personality in their posture or just the way they carry themselves.
How do you pick a specific scene to draw?
You know that’s kind of hard to say because it’s just what I’m feeling at the time. Sometimes I’m reading the story, and I get to a certain scene, and I go, "Ah, that would be a good image." I don’t know if it represents the story, but it’s a good visual for me and hopefully for the readers. I’m not always spot on, but a lot of times they’ll say, "Well, we were thinking of this different scene where there’s something else happening," and in my head, I’m like, "That’s boring!" So I guess I try find a balance of something that’ll make me happy, something using my strengths.
Collaborations are when you throw a party and invite two entirely different worlds to it.
How do you think your drawings that you did for the novel change the relationship a reader has with the characters?
The images give the reader certain ideas, and I was a little nervous that I gave them the wrong idea. Because this is his book. I went totally into it with respect for his work and respect that this was his baby. When people say, "collaboration," it’s more like I was just invited and grateful that I was invited to do this book. I try really hard not to step on the writer’s vision. So I’m just grateful that they let me have this much reign.