Junot Diaz is perhaps the best fiction writer in America, having won the hearts and minds of readers over nearly two decades with his three books: the short story collection Drown, the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and his new story collection This is How You Lose Her, a series of linked short stories, mostly about infidelity, mostly narrated by Diaz’s ghetto geek alter ego Yunior, and set in the three places the author has called home: the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, and Boston. The book features Diaz’s now signature style of deceptively simple prose that mixes lofty language and street talk, English and Spanish, and high and low culture. As if all that weren’t enough, Diaz recently won a MacArthur Foundation Award, netting him half a million dollars and the label of genius.
On Tuesday night, Diaz regaled a packed house at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, one of the city’s finest independent bookstores. Rather than opening with a reading, he began by taking questions from the audience. Writer, librarian, and Diaz fan Krissa Corbett Cavouras was on hand to record the dialogue. Disclaimer: the following was transcribed on a smartphone, may contain slight inaccuracies, and has been lightly edited for clarity. Also, there are a lot of swear words.
On creative writing programs (MFAs):
“Creative writing programs are the best way to get young people into a hundred thousand dollars of debt. I mean, is there any connection between the proliferation of creative writing programs and the collapse of people actually reading any of these books, and the collapse of bookstores? And how about what this does, it creates one-hit novelists, where you get one shot against the bottom line. You don’t get a second chance.”
“Creative writing programs have become the lottery machine for the intellectual set. Young writers should wait until, I don’t know, 27? What’s the hurry? Deep down in your heart if you’re serious about being artists, it doesn’t matter if the work comes early or late. It’s the ones who are in a rush who aren’t actually artists; they just want approval.”
“Do all the wrong things, make a ton of mistakes in your life; you’ll find that you actually bring news from the world to your art. Don’t graduate from college and go straight to an MFA. It’s a pyramid scheme and it doesn’t necessarily improve your art.”
On deciding between first, second, and third person narrators
“Experimentation? It’s like, try one style for three or four years and see that it doesn’t work. I mean, most people can try this in a week but if you’re me, it’s, you know, years. [In This is How you Lose Her], second person doubles down on the structural pattern in this book: it’s recursive, because through those second-person sections, you see Yunior evaluating his own choices, so in a way he’s another person learning from his own actions. I guess you have to be structural wonk to see things this way. A lot of people don’t like second person, you’re going to lose readers when you write in second. Because it’s repellant and intimate at the same time.”
On The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:
“You know, I had dreamed about a book where the book itself would be a dictatorship, without anyone knowing it. I would hide the dictatorship of the novel the way the Trujillato hid themselves among the people in the DR. So for a kid raised in a dictatorship, it felt like what I had been put on this blasted little monkey planet to DO. […] But you get depressed. I spent a lot of time depressed, yo.”
On the use of Spanish without translation
“I’m an old school reader. I assume people read like me – and look, let me back up and explain something. There was a lot of fucked up shit in my family, but here is something that was not our problem: it was okay not to know shit. So as a reader, I don’t feel the shame of ‘hey what does this mean.’ Maybe when you don’t know something, that’s the psychic communal break built into the book, this thing or word that makes you reach out and ask the world, ask the cutie on the bus next to you already. I’m the dude on the train going ‘what the fuck does pelagic mean?’ and hoping someone will know! Anything that doesn’t make sense in a book, it’s a reminder that this is the world – most of this shit doesn’t make sense.”
On writing about the minority experience and oppression
“I’m supposedly a successful writer and the people they assign to review me have no training, nada, in anything about the Caribbean, or anything about immigrant life. They wouldn’t do that to someone writing about world war two or historical stuff! But for us, it’s like: oh they’re just writing their colored shit. So you are going to have to figure it out yourself. What I guess it is, is the Goldilocks method: write the heavy-handed shit, and then writing the ghostly subtle wisps that no one will get outside your hood, and then find what the balance is between those two. That’s a really complicated work-around but sometimes you have to learn the difference the hard way.”
On his inspiration
“My background is reading all these US/Third World feminist writers from the 80’s…a bunch of ballsy women who said shit about understanding how they have to live in this world that we still haven’t surpassed. In fact, we’ve regressed from saying shit as straightforwardly as they did.”
“South Asian writers are amazing me right now. We’re only now starting to see amazing things come out of there. Funny thing about having Britain on your ass for that long is that these motherfuckers know how to do the formalist English thing. Wow.”
On variations of the n-word (ending in -er vs. ending in –a)
“Not to get all brainy fuck on you, but okay, fine, listen; the A at the end of nigger is phonemic drift that has normalized something really violent. There’s no difference between nigga and nigger. So I think part of the confusion is that I’m being brutally honest about what the word really is. I might say it with the A, but it doesn’t matter whether I’m using it all friendly-friendly, or if I’m gonna use it to lynch someone. Either way it has this deep supremacist history. So that’s how I use it. I might read aloud from my books and yeah, I’ll pronounce it with the A because that’s how it’s said, but when I write it down I want it to be recognized for what it is. It’s a poison. It’s this word that, look, if we [minorities] had the power: that word wouldn’t be in existence.”
“And listen, I don’t do dialect. Words that you just shape differently are now going to be different, thematically? That’s weird. When you write ‘mazza’, implying a reading of the word ‘master’… I mean, you should just be enough in that character’s head that you can write ‘master’ and I’ll still know he’s saying it like ‘mazza’. I use dialect on the sentence level but not the word level, if that makes sense. If your sentence doesn’t tell the reader how to read it, your word isn’t going to do the trick.”
On young artists seeking approval:
“If five people love you and five people think you changed their fucking lives, you’ve done it all. You’ve done more than Mitt Romney.”
For more on Junot Diaz, read Keith Meatto’s review of This is How You Lose Her.