Junot Diaz is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as well as the short story collections Drown and, most recently, This Is How You Lose Her —- a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. He's a professor at MIT, a MacArthur "Genius," and the first Latino to sit on the Pulitzer Prize board of jurors. Still, the Dominican-American writer graciously took the time to answer a few of my questions via e-mail amidst a rigorous teaching schedule and a national paperback book tour (he'll be stopping by Yale University on Nov. 12 and Naugatuck Valley Community College on Nov. 14). We managed to cover the meaning of art, some of the quirks of his reoccurring narrator Yunior, and I even did my best to coax a little writing advice out of him.
Why is art important? I ask a lot of people this question and they're able to say why their art is important, or why certain works of art are important to them. But in a broader, more universal sense, why is art an important thing to value?
In art we encounter and reconstitute our human selves. Art allows us to step outside habits of repression in order to contemplate realms of feelings and areas of thought that the culture might otherwise prohibit. ?
One of the fascinating things about your writing is the intentional inconsistency of certain details. For example, Yunior tells us two very different stories in Drown and This Is How You Lose Her of his father's early days in America. It seems that in some of the pieces he's also writing about the same love interest through different narratives. (I'm thinking Lola in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the girlfriend at the end of the short story "Miss Laura," and then the "ex" from "The Cheaters Guide to Love.") What is the advantage of re-writing a story from multiple angles? Are there certain stories that won't seem to leave you alone?
Yunior returns again and again to the foundational stories of his family's history. These stories shift depending on the teller and on the information he receives. His multiple attempts to understand particular moments underscore his character's interests and obsessions and make arguments about the way writers attempt to write the world. To understand a character through their obsession is pretty useful, even if that obsession is only visible longitudinally and by noticing currents in seemingly disparate stories.
I'm a young writer applying to MFA programs. Do you have any advice for me, whether it be, "Try really hard to get in!" or, "Run as fast as you can. Don't do it!"?
You're already applying. You've pulled the trigger. Too late for advice, no? Besides I think the less advice I give the better. Too much advice out there for writers. I wish we had one page of reading for every page of writing advice that folks post. We'd have an entirely different literary culture than the one we have.
I hate to ask you this, but I feel like I should. What are you working on? I've heard you mention a story centered on a young Dominican girl with super powers. I thought that sounded awesome…
Right now I'm not working on anything. The teaching and the paperback book tour have kept me away from my desk. I hope this changes in the future.
I write really slow. And I've heard you write really slow, which makes me feel a little better when my writer friends who churn out 100 pages every two weeks make fun of me for spending a year on one story. Why is there this pressure to write on a timetable?
Because we live in the culture where everything is competition and where art has been hijacked by the logic of commercialism. Most writers these days sound more like pre-med students than artists. Also you're just probably spending way too much time with other writers.
Gotta ask — what are you reading these days?
Deixis in Narrative (Duchan, Bruder and Hewitt) and Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. I never stop reading so these are the latest books I finished.
Could you ever see yourself writing a story that doesn't have a Dominican family at its center? Or is it disingenuous when someone tries to write about a culture they aren't from?
I have no idea what any one's writing or artistic rules should be. I'm wary of them myself. Can never say what I will and won't do until of course the whole game is over. But given the utter lack of Dominican diasporic stories I can't imagine switching my imaginative focus away from my community for any length of time. But hey, who knows.
I know you're a humble guy, but why do you think people have connected so deeply with your writing?
I have no idea. The mystery of art. I feel blessed that anyone reads what I do at all.
Tue., Nov. 12, 4 p.m. at Yale University, Chaplain's Tea, Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale (STM), 268 Park St., New Haven
Thu., Nov. 14, 6 p.m. at Naugatuck Valley Community College. Email Tamarack@nv.edu for more info.