In late March, still high from the Festival of Books, Weekly World Central, well, squealed all girly like when the Tucson Pima Arts Counciil and the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry announced Junot Díaz was coming to the Moldy Pueblo. The author of This Is How You Lose Her, Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Dominican Republic born and New Jersey raised, will be at the Tucson Fox Theatre, 17 W. Congress St. on Wednesday, April 23, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. (Cost is $15 suggested donation or $25 get's you a VIP reception and reserved seating. Go here for tickets.)
Díaz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and MacArthur Fellow, has gifted us with amazing stories enveloped around Dominican history, the immigrant experience and yeah, love and being a nerd. So when we reached out to his agent for an interview, it was probably a good thing the writer's busy schedule meant he'd only be able to respond to our questions by email—allowing a reporter to save face and not turn to mush on the other end of the phone in a pool of fandom.
The fandom? Well, for many in Arizona, embarrassed by our state lawmakers' anti-immigration and anti-Mexican-American studies laws and ideology, Díaz and other writers have offered a sweet balm—a reminder, that fiction writers remain important, change lives and return us to our humanity when the outside world, well, sucks.
MacArthur Fellowship, Pulitzer Prize … how do you keep it real? Your mother?
What do I know. Is "keeping it real” short hand for authenticity or humility or fidelity to a former self or is it a combination? To be hones,t I'm not sure if I’ve ever been a fan of the authentic person of color narrative. I grew up a poor immigrant kid in NJ. And yet, to NYC Dominicans us Jersey folks weren’t truly authentic. On top of that I was a kid who liked to read books. To a lot of the neighborhood that immediately disqualified me from being authentically "hood.” And so on. The question of humility . . . This is something that’s best practiced than discoursed, but for the sake of the question, let me just say I grew up in a family that prized humility over almost all other traits. I like to think that I still show traces of that upbringing. As for loyalty to a former self—you can’t deny the person you are to satisfy the standards of someone you were. One hopes for dialogue between all our former selves, but in the end, it’s to the present we owe our true loyalties. I figure if poverty didn’t undermine my core values, then maybe privilege won’t either, but only time will tell. Ultimately prizes and accolades are wonderful (and arbitrary) strokes of fortune, but they have very little to do with the actual work of crafting books. They are temptations without question —to become prideful and vain and they certainly can fill your head with a lot of empty noise. Some people get a prize and go bananas. I get a prize and am grateful, but I also know that this is only going to increase the time it will take me to lose the noise and drop down to my deepest self.
What we saw in the case of the Dominican Republic was a coordinated attempt to silence and intimidate critics of the sentencia that more or less denationalizes Dominicans of Haitian descent. In the DR many of the sentencia's critics had to go into hiding because the reactionary proponents of this bilious legislature initiated a campaign of terror in order to guarantee that there would be no debate, no dissension. Those of us in the Diaspora who got shit thrown at us for slamming the sentencia had it easy. I didn’t go to sleep fearing that someone would burn my house or attack me on the street. To put it simply: I’m not troubled when cowardly criminal politicians and their supporters decide to evict me from their malign vision of our nation. Who in the world would want to live in that terrifying place anyway? The vision of the nation that I belong to, that I aspire to, that I strive for, does not involve denationalization or terror. From that Dominican Republic no one can deport me.
Related to writers and activism—when it was finally determined Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program was illegal, the district removed the program’s books out of the classrooms and the books were banned. It took a bit of time, but writers—especially those banned—finally spoke out. You’d think writing and activism would be a natural union. How do you see that role for yourself and other writers?
There are multiple traditions. Some writers believe their writing is their activisms. Others believe that the artist should remain “above the fray” which simply means through inaction supporting the political status quo. Other artists believe that we all owe it to our communities and our societies to strive for a more just social contract. I come out of activism and radical politics so you can imagine where in the spectrum I fit in. We belong to a reactionary and conservative moment and this puts a chill on everything. I still remember at a writer’s conference in Edinburgh a group of us asked the gathered assembly of writers to condemn Arizona House Bill 2281 and one of the participants, a white poet turned novelist tried to stop it because more or less he didn’t think we should be getting involved with “other peoples’ problems.” The side of justice prevailed but still, it’s an example of where we’re at.
You’ve been outspoken against misogyny and on women’s issues, so down the road do you think we’ll see a book from you written in a female voice/perspective, or stick to “Write what you know”?
I have written a number of chapters from sort of a “woman’s perspective.” Hard to get it even close to right. I’m not sure I could maintain that for a whole novel. Hard work undoing the internal distortion that most men are trained by society to have towards women.
What’s missing from the immigrant debate? Just things like honesty, courage, decency, humanity, real leadership from our political elites. As far as the organizing is concerned the folks fighting for immigrant rights are doing extraordinary superhuman work. To me they are our very best. And who is a great example of moral and ethical courage, moral and ethical leadership, than the Dreamers? They are a shining beacon that cuts through all the hateful obfuscation that characterizes the immigration "debate" in this country.