Author Explains Tales Of New Vision, New Life
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. When the novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008, many readers hailed its author, Junot Diaz, as a bright new literary voice, but others say the prize as the fulfillment of the promise made a decade earlier.
Diaz's breakthrough book was "Drown," published in 1996. It's a collection of short stories set in a Dominican-American community in New Jersey, vivid stories of young men trying to forge an identity in the U.S., even as they grow up rooted in the culture of another home.
"Drown" is our latest selection for TELL ME MORE's summer reading series. Author Junot Diaz joins us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. JUNOT DIAZ (Author, "Drown"): Michel, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Now, you know we interviewed Colson Whitehead about his novel "Sag Harbor" for our series, and we asked him to recommend the next book, and he recommended "Drown." And I don't know if you've had a chance to read his book, but it's a coming-of-age story set in this middle-class black enclave in the Hamptons. "Drown" is also made up of coming-of-age stories but with a very different backdrop. So if you could just tell us a little bit about the people, the neighborhood, the communities you were writing about.
Mr. DIAZ: Well, as far as the setting, the sort of like, you know, both the people and the place of which "Drown" is addressing, what you have is these communities in central New Jersey that at the time when I was writing no one was really talking about or writing about or even knew much about, which was sort of these immigrant communities that are organized or that are located around major cities but not exactly in them, and I began with that.
And then I picked this one family, very much based on my own, this family of immigrants, a family that has to deal with all the kind of standard kookiness of immigration but also that is coming at it from a very different perspective, and I thought that was an important part of this book, that these are folks who come from another place but are in a world, are in a setting, where they are plunged deeply and immediately into what we would call America.
MARTIN: A lot of the characters are also - most of them are grappling with being a man, what that means.
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, but you know, probably the worst-kept secret on the planet is that's what boys spend all their lives doing, you know? The formula for being a man is so impossible, it's like trying to get yourself into a suit that no human being can possibly wear.
MARTIN: You talked about the fact that at the time you were calling forth these characters, a lot of people weren't talking about these young men, or young men like the ones that you write about, and it seems to me that for a lot of artists of color that there's somebody who feels that everything that comes out of your typewriter or computer should be heroic - right? - that the characters should put the best foot forward, and they're disappointed when they don't. And some of the characters in your book, they don't always make the kinds of choices that show up on the honor roll, right, at high school. They deal drugs, they skip school, they do stuff that some people…
Mr. DIAZ: They're human.
MARTIN: They're human, sure. But I wonder, though, does anybody raise the airing-the-dirty-laundry piece? Like why do we need to hear about all that?
Mr. DIAZ: Of course that has deep community roots and sort of - you know, it comes out of very complicated things, but I also think it's basically a misunderstanding of what art is. Art is not boosterism, it's not propaganda, and it's not spin, but that's not something that art does, and nor has it historically ever done it.
Art has a way of confronting us, of reminding us, of engaging us, in what it means to be human, and what it means to be human is to be flawed, is to be contradictory, is to be often weak, and yet despite all of these what we would consider drawbacks, that we're also quite beautiful. Spin is the opposite. Spin is something is beautiful because we say it's beautiful.
MARTIN: And speaking of painful truths and beauty and painful truths about beauty, you don't shy away from issues of race and color, color consciousness. I'm going to ask you to read from one of the stories that confronts a lot of those issues. And for some reason I want to hear you say the title. I'm not sure I'll say it the way - I don't know, it's kind of - with the kind of verve that I think it needs. I feel like I need a man to say the title.
Mr. DIAZ: Oh lord.
MARTIN: But it's "How to Date..."
Mr. DIAZ: Yes. It's "How to Date a Brown Girl, Black Girl, White Girl, and Halfie."
MARTIN: And halfie. That's it. And the stories about what young ladies from different backgrounds expect on a date. And we're going to ask you to read from the part of the story where you talk about where you should take different girls to dinner.
Mr. DIAZ: The story is actually sort of a deranged and deeply flawed how-to guide.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DIAZ: This is the kind of information that the average guy gets when they're adolescents. You know, no wonder like we're, you know, the worst in relationships. So here goes, "How to Date a Brown Girl."
You have choices. If the girl's from around the way, take her to El Cibao for dinner. Order everything in your busted-up Spanish. Let her correct you if she's Latina and amaze her if she is black. If she's not from around the way, Wendy's will do.
As you walk to the restaurant, talk about school. A local girl won't need stories about the neighborhood, but the other ones might. Supply the story about the local who'd been storing canisters of tear gas in his basement for years, how one day the canisters cracked and the whole neighborhood got a dose of the military-strength stuff. Don't tell her that your mother knew right away what it was, that she recognized its smell from the year that the United States invaded the island.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I'm sorry. I'm sitting here trying not to laugh. I'm like, because it is deranged. It is, I don't know, I think it's funny. Do you think it's funny? I think it's funny.
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah. I mean, but I kind of find things that are funny that probably most people wouldn't, you know? Like typical artists, you know?
MARTIN: But at one point in the story you write about what you should say to a white girl on a date. And I'll read a little bit of that. You say, tell her that you love her hair, that you love her skin, her lips, because in truth, you love them more than you love your own. Ouch.
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: Yeah. Ow.
Mr. DIAZ: Hey man, you know, it's so fascinating because, you know, there's a lot of things that we're not supposed to mention. I mean in the community that I grew up in, you know, a very, you know, mixed, almost entirely African Diaspora community, one of the things that we were not ever supposed to say was how much self-hatred and colorism determined and guided what we would call our desire. In other words, what we would consider beautiful.
MARTIN: Another story talks about how when the hero's girlfriend dumps him for a white guy his friends sort of cheer him up by calling her a sell-out and saying she was shopping for the lightest. But on the other hand, just as you said, I know we've actually talked about this on the program and journalists have talked about this, how if you actually say to people, gee, you know, why do you all straighten your hair, you know, why is it that the whole goal of all these hair salons seems to be to get your hair as straight, as bone straight as it can possibly be, people look at you like - what? What are you saying? You wrote around in 1996, do you feel that people are getting anywhere, just being a little bit more honest about these issues?
Mr. DIAZ: I don't think the issue is about progress or that we're changing. I think that the issue is, is that these tendencies are deeply rooted in our community and that even though there's plenty of people who are not held by these tendencies, there's plenty of people who don't feel compelled to pursue these kind of craziness,. I think that these things are really present. And as a community I don't see that we've been having the kind of deep conversations that we need to have. You know? And I think eventually though the conversation will be had. There's only so long a silence can hold sway.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. For our summer reading series, we're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz. We're talking about his short story collection "Drown." There's a poem at the beginning of the collection and I'm going to ask you to help me pronounce the poet's name. Is it Gustavo Perez Firmat?
Mr. DIAZ: Exactly. Yeah.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, thank you. And it reads: The fact that I'm writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don't belong to English, though I belong nowhere else.
What are you trying to tell us?
Mr. DIAZ: (Unintelligible) I don't know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DIAZ: You know…
MARTIN: I wrote the book. That's why I wrote it. Explain it…
Mr. DIAZ: No man. It's not that. It's just that it's, it's, you know, I mean one of the things that, again, I mean you don't want to push the point, but one of the things that literature does really well is to remind us of how two opposite things can coexist in one place very comfortably, that a person can be totally - and I use this word in quotes - purely English - and yet be nothing whatsoever of English.
And I think that as someone who's an immigrant you find yourself in that situation, where you're like, you know, English is a language that I learned and it's become in some ways my absolute dominant language, and yet it is completely the alien language. It's not the language that feels organic to me. And I think trying to explain what that's like, that that's neither a problem nor as some would claim a super power, is part of what I think my last two books have been in part about. Because in the end how little we talk about race is only matched by how little we talk about the real lived experiences of immigrants in this country.
MARTIN: I did get a kick out of the fact that the stories are sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases. There are no footnotes to explain them. But it sounds very natural to the ear. I was just curious about it. Did you ever think about translating somehow for people who don't know Spanish? Or is it part of that is the point, like if it's disorienting to you, then imagine what it's like to arrive and try to make your way in a language that is not yours and just how disorienting that can be?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, that could be part of it. For me, not translating the words was more about like just this deep faith that readers who are really curious are going to reach out to other people. You know, in some ways I leave stuff un-translated not as a way to vex my audience but as a way to just, you know, it gives people things to do, man. It sort of encourages folks to like reach out and to do a little of their own research, to talk to friends, man. A book should be there to make you explore the world, not to like answer questions for you. There's plenty of folks out there who get paid to answer questions for you, from politicians on down.
MARTIN: Well, "Drown" made such a splash when it - oh my goodness, that was a terrible choice of words. Forgive me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DIAZ: That's all right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: But it made such an impact when it came out. Were you worried about the sophomore slump?
Mr. DIAZ: Oh yeah, man. Well, of course. Look - unless you've got, you know, a willpower or a self-confidence of like titanium, I certainly was like, man, I'm screwed after this, you know? But it's, you know, you discover your way through it and you also learned the - and part of this whole journey, man, I mean you don't want to sound too New Age-y, but part of this whole journey as a writer is that, man, a lot of the things that you think of your mistakes, that you might think of your worst work can in the future turn out to be very productive and very useful for readers. So you know, you just got to have faith and just throw your head into it and see what comes out of it.
MARTIN: Your latest book, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," talks about the consequences of the European encounter, discovery, whatever you want to call it, of the Americas and what that's meant for people across cultures and centuries. And one of the things that I was thinking about is I went to a diner in the middle of the country a couple of weeks ago and got a side order of salsa with my omelet. Didn't even ask, just was...
Mr. DIAZ: Sure, man.
MARTIN: ...that's what you get kind of thing. And I just, I wonder how you feel "The Brief Wondrous Life" is read, is experienced, given, as you said, when you first presented "Drown," a lot of people weren't talking about this experience. And now they are, right?
I just wonder if it's different and how it feels to present the second work.
Mr. DIAZ: One of the things that's happened that's I think very important is that, you know, the Latino community, depending on (unintelligible) is either the biggest quote-unquote "minority group" or it's, you know, tied with the African-American community. And I don't think, despite the presence and despite the sort of contributions the Latinos make to this country, I don't think that that's always something that folks recognize. I think that, you know, my work, what I write, my last book is certainly a part of that conversation, is certainly a part of that dynamic of how a country comes to terms with a group of people who before, and for the most part, were either invisible, erased, or deformed into ridiculous stereotypes, and now folks are encountering the Latino community in all its stupendous diversity and, you know, they've got to terms with it.
And I think that this book certainly, and the books I write, and the books that my peers write, and the works that plenty of Latino folks do at a community level, at an intellectual level, is there to sort of remind folks that we're not talking about a community that can be easily simplified. We're talking about a community that was present in every darn war we've ever had, that's contributions are wide, deep, interesting, and that it's almost impossible to push into one simple box.
MARTIN: I understand you're teaching at MIT.
Mr. DIAZ: Yes.
MARTIN: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mr. DIAZ: I am at nerd central, which I love very much.
MARTIN: I wasn't going to say it, but it's not exactly known as a center for the arts. What's that like?
Mr. DIAZ: Come on, man. But you're acting like the United States is known as the center of the arts. (Unintelligible) in some ways? I mean the average...
MARTIN: (Unintelligible) Bennington, you know, or…
Mr. DIAZ: I hear you. But I just mean, like look, the average American kid is being given a very direct message - arts are frivolous and irrelevant. And I think to go to a place like MIT, where the arts are not central, I always say this but it's true: I feel like growing up in the United States prepared me for teaching at MIT. You know, it prepared me very well. The rest of the country doesn't take arts very seriously and here's an institution that for all its, you know, its attempts to take art seriously, art is not central. And I like the fight, man. You know, for me to have a student who loves art and who I convince of art isn't quite the same. But when I...
MARTIN: It's not quite the challenge.
Mr. DIAZ: ...convince one of these - yeah, man, when I convince one of these hardcore physicists that art is like absolutely essential to the human condition, that feels good, man.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well - well, continue the fight. What are you reading this summer? And what recommendations do you have for us?
Mr. DIAZ: There's two books that I recommend deeply. One of them is in translation from Japan. I've been telling everybody about this book. It's called "The Housekeeper and The Professor," from Yoko Ogawa. It's a story about love, which is quite different from a love story. It's one of the most beautiful novels. But the book that I'm recommending to keep the series going is a novel by the Cuban writer Achy Obejas, a novel called "Ruins." I bring "Ruins" to the table because it is, simply put, a beautiful novel, at the level of construction, at the level of language, and at the level of emotion. It's just extraordinary look at one man's conflicted heart in Cuba. And you know, this is a good time. We're thinking and talking about Cuba. And you know, the Cuban community is a very strong presence here and this novel does that sort of amazing community justice.
MARTIN: Junot Diaz joined us from member station WGBH in Boston. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He is author of "Drown." It's the current selection for our summer reading series. He's also author of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." And his fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the Best American Short Stories.
Junot Diaz, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. DIAZ: No, thank you guys for having me and good luck down there in D.C. you guys.