Junot Díaz on the imperfect perfection of the novel and why genre fiction gets so little respect
“Let me tell you, I have little confidence in almost all of my abilities except for reading,” Junot Díaz said to me last month at a noisy wine bar in East Harlem. “I’m always reading—even when I’m writing.”
I was nervous. He was drinking tea and I was drinking a glass of rosé. For some reason I thought Díaz would be a tough guy to interview. I was wrong. He's completely charismatic, warm, and very talkative. We spoke for over an hour about writing, misogyny, love, genre fiction, and more.
Díaz came to fame when Drown, his first collection of short stories, was published to wide acclaim in 1996, when he was just 27. A little over a decade later, his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize. His new collection of linked short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, follows Yunior, a character who plays an important role in both of his earlier books. “I feel that Yunior is a hypertonic distorted extension of me, that allows me to write about things that in my own life would be too subtle… I guess I created Yunior so I could keep company with somebody who was a bigger fucking fool than me. It’s not bad to every now and then—to not be the worst person in the room.”
So why devote an entire book to a character who makes a lot of mistakes? Díaz wanted to write a book about "the rise and fall of a cheater.” Yunior is a guy who messes up over and over again; as he says in the first story in the book, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”: “I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.”
The idea of Yunior originated back when Díaz was in college at Rutgers University and he met some women activists at Douglass College. These women raised an important question, said Díaz: “'What can male artists do that would align them with a feminist struggle?' And I never forgot it. I fucking never forgot it.” In Yunior, Díaz could answer this question. "A character like Yunior," he said, " can map masculine subjectivities, can map masculine privileges, can map the masculine…. He can create maps that implicate himself, and by extension, perhaps some of the gender formations that make a person like him possible.”
Díaz explored family in Drown, and “home in a literal sense.” Oscar Wao was more “about home in a far more intimate sense. The home of what we would call—I guess we would have to call it the intimate. How do we build a home with and inside of other people?” With the new book he wanted to focus on the concept of love.
“The idea is that the real home that you build in your world is a home of love. That is a home that is all about exposing yourself to vulnerability, it’s all about giving yourself fully to another person, it means that you feel comfortable and safe enough to drop all of your masks…also that you forgive in another person their flaws, because you’ve already encountered, embraced, forgiven your own flaws. And really I think as a human person—in my mind, I’ve always thought the final home of any human is in love.”
In creating Yunior, Díaz told me he wanted to explore “the exemplary New Jersey Dominican 1980s male, which means he’s perfectly suited never to have a home in intimacy.”
He's a womanizer, and most of the book's stories chronicle the women he's won and lost, and his general failure at love. Yet Yunior isn't unredeemable, he's someone who evolves over the entire book, and as the stories move from reminiscences of adolescence to adulthood, the lessons of losing compound upon one another.
“Hopefully we leave him at the place where Yunior can imagine—I think we leave him finally with a human imaginary, an ethical imaginary, the only imaginary that makes sense, which is an imaginary that allows him to think of women as wholly human.” The book, Díaz said, “attempts to, with a certain kind of savage honesty, represent a very specific male experience while simultaneously neither celebrating it nor rewarding it…and you see the absolute damage that it does to this guy, to men in general…”
And ultimately, Díaz's story collection is about finding the courage to be in love.
“I think the only way that we get real courage is by seeing and coming close to our true fucking human selves—flawed, invulnerable, imperfect, and hurtful—and yet not a monster, not a demon. Someone worthy of regeneration and worthy of a second chance.”
Even though Díaz has, to date, published more short stories than novels, he actually finds novels to be easier to write. Mostly because “…the novel duplicates at a supremely fascinating level the imperfections of the human subjectivity that produces it. In other words, to say that what gives a novel its force is that it feels very human, and why it feels human is because it’s imperfect, it’s contradictory, it has gaps, it has all sorts of weird shit.” Whereas “stories are demanding and infuriating because of their perfectibility.”
When the talk turned to genre fiction, Díaz was quick to stress that genre writers are still discriminated against. I asked him about a recent trend of literary fiction writers writing literary genre novels, citing two books that I love: Zone One by Colson Whitehead and The Passage by Justin Cronin:
“Well, I mean listen… I think it’s no accident that we’re celebrating genre writing by literary writers and not genre writing by genre writers. I think that one of the elements, one of the dimensions that is left out of this discussion endlessly, and to my great frustration, is the word privilege. No one would be reading these books at the level they’re reading them now, if they didn’t have the credentials, the imprimatur, of literary fiction. Which is to say if a genre-writing-Joe had produced both of those books they would be stuck in their genre moment. And I think that this is what’s incredibly important about this discussion … is that there is privilege, and that this privilege grants a serious reading to literary writers writing genre versus genre writers writing genre. I don’t think we’re giving them a serious reading, I don’t think they’re going to be reviewed in the New York Times, and there is a deep unfairness there. Somebody like Justin and somebody like Colson, they have an American passport and they can come back and forth from the third world of genre writing and no one asks them any questions, but the genre writers are stuck with a Dominican passport, and they can never get out.”
But Díaz is trying to help them get out. He’s on the board for the Pulitzer Prize, where he gets one vote out of seventeen. He hopes to make a difference over the nine years he’s involved.
“What’s interesting about privilege," he said, "is what one does with it.".