Strange Absences

A Conversation with Junot Díaz

by Mika Kligler & with contributions from María Eugenia Pabón

Illustration by Teri Minogue

published May 1, 2015

On the phone, Junot Díaz speaks more slowly than I thought he would. His books talk fast—Yunior, the Dominican-American semi-autobiographical narrator who runs through all three of Díaz’s works (two short story collections and one Pulitzer-winning novel), has a fierce high-low machismo voice, and when he calls the Haitian dictator Papa Doc “P-diddy,” you’re right there with him. Díaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New Jersey when he was a kid, tells me that his work is pulled along by the “strange, troubled, vibrant, half-crazed diaspora”; he writes around immigration and alienation, masculinity and misogyny, post-colonial intimacies of all sorts. He is avidly and outspokenly political, but has also been criticized on numerous occasions for the misogynist characters that populate his fiction. Here we talk about writing women, science-fiction, and Sun Ra.

The College Hill Independent: “Otravida, Otravez” is your only short story with a female narrator—could you talk about writing women? How do you access female voice and why don’t you do it more often?

Junot Díaz: I don’t do it more often because my socialization and my training in conventional masculinity make writing women—authentic-sounding women—actually quite challenging. It’s very hard being the average guy who grew up where I’m from, who wasn’t necessarily trained to be the best observer of women. And I would argue that in fact it takes a lot of work to get women right. To get them right at all.

The Indy: You’re often challenged about the misogynist characters in your work and you usually respond—correct me if I’m wrong—by saying that first of all, representation of misogyny is distinct from reification or endorsement of misogyny. And secondly, that you’re mapping male subjectivity with feminist aims in mind—you’re interrogating masculinity in the same way, maybe, that academics are starting to interrogate whiteness as opposed to blackness.

So I get this, I agree with you for the most part, but I also feel that sometimes in mapping male subjectivity, you erase female subjectivity. Your first book, Drown, fails the Bechdel test (at no point do two female characters speak to each other about something other than a man). How do you balance exploring masculinity from the inside, through a misogynist narrator, without eliminating the agency and subjectivity of women all together?

JD: I just am not so sure—again, I’m cautious about this—that writing about a guy who has a fucked-up world view around women, or who lives in an overwhelmingly masculine world... to me there seems to be a lot of value in that. And if you’re going to focus on a guy who lives in an overwhelmingly masculine world, well I mean shit, there are going to be some sacrifices, and certainly there are going to be some casualties in that there aren’t going to be a ton of women represented.

The question would be therefore: how do we represent the first without acknowledging the ontological damage that that literature does? I guess I thought that in some ways this whole project, if we’re talking about Drown directly, was a worthy error. For the reader, the worldview is suffocating, problematic, kind of awful. So I think, yeah, folks would long for a much more varied, real, and nuanced view. But that wasn’t the remit, man. That wasn’t what was at stake.
I tend to just argue for a closer reading of what’s happening structurally. If
Drown had any success, it was in the ways in which it tracked the fatal arc of those universes. Yunior is encased in awful solitude, and that is intimately and tragically balanced with his inability to imagine women.

I guess my feeling around this is that because books speak to each other, and books are in conversation with each other, I never thought that this book would stand alone in great solitude. There was always the sense that its silence around women, its silence around women’s subjectivity and women’s agency would be in direct conversation with all of these books where none of that is true. I thought the idea was that the worldview would be damned, and not so much the writer. I don’t mind being damned if that helps the worldview be damned. It just felt like an okay risk to take. But I know the flaw is quite terrible—for some people, unforgivable. At the time, I found no way around it.

The Indy: Do you think you’ve moved away from that strategy of allowing other books to speak to the agency of women?

JD: See that’s where I get a little nervous—it wasn’t like I transcended, or have become more talented...I stand behind the book even now. Let’s say I had done The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao first, and then I was suddenly struck with: yeah, I want to write what that world was like when I was 16, 17, 18. It’s nightmarish, myopic, patriarchal distortion. I wanted to write it from inside of it, and if that came next, I probably would have deployed the same exact tactics. The shock of that world—to have it represented with no escape, I felt was part of the claim of the project.

The Indy: You do seem though—I mean yes, maybe you’re condemning this patriarchal worldview, but you do have a lot of sympathy for Yunior and for your other misogynist characters.

JD: But it’s literature, it’s not a political platform. The idea is that you’re writing about human beings, and that if people lose sight of the human being, and only see a political framework, it stops being art. I mean of course I have to create characters who are fully human. But I would argue that creating sympathetic characters, characters who are fully human, doesn’t always include sympathizing with them.

The Indy: So this is sort of a different approach to the question of gender, but I was wondering about bilingualism in your work. There are a few scenes in This is How You Lose Her where we see that Yunior struggles to express himself in Spanish, even though he identifies as Dominican. I’m wondering about Yunior’s relationship, and your relationship, to the gendered metaphor of the ‘mother-tongue.’ If that holds weight for you.

JD: Oh yeah, I mean the idea of patria was always fascinating to me in Spanish. “The fatherland” as a female-ending word. I think one of the great debates in diasporic culture has everything to with how one maintains, holds, or loses the mother tongue. I was fluent in Spanish, almost entirely lost my Spanish, and then regained it enough to be functionally bilingual. So having been what I jokingly call an immigrant twice in language, first in English and then in Spanish, made me want to give both that complexity and challenge to my characters.

The Indy: When you’re writing, how well do you get to know your peripheral characters? Does the process of mapping out characteristics differ when you’re writing male and female peripheral characters? Do you think about different aspects of personhood?

JD: I think that’s sort of a leading question. It’s not a series of cupcakes, where you say okay, let me work on cupcake one, and then that’s done and you move on to the next cupcake. We’re talking about a world. You use what you can to represent that world. And some of the characters are absolutely minor but utterly essential, where as some characters are central and yet do almost no lifting in the story.

And I think that what’s missing in a discussion like this one is the powerful work that absence and silence does, at least in my fiction. Because my fiction is all about the people who aren’t present. It’s all about the gaps. Often, what we need most in the story is not present; look at the women who are disappeared from Yunior’s life. Their absence drives his incredible agonies and his incredibly bad choices. In a book like Oscar Wao, the absolutely central characters 

are missing. Where’s Trujillo? Where’s Oscar’s father? Where’s Lola’s rapist? Somewhere else, one would be tempted to draw in these figures. But I think I’ve discovered that my work gains enormous power from absence. Because being Carribean, you create long-lasting relationships with absence and silence. I tend to write my characters by thinking about and developing the central relationship that I can erase, that can haunt the entire story. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed the idea of writing in the tradition of the post-colonial gothic. Because all of these stories are haunted by these terrifying, strange absences.

The Indy: That seems to fit into the idea of writing about the diaspora—an absent home being central to the narrative.

JD: Yeah, Yunior is a very strange character, cause he is clearly fluent in both New Jersey and the Dominican Republic. There’s this strange thing with him, because who is haunting whom? ‘Cause he’s got access to the homeland, and he clearly takes advantage of it, so I think the reader has to ask: what’s really hanging over this?

The Indy: Thinking about diaspora—you’ve spoken in the past about your use of science fiction as a metaphor for the alienation of the immigrant experience. One of the epigraphs to Oscar Wao is a quote from The Fantastic Four. Can you talk about this a little? Why are you so interested in sci-fi and what do you think it does for your work?

JD: Oh because of all its massive strengths. First of all, its tradition of estrangement, its tradition of being able to engage, through estrangement, the unspeakable, the collective social silences, its ability to present us with new worlds, but also to use those worlds to both trouble and confront us with our already existing world. And some of science fiction’s standard tropes resonate very strongly with me. If you look at the standard science-fiction divisions, you have societies represented in starkly hierarchical ways. There’s nothing like growing up poor in New Jersey next to a landfill to resonate with this idea that the rich people live up in sky cities in the clouds and the poor people are reduced to mere savagery underground, which is a standard science-fiction trope. A lot of the tropes take on a lot more power when you realize that beneath their fantastic veneer is this horrifying social reality that for many people isn’t extinct.

The Indy: The other use of sci-fi that’s fairly predominant these days is in the afro-futurist movement. Do you see yourself and your work as part of that tradition?

JD: I was nourished by most of the afro-futuristic texts. I’m one of those people who feels very strongly identified with afro-futurism as this kind of disparate, argued-about aesthetic and critical movement.

As a creator, it’s a different situation. I deploy a lot of strange, afro-futuristic tropes in Oscar Wao, in small elements. But in the end, I feel like things tend to collapse around me. There was a book that I wrote at the same time as Drown. And it sort of shadows Drown, but I never published it. And I meant it to be this really wildly afro-futuristic novel. Like Sun Ra level. Everybody was of Afro-Caribbean descent. It was a pan-African science-fiction fantasy, and the main character is actually named Shakur, because I was so in love with Tupac Shakur in those days.

And it was just this awful ridiculously literal and obvious book that never had any life. But again I always thought that it was a blueprint of my interests, if I only had the talent for it. Just because you have these desires and these interests doesn’t mean you can dance the dance.

The Indy: Who do you think your audience is—because you’ve sort of attracted this audience where there’s a large contingent of white, middle-class, NPR-listening Americans who really love your work. So I guess I’m wondering if you write to open people up to narratives that they’re ignorant about, that they don’t necessarily see or look for otherwise? Or do you write to connect with the Oscars and Yuniors of Santo Domingo and New Jersey?

JD: I wrote my first book because I belong to a community that is overwhelmingly erased, overwhelmingly silenced, that is vilified and misunderstood. To be a poor person of color in this society means that you’re already a problematic body. And I grew up in this community in a way that made me realize that this kind of erasure and silencing was not only just fucking not right, it was deeply damaging. In our community we didn’t have a lot of spaces where we could use art to have conversations with each other and with ourselves about what was happening. I think that that’s what drove me to write and what continues to push me as a writer. So many stories are absent, so many stories need telling, so many stories need artists and folks to bear witness to them.

The strange part about where I’m at as a writer is that I’m working, like most artists, on the tiniest scale—just one point in the universe. And I don’t know that I’ll be able to do more than that, because it certainly doesn’t feel like one can even cover their own point with any ability. But in the end, the silence is so complete that almost any intervention will be useful for success. Even if it’s an artistic failure, it will provide a space of deliberation where we can have the types of conversations we need to have.