Renowned American-Dominican author, activist and professor, Junot Díaz, opened VCU’s 2017-18 Speaker Series on Sept.16 to a packed room of more than 500 people. Díaz’s work explores issues of diasporic identity, race, patriarchy and politics through the lens of Dominican-American characters in New Jersey and how those issues radiate across spectrums of race, ethnicity and gender.
Díaz sat down with The CT a day before speaking at VCU to discuss how issues of advocacy, politics, economics, resistance and the power of arts intersect in how he writes and in his day-to-day interactions.
You write in a very relatable way. Each word in each of your works from “Drown” to “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” to “Pura Principle,” even your essay in “Letters to Palestine,” is wrote in an authentic and realistic conversational style without academic jargon which can be alienating. Is this the result of your own struggle with learning English and the dichotomy of living between two cultures or is it beyond just identity politics at play?
I think in general I find myself as an artist trying to make my intervention freighted with as little unnecessary obfuscation as possible. I think art is a difficult prospect from any angle so when it comes to difficult topics I approach it as efficiently as possible. I write about things I thought about quite a bit so I’ve worked out the parameters in my mind. I feel no more natural or at ease speaking about these issues than anyone else so I’m always sorta surprised that I even finish a sentence and it makes any kind of sense. The matter is that when it comes to complex, and not exactly comfortable, topics I tend to beat as little at the bush as possible.
You often thank your audience for coming out to a book reading in an extremely specific way. Is this done strictly to connect with your audience or in order to breach the gap between academics and the general public?
Folks are making sacrifices to come and you know have conversation with you so for me it’s always been ethical matters to treat folks as considerate and decently as possible. As an artist, I’m arguing for a serious listening practice and for me not to actually embody that and participate that should be height of absurdity. Listening means a lot to me when I’m interacting — otherwise, why be in conversation? That’s the same as teaching for me. I’m teaching at university level because I’m profoundly interested in learning what my young people have to say. And that means that you actually gotta be really open to listening and that takes a lot more training in this culture than most people will have you believe.
During an event at University of Kansas you told the audience, “If this was a religious thing or economic thing you would expect a lot of people, but as a culture we don’t do much for art anymore.” From your perspective, what has changed in our appreciation of the arts and does it impact how you write?
I’m not sure how it impacts how I write about but it impacts how I talk about and advocate for art. This is a society that historically has undervalued art but that has entered an even more intensive phase of devaluing arts. It means you got to activate and organize accordingly. I think we’re in an intensely neoliberal phase of art capitalist arrangement and therefore the commodification and privatization of everyone and everything has had very serious consequence on the arts. The arts under the benign capitalistic regime is considering a bizarre irrelevancy. In an economic climate like ours art that doesn’t earn is often framed as some kinds of enemy. I think that neoliberalism has really distorted the average person’s relationship with the arts which means that those of us who take the arts seriously have to advocate in different ways.
When you said “distorted” do you mean neoliberalism preference for financial gain is ruining access to and understanding of the arts?
One of the foundation features of neoliberalism is all relations is understood through the economic matrix. All sorts of thing like altruism and humane characteristics and impulses they all have to be given some sort of price tag and justify their existence through their earning potential. Most art isn’t a practical pursuit, in fact it’s highly impractical, but it’s a civilizational necessity. Art we need the most is being marginally the most and they remind us what it is to be human and deepen our relationship with that which is human. In a culture like ours which above all else, is a dehumanizing culture we need these practices, we need these relationships and we need the arts.
In “Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” it’s fated Oscar is cursed by Fukú because he is born dark-skinned. Is the fraught racial relations in Dominican Republic being carried over to the U.S. in the book representative of global anti-blackness or is it a specific context within the Dominican experience?
I think that white supremacy is a global concern. I might be very interested in its specific manifest in the dominica diaspora community, but the reality is that white supremacy and its foundation of anti-blackness is global and therefore that’s what is really at stake for me in the art. I might be talking about the racial lunacy of a certain family from the Caribbean but really it’s just a window to talk about the white supremacy and anti-blackness that is general throughout the world. There is nothing Dominicans suffer from that the rest of the African diaspora doesn’t suffer from in spades.
You are extremely politically active. An example is your essay in “Letters to Palestine,” where you question the silence and stigma of discussing politics as an artist especially in reference to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. Is this specific to that issue or relates to artists and academics commenting on politics at large?
It’s important for people to exercise their right to being the opposition. The way that states change and that history teaches us things change is that because folks stand the hell up even if other folks mischaracterize what their doging and describe the worst absolute motives for it. I’m aware of how easy it is for criticism of Israel to slip into anti-semitism but with that said criticism of Israel is not ever automatically anti-semitism. I myself am a supporter of the cultural boycotts of Israel and I was a supporter of boycotts of South Africa. As we going through the most anti-Islamic, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab period that I’ve ever seen in my entire life, one has to understand that one’s support of Palestine people through that lense as well. It’s a complex discussion that folks have been distorting and putting off for a long time. I myself am very excited to see how a new generation is approaching this conversation far more honestly and greater sense of ethical outreach.
In “Pura Principle,” Junior says, “I didn’t lift a fucking finger in our apartment, male privilege, baby.” This type of chauvinism is scattered throughout the books but it’s interesting that he’s more than willing to admit male privilege in the household but not often in his day-to-day life.
I would argue that one of the larger points that Junior tends to make about patriarchy is that there is no distinction between the patriarchal expression in the United States and the Dominican Republic. I don’t seem to see any. Of course there are very stark differences in the particular histories and the particular forms of feminism on the ground and of the different sort of survivants that women have activated facing these particular patriarchies. In general, one the things that Junior seems to be poking at is that it’s quite a comfortable fit jumping for the Dominican Republic to the United States because these patriarchies seem to convert with very little interference. As writer and a male who is complicit in all the fucked up shit of patriarchy I think that Junior is a little more sophisticated than seems at first glance.
What would the character Junior would be like today if he “made it” in societal terms?
I’m just wondering, you know how much do we know about this character at all? I always thought part of the joke is that for narrator Junior is profoundly private and non-concessional. For someone who seems to bracingly honest he tends to be someone who doesn’t talk about himself directly. I guess my take is that the point where Junior is recounting all these stories from is more traditionally successful than anything I’ve achieved.
In your collection of work New Jersey and Dominican Republic are made alive and tangible as people not just places. Do you think in the future you’ll have such a strong connection with an entirely different place so you can write as honestly as you have about Jersey and the DR?
I’m an immigrant. I’ve never had the privilege of being able to answer that question affirmatively.That’s not the fate been the of this immigrant. The fate of this immigrant has been finding myself having to always form new relationships with new places.
Siona Peterous, Spectrum Editor