Junot Diaz was interviewed by myself at the 1998 Sydney Writers Festival. His publicity agent hovered in the background and her mobile went off not long after I hit the record button. Let’s just say I was a pretty nervous interviewer to begin with.
Diaz has since went on to win the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The interview took place the year after his collection of short stories Drown had been published to much critical acclaim. Piieces from that collection had only been published in The Paris Review and New Yorker Magazine.
It’s funny how I first discovered his writing. It was sitting on a shelf at Parramatta Local Library. A place that I had also first discovered New Yorker Magazines. Junot Diaz migrated to New York, USA as a 7 years old from the Dominican Republic. His fiction is full of spunk and is not unlike sitting next to your smart ass best friend who is good at telling a far fetched story. I have left the story unedited from its most recent incarnation when it was last published on a youth website in 2002.
Your collection of short stories, basically it is deeply autobiographical and fictional at the same time?
Oh you want to talk about that seeming, silly contradiction, na that’s alright. It’s just one of those things where you try to get as much out of … for me it was important to excavate my life because I spent like all these years in school in the states where they didn’t value my experiences at all…not valued in the material, not valued in what was being represented in the literature so I went after that I went after those experiences in my whole life, but what ends up happening that the demands of a good story, what they end up doing is they modify things, change things, shape things, play certain things up, play certain things down, so by the time you’re done, the shit is unrecognisable. You know what I’m saying – I feel the basic element is there but many of the details have changed you know.
I was reading all your press clippings, your reputation sort of precedes you -how do you feel about that?
I’m interested in what’s the reputation I feel like at home you know I have like no reputation at home except like… he likes to read and he’s like really fucking mean to like conservative people but as a writer I have no writer friends so I tend to have no sense of a writerly community. It’s sort of strange for me I came from a real like hardcore immigrant background and one of the things this community did, it made us so unbelievably humble like humility like, was it for us, so I always find it real difficult when people want to come up to me and talk about my book, like I’m the first person that will just run out of the room you know.
I don’t know how useful it is for writers to have reputations, public personas because for me I just want to go home and write.
I guess with any first writer they always want to create this buzz? For any new writers out there how do you get out of bed and write every day?
Well lately I haven’t been getting out of bed and writing, I’ve been extremely lazy so I can connect to any writer out there who’s not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, if she’s supposed to be working on a novel that’s really important to her and she’s not doing it. Like yo I understand, I feel you but the point is I’m not here to like, none of us should be babying each other because we need to be doing what we need to do. I think it’s so important for these young voices and not so young voices, middle-aged voices, old voices, voices that just ain’t being heard right now.
I’m like Yo we need to hear you kids, like you might just duplicate exactly the same sort of bullshit we’ve been hearing for the last hundred years but you know what I want to run the risk that one of you might not be and it’s just wonderful when you get a new person in the family that’s saying something new and something important and hitting something really hard and being critical. That’s why I’m like damn man that’s the reason the motherfuckers need to get out of bed like every damn day and do this work because I think it’s so vital.
What sort of subculture is out there what sort of things do people from your background tend to do for entertainment. Are they into hip hop?
It’s sort of weird because I misrepresented myself I do have a writer friend but we’re not close. She’s got her life and I got mine but for us, my friends from the community they come from the Bronx, alot of people argue but that’s the place where hip hop was born you know what I’m saying it came from the South Bronx so these kids are all deep into underground hip hop, deep into activism, there’s alot of activism around prisons, around police brutality, around political prisoners and that’s alot of the stuff that we do.
What we do for fun it’s so funny because we’re like project kids, that’s what we call ourselves we’re like really poor and so I got this money for this advance and now two years later I’ve spent it it‘s great I’ve given it away, I’m back to being the same person I was before.
We just don’t like to go no expensive club, like we’re the sorts of dudes who like when we go out we’ll go to a house party before we’ll go to any club. Usually we end up locked up in somebodies room with like a bunch of drums, everybody smoking as much as they goddamn can like playing drums and making music. Everyone’s got their own rhyme or their flow and that’s like our shit and I always feel it’s much better than going to any club and we love to dance, for us dancing is just shit, salsa merengue alot of hip hop.
Are you actually moving into that field yourself or is that something you just do for entertainment?
No! no! no! You see that for me is what’s mad funny is that people see me out and like my boys are in a group called the Welfare Poets and they do alot of performance shit and they’re real radical and they’re nuts but they’re beautiful musicians and they’re beautiful drummers and real lyrical. I go there and I like carry the drums. Before I was a writer everybody just saw me as the guy who just carried the drums for them. I still do it and people always bug out because they think I’m gonna read and I’m gonna step up and do something and that’s just not my style. For me writing is just something I do at home, you know real private and shit.
Would you say you have this sort of confessional form of writing in your first book, is that still continuing in your next book?
God I never felt it was all that confessional because I’m not like, I haven’t been to the Oprah Winfrey club, I don’t have that sort of thing it might seem like really confessional but I actually thought I was just having a conversation with my community, people of colour, like yo these are like some of the things we do and what are you going to say about it, just laying the cards out on the table which is hard because I feel one of the things that happens is that with us is that sometimes we’re not just honest with each other or we forget to talk with each other and for me writing this book what was an important thing about it was putting the cards down and this is what I think and this is how I see things and what are you gonna say about it. Give and take.
Have you been given a chance to read NESB readers or have you just breezed in?
Actually I’ve only been here like two days and what’s real strange is that I asked to be sent a bunch of books and I got them but they weren’t really what I was interested in, I keep forgetting the context, you have to be real specific with what you wanted. What I should had said, “Yo I wanna see what the people are into, what the community of colour is up to” and I haven’t seen the young writers of colour’s work at all. I saw them all come up. It was so painful because they set up all these interviews when all the people of colour were doing their readings and it broke my fucking heart when I noticed it so now I’ve been frantically trying to rearrange all these interviews because I don’t want to miss them anymore especially because I saw at the reading there were Asian people and for me I haven’t had a chance to deal with it here. I really wanted to get down and find out what’s going on around here. There was like some brother I just saw their faces I didn’t see their names. There was an Asian brother there and I was like wow let’s get into some conversation going.
What sort of writing assistance do people have in America?
Very little, people always complain about our MFA Masters programs that teach you how to write, they replace government funding and that’s pretty much the only thing so there’s some money here and there but basically the average writer within one of these programs is flatarse broke like in their goddamn crib working some lousy shitty job and then coming home and tap tap tapping for an hour or two then passing out from exhaustion. In the US very few people get the deal I got I don’t say that to say I’m like wow I’m such an amazing Negro. It’s an incredible arbitrary luck. I woke up and hit the goddamn lottery and that’s just the way it is and anybody tells you different is just full of nonsense. It’s about luck in the states I know writers that are fucking fifty times better than me and I’m not saying this for kissing ass I mean for real. Writer’s that are kicking serious butt in their work and who can’t get a goddamn book deal no matter how much we try they just can’t get a deal.
You just told me you haven’t written anything for two years
Oh yeah man I had a two year dry spell where I must had written like hundreds of pages but it was all bullshit you know it was just terrible and I think what happened the pressure was that this whole book publishing deal just threw up my equilibrium for real it is just so much pressure and in the states it was a big deal and people were saying he’s the next thing in writing and I was I saying no I’m not! I just want to work. I don’t want to be the next thing for anybody. I felt like I really…it was off my game I started to put so much pressure on myself I started to really doubt myself and it really fucked my work up and I spent all this time trying to get back on it and I think only recently I can see my way through it.
Are you actually teaching writing at a college?
I do teach an MFA program which is a graduate school and it was something that I thought would help me get out of this funk and it was important and it was good I liked it alot it was a good experience. The wierdest thing was that I was the same age as most of my student’s and that’s a pain in the ass because someone else would love it but for me I was very uncomfortable trying to teach someone my age or older than me for anything. You’re like, damn, you know as much as me kid why don’t you help me out.