INTERVIEW In the Sandbox: An Interview With Junot Díaz

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Talks About Writing, Growing Up, and What It’s Like to Teach at MIT

Junot Díaz is a writing professor at MIT. His new novel, published last year, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of a fat Dominican “ghetto-nerd,” who loves science fiction and fantasy genre more than life, and loves women even more than genre. He’s born and raised in New Jersey, but only finds true fulfillment when he returns home to the Dominican Republic to face the demons of his family’s history.

The book took 10 years to take shape, during which time Díaz tried (and failed) to write a different novel, traveled the world, and taught writing classes at MIT. Díaz is away in Europe this semester, but agreed to an e-mail interview with The Tech. (There is some strong language below).

The Tech: Were you “Dominican” in the super-macho player boy sense that you describe in the novel? What do you think of that cultural standard of masculinity? What kind of man did you want to be, growing up?

Junot Díaz: I was as super-macho as my father wanted me to be. I could box, I could shoot, I could walk through my neighborhood at four in the morning and nobody said shit, I thought my mother and my sisters less than people, I was my father’s son and I’m still trying to unprogram myself, I’m still wrestling with the consequences. Masculinity is another of those wonderful myths that shape individuals and societies and that deliver catastrophic blows to both. As I kid I wanted to be the kind of man that my father would love, that would dispel all my vulnerability and fear. Didn’t happen.

TT: On the other side, were there strong women in your life?

JD: Of course. I grew up with my grandmother, my mother, her two sisters and my two sisters in the house. Now that’s a lot of women. And Díaz women are like lightning: strong, brilliant, unpredictable and could clear a goddamn room with the slightest appearance. In that respect I had a very Frank Herbert childhood.

TT: You’ve said that your father had a library in the basement that showed you that reading could be masculine. I never thought of it as special to any gender in particular — in your culture, does everything have to be either masculine or feminine?

JD: In my culture? You mean our culture? Are you trying to tell me that reading and intellectual activity isn’t feminized in the U.S.? At a cultural level? That gender doesn’t infect nearly all our thinking in this, our society? These false binaries between masculine and feminine [are] not something that I invented nor something that’s exclusively “Dominican.” I might just happen to be more aware of these things but that doesn’t mean that we’re not all in the same sandbox.

And yes, if my father hadn’t been a reader, I doubt I would have embraced the practice so hungrily.

TT: How do the kids at MIT compare to the kids that you knew growing up or in college? Have you met anyone as nerdy as Oscar here?

JD: Shit, even nerds pick on people nerdier than them, all the while claiming not to be nerdy themselves. As for the last question: yes. Many times.

TT: There are lots of non-Hispanic immigrants at MIT — I’m thinking of Asian and South Asians in particular, who form the largest minority at MIT. Do you see their experiences as being similar to your own? Or is the cultural gap too wide?

JD: No use [generalizing] about something so stupendously complex. Always similarities and shared experiences but always gaps too. There are poor white kids and middle class black kids at MIT who had similar experiences to mine.

TT: What effect has your time at MIT had on you? Learned anything?

JD: OK, this isn’t a real question is it? Did I learn anything at MIT? How could you NOT learn something at MIT, whether you want to or not. MIT has more brains than money and … MIT is rich as shit so go figure.

TT: Do you like teaching, or is it just a way to make a living while you write?

JD: For me teaching is not about liking or disliking. It’s something I believe in. I think it’s important for every person to teach at one stage in their life or another. The teaching-learning dynamic is like no other.

TT: I got the feeling from the footnotes that you think the typical reader will be pretty ignorant of anything about the Dominican Republic, or even the role the U.S. played in its history.

JD: Really? The footnotes, for me, were not at all about educating readers. They were about the tension between the prime voice of the main text and the under-voice of the footnotes. The footnotes were all about the question of narrative authority and also about how desperate we as people are desperate for that authority. We want things clear and rational.

TT: What about politics? Do you care? Who do you support in the U.S. presidential elections? What do you think of Obama?

JD: As for politics do I care? This isn’t a real question is it? Yes, I care.

TT: The portrait of Oscar was sort of an excruciating close-up. I felt like I could see the sweat beading up on every roll of fat. Were you ever fat? How did you manage to get inside Oscar’s heaving body?

JD: Never fat. I’ve always been super-fit, my father’s son. A runner and a weight-lifter. But loathing the flesh is not something exclusive to those who are overweight. Oscar’s fleshiness stands in for so much in my mind. Didn’t take much for me to reach out my creative hand and seize the painful human condition that our bodies inflict upon us.

TT: I’m curious about the title: What do you mean by wondrous? Full of wonders like in fantasy or sci-fi? Because Oscar’s life is not exactly wonderful at first glance.

JD: Really? How many of us get a chance to confront a global curse, to confront the darkest dictatorship in the New World, to become a mythic force?

TT: You make fun of magical realism as a sort of stereotype of Latin American writing. How did that tradition inform this book? Did you make a conscious effort to avoid it?

JD: I don’t think I make fun of MR any more than I make fun of hip hyper-realism. For the record I’ve got nothing against magical realism. It’s a narrative strategy. A tool. Like all tools, useful in the right hands. I just don’t believe in hewing to any one strategy or one tool. To approach this world you need all strategies, all tools.

TT: I’ve heard you say that you felt like the biggest freak in the world growing up. Have you since found fellow freaks?

JD: Oh I certainly felt like a tremendous freak. But I also had the distinct impression that all my peers felt exactly the same. I feel like I’ve been surrounded by fellow freaks all my damn life. They’re called humans.

TT: Have you ever seriously considered suicide?

JD: Yes.

TT: What kind of history did your family have under the Trujillo regime? Lola [Oscar’s sister in the novel] says, “We’re a nation of 10 million Trujillos” — (or was it 8 million … Is that how much the population has changed in between the New Yorker short story and the novel?)

JD: Just rounded up to ten million because I had no idea when I would finally finish the novel. My family had almost no contact with the most repressive structures of Trujillo regime. We were anonymous poor folks, the kind you see in crowd scenes in movies.

TT: Your father was part of the [Dominican] military. Are you curious to know exactly what he did? How much moral responsibility or guilt would you feel to know that your family was part of a basically evil system?

JD: I know what my father did during his military service. Guilt? Responsibility? I’ve a more complicated relationship with my family’s history.

TT: You mentioned in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air that “it was like Fight Club” growing up. That your father thought that kids should fight, and made sure that you all did. So were you a good fighter? Did you usually win?

JD: What a sensational question. Let’s say I was the best fight there was in Central Jersey and I knocked plenty of folks out. Would that change the basic cruelty of that dynamic, the sadness of a boy trying to impress, to curry love from his father, through fighting?

TT: Did you ever experience firsthand the kind of extreme violence that you describe in the book?

JD: And this is relevant why?

TT: You held a lot of different jobs (sometimes several simultaneously) growing up and in college. Did that discipline help you work on the book despite all the slow periods?

JD: Yup, I was first a laborer before a writer. The discipline didn’t hurt. One of the reasons I get up and write three hours a day.

TT: What was your first job, and how old were you?

JD: I was a pool table deliverer and wrote about that. My first job: paperboy. Delivered 120 papers a day. I was eleven.

TT: Are you religious at all? Do you believe in fuku?

JD: I only believe in my ancestors. And in history.

TT: What kind of schools did you go to as a kid? Did they do a good job on you?

JD: Public school all the way through college. A good job? Made me realize that you could be smart as hell but since you didn’t have the label of private school or elite school no one would really fucking care.

TT: Did you consider careers other than the one you eventually took up? Like science? What do you really think about scientists and engineers anyway?

JD: I’ve always known that I’d be doing something with books. As for MIT types, hard to generalize. I seem to get along with most science types OK but that’s not the first thing I look for in friends. Justice-minded outlook, adventurousness, loyalty and a background of hard work. And you can find people like this at MIT and outside of it too.

TT: Have you been back to visit the DR? What’s it like? Are you happy with the situation there now? What would you change?

JD: I go to Santo Domingo three times a year on average. If I could change anything I would change late modern capitalism, which is the reason so many people in the Caribbean are immiserated.

TT: Could/would your current success give you any leverage to do something?

JD: Being a writer only gives you leverage at the library. Certainly doesn’t give you power to do anything else but keep writing. Writers critique power and privilege but rarely do either of these things accrue to us.

TT: What’s next? What are you working on now? Do you still need a day job, and if not, will you come back and keep teaching at MIT anyway?

JD: I’ve never needed a day job. I’m one of those people who can live off very little. I teach because a) having health insurance is awesome and b) because I think it’s important, because it’s something that I feel I still have the energy to do. I’ll be back in Fall. Unless the lottery ticket I have in my hand pans out. Then I’ll be too busy buying books to teach.