Junot Diaz Reflects On 'This American Moment'

Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Lily Oei/Riverhead Books hide caption

itoggle caption Lily Oei/Riverhead Books

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz talks about what this moment in American politics means to him. Born in the Dominican Republic, Diaz is the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the fiction editor of The Boston Review.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Now, this American moment. Everyday during the Democratic and Republican Conventions we spoke with a different guest, politicians, yes, including a former president, but journalists, writers and thinkers, too. We asked each to take a step back to put this election and the campaign season in context. What's at stake? What does this election mean? We've decided to continue that series. In just a minute, Junot Diaz, the author of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction will join us. His book focuses on the lives of first and second generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic. We want to know what this American moment means to you. Our phone number 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our blog, too. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Junot Diaz, a professor in the program in writing and humanistic studies at MIT joins us now to talk about what this American moment means to him, and it's good to have you with us today.

Professor JUNOT DIAZ (Pulitzer Prize Author): Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And a lot of people see - they see more history than usual in this particular election. Election where neither a president or an incumbent vice president is running for re-election, women, an African-American, old candidates, young candidates, what do you see in this American moment?

Prof. DIAZ: Well, I mean, certainly those things are present. But it's extraordinary how a sort of - the real candidates in some way, it's like erasure and kind of make believe are sort of running like really strong campaigns, too. You know, it's just one of those extraordinary things. I'm watching this campaign with my students and it - sometimes you feel like you're on crack or something, you know?

CONAN: On another planet. When you taking about make believe, give us some examples of what you mean.

Prof. DIAZ: Well, I mean, you would really think that it's not a nation that's in two wars and whose economy hasn't bottomed out, that you know, our economic, our educational system hasn't been utterly gutted and that, you know, the kind of number of bodies that are coming back and just a sort of demoralization at a civic and sort of at a social level, you wouldn't think these things are present if you're listening to some of the discourse of the candidates. And also the sort of - the issues that are being focused on, I mean, it's kind of like both parties are sharing a similar script which is let's pretend that the situation is nowhere near as dire as it is, and certainly not dire enough that you could accuse us for having caused the problem.

CONAN: Yet, you see tremendous political activity in both political parties, the turnouts in the primaries was extraordinary.

Prof. DIAZ: Well, certainly. I mean, one of the wonderful things is that no matter how moronic and bankrupt our leaders are, there's still an enormous part of a civic life and voting and of the electrical process that many people have faith in. And I think that even though we're sort of like voting one dope before the next, I do think that the process of elections, the process of taking part in a civic life are really fundamental and I think always should be celebrated.

CONAN: When you look at the situation of the country and clearly you have a bleaker view than either of the major party presidential candidates.

Prof. DIAZ: Well, I don't think they - when is the last time that they spent four days in a row with people who have to make their - four days consecutive, from morning to night - have spent four days in a row with people who make their own meals, don't use credit cards and bank cards to buy meals, out to buy lunches, to buy dinners to break have food brought to them. I think that it's got nothing to do with I'm more bleak. It's like these people, I highly doubt that they're spending time with the sort of people that I'm spending time with. Who, you know, when the economy collapses, it's certainly not collapsing on the heads of the people who have three or four homes. It's collapsing on the heads of the people I know, who I'm sitting around and they're like how am I paying my medicals bills? How am I paying my rent? How am I going to pay the little money I have to send my kids?

CONAN: "Life of Oscar Wao" is now available in paperback. And he's talking to us about this American moment. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And many people, for many reasons, know your name and know a little bit about your book. They may not know so much about you. Tell us a little bit about your history.

Prof. DIAZ: Oh God, I'm probably the most boring person to have sat up here. Just some- I'm from the Dominican Republic. I'm an immigrant, immigrated to that great, exotic place, New Jersey. I'm a state school boy. I'm from Rutgers. I spent my entire childhood and adolescence and college I worked my way through school. I had jobs - always doing industrial work and I became a writer because I was absolutely terrible at all the traditional things like making money and sports and sort of being cruel. So, I figured that part was my approach to life.

CONAN: A Dominican who doesn't play shortstop?

Prof. DIAZ: Yeah, no. A Dominican who doesn't play shortstop or isn't in an Ivy League school, studying at the business program. Yeah, those are the alternatives, some of the cadre that I grew up.

CONAN: And yet you also came under tremendous pressure. You published a book of very well-received short stories. And then suddenly there was a lot of expectation put upon you.

Prof. DIAZ: Well, I mean, it's literature. I have a friend who employs 400 people. He's under pressure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DIAZ: You know, he's under pressure to keep his employees at work every year. I mean, to keep them working, keep the business rolling. I'm just a writer, you know. I mean, books are never late. That's like the best part. There's always room on a shelf and there's always other things for people to be reading. So, a person - you come late to a party that's for you, people get heated. You know, a book coming 12, 14, 15 years late, readers have got all these stuff to worry about and they're just happy to see it when it comes.

CONAN: And let's see, let's got some callers in on the conversation. Let's see if we can go to Gonzales. Gonzales with us from Salt Lake City in Utah.

GONZALES (Caller) Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: And what does this American moment mean to you, Gonzales?

GONZALES: Well, I just became a U.S. citizen two hours ago, as a matter of fact.

Mr. DIAZ: Yes!

CONAN: Congratulations.

GONZALES: Thank you. Thank you. Well, I immigrated (unintelligible) and I was really to see so many common places that, you know, immigrants in his life, you know. But unlike him I see that this is a - and I'm not trying to make any political propaganda to anyone in specific. But I see this as a moment of hope. As an American, we can make a change, especially the way the United States is perceived before the world. And it's a matter of daring to participate and to help society and to try to make a difference in everyone's life. And we just need to dare to do so, not only by voting, but actually by serving our fellow men.

CONAN: And it's- Gonzales, if I could ask, where is it that you came from?

GONZALES: I'm from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

CONAN: The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

GONZALES: That's right.

CONAN: That's interesting. I was going to ask you, Junot Diaz, we hear so much about immigration and the issue was almost always portrayed as an issue about the Mexican border. This gentlemen from Venezuela, yourself from the Dominican Republic. Your family, you came here, I guess when you were six years old. Do you see the immigration issue differently? How does it frame, and we're not hearing an awful lot about it from either side in this presidential campaign.

Prof. DIAZ: Well, no. I mean, that's one of the great comedies of it is that you know, the silences of the campaign speak louder than anything else. But you know, Gonzalo, I'm in agreement with almost everything you said. I think that all of us need to be involved and some sort of community work and sort of social work. I mean civic life is fundamental. It's not just something that you do when you're young and idealistic. You know, it's the price we pay, as has been said famously, for living in this world.

And you know, immigration is the absolute engine that drives the society. It's the absolute engine which regenerates the society. This country has been predicated on the sacrifice and on the contribution of its immigrants since its inception. And I think that figuring out a way to deal with this process, to deal with our kind of clearly broken immigration system is really a primary importance, not just for those of us who are immigrants who are directly- you know, directly suffer from this kind of broken system for the entire society. I mean, as a whole, we need to understand and we need to relate and create a better way for this to work.

CONAN: Gonzales, again, congratulations.

GONZALES: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Chris. And Chris is with us from Elizabethtown in Kentucky.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Chris. Go ahead. I'm a huge leader of the local Republican Party here in Hardin County. That's where Elizabethtown is, and I just wanted to say, you know, growing up in a party that's been traditional values and conservative values, having a woman as the vice president, what that means to me is our party is, you know, moving forward. You know, we're becoming more progressive. And it's just wonderful for a young person like me who - this will be my first presidential election I'll be voting in. And it's just been wonderful for me to know that I'm going up in a party that's secure and is actually starting to embrace feminism and embrace a female and say, you know, we're ready for a female to be vice president. And hopefully, you know, in the next election, maybe we'll see a female running. You know, have a real chance that a female running, too.

CONAN: You mean, for the presidential, to the top of the ticket.

CHRIS: Yes, for the presidency. Yes, for the office in this country. I really would like to see that. And it's given me so much faith in my party to see a female be able to run as a vice president. You know, that I'm hoping that we'll - and even Hillary Clinton, even women today that are running in the Democratic Party, you know, it just shows that America is really moving forward and it's becoming more progressive.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Chris. I appreciate it.

CHRIS: Thank you, sir.

Prof. DIAZ: What an interesting claim. Just what an interesting claim. The lives of women both with health levels, employment levels, rates of abuse have deteriorated over the last 10 years. So I think it's a fascinating thing that we can have leadership that, you know, that are women. But if the overall lives of the women in your country are deteriorating and every indicator, I don't think it matters if you elected 99 senators who are women. In the end, what really matters to me is not that we sort of pin the tail on a donkey that looks like us or is of a different gender, but that our society as a whole is dealing with the gender that we're celebrating simply because they're running for our party. In other words, having a female president and having the lives of women be worse than it was in 1983 does not sound to me like any form of progress.

CONAN: We're talking with Junot Diaz, the writer, about this American moment. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's get Bill on the line. And Bill is calling us from San Francisco.

BILL (Caller): Yeah, hi. I guess, you know, the Bush elections were - we won't to go back into that. But this one, it seemed obvious to me that people would vote their own interest. And it seems like with the arrival of Sarah Palin, that suddenly we have working class voters in all the swing states saying, yay, suddenly the Republicans are going to do something for us. And it seems like an incredible disconnect, and I'd like to know what Junot thinks about that.

CONAN: Well, go ahead. But let's try to keep it short. We're tying to step back just a little bit from the day to day issues of the campaign. But go ahead, Junot Diaz.

Prof. DIAZ: Well again, I mean, was it Mencken who said that you'll never go broke underestimating the - what of the American people?

CONAN: Intelligence, I think.

Prof. DIAZ: Yeah, and I mean, you don't want to be like a jerk because I'm one of them. So, damn, I'm a dumbass, you know. But in the end, these things are very difficult and they're hard. We're dealing with campaigns from just a civilian point of view that if you subtracted the spin from these campaigns and you subtracted people's deep desires to have their mythologies, the kind of, you know, assuaged, I don't know if there would be any campaigns. Because the issues are almost nonexistent. I mean, really, when they say that that's issue, if one of my freshmens came in talking or one of my first year student came in talking that these were their issues, we would throw them out of class. We'd be like go read a book.

CONAN: Bill, thanks for the call. Here's an email we have from Dan. If New York is one of the biggest Dominican cities in the world does that mean that this is the moment when the culture of our island finally takes root in the States? Is this a moment for Gabachos(ph) and Gueros(ph) to learn to play dominoes?

Prof. DIAZ: Oh, that's a wonderful question. Would you know - I mean, New York has been a Caribbean city for a very long time. You know, they always say that like New York - Brooklyn has an enormous part of New York's history they're like, you know, huge amount of people lived in Brooklyn when it was independent. Well, the Caribbean to New York is what Brooklyn is used to be to the whole city where it's like a deeply Caribbeanized culture. Part of the energy of New York comes from the passing of the baton of those wonderful white ethnic groups that, you know, dominated New York, gave all it's energy to this Caribbean collective. And, you know, you see a lot of them in the neighborhood I lived in, Washington Heights, which was an old Irish, old Jewish, old Greek community that's become Puerto Rican, Dominican and African-American and also African-Caribbean. I just think that this is like a wonderful - that to me cheers me up more than any politics as watching the way people live their lives in really complicated, positive and often like dynamic ways.

CONAN: That's gone from a Orango(ph) to El Presidente from Chock Full 'o Nuts to Cafe Bustelo.

Prof. DIAZ: Well, also - and having both of them in the refrigerator. I mean, that's for me the dreams that none one replaces the other. You know, it's like you got enough room in the fridge for all your vices.

CONAN: Let's go quickly, if we can, Jerry is with us. Jerry calling us from Sacramento. I don't mean to ask you to keep it short, Jerry, but we're running out of time.

JERRY (Caller): Not a problem. You know, I look at this as a real opportunity, you know, in the depression we're in, comparing it to the Depression earlier in the century where the - we came out and voted in a very progressive president that actually focusing on the needs of the American worker and reigning in the - the unfettered capitalism of the liaises faire area - era. You know, I see this as another opportunity for us to change the course to the ship of state to start thinking of people as important rather than just cheap labor. And I'm hoping that the right person, you know, gets in power that can, you know, at least affect some incremental change in that direction.

CONAN: Junot Diaz, do you see it in those terms or do you see both parties as representing the same old way?

Prof. DIAZ: Well, no. I mean, look, I think that it's sometimes when you're dealing with a lead interests it's very difficult to decide, you know, who's really running the ship. But I think that caller has a wonderful point. I mean, I also dream of a time when we would elect someone more progressive, who can make our society better.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Sorry, I had to squeeze you for time. Junot Diaz, thank you for your time today.

Prof. DIAZ: Thank you.

CONAN: Junot Diaz, the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" which has just been released in paperback. He joined us here in the Knight Studio at the Newseum as part of our series on this American moment. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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