Cabell First Novelist speaks about novel’s themes of isolation, immigration

Diaz’s novel contains inverted elements of the Western genre. Photo by Michel Maulding

Katie Bashista
Spectrum Editor

Hernan Diaz remembers his first poem as “horrible.” But, he said, it helped him understand that words can be useful beyond everyday communication. Diaz, who is now a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for his novel “In the Distance,” is also the winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.

His experience with language has been unique. Born in Argentina, his family moved to Sweden when he was two years old because of the military coup, meaning Swedish is his first language. Diaz’s family later moved back to Argentina where he stayed for a few years before moving to London. He’s lived in New York for the last 20 years.

“In the Distance” captures what Diaz describes as a triangle of absolute disorientation, foreignness and loneliness. The plot takes place in the American West in the 1850s during Manifest Destiny. When Håkan, a Swedish immigrant, is separated from his brother, he finds himself lost on the West Coast trying to make his way to the East, fighting the current of Western migration.

Diaz was living in London when he started writing the novel. By coincidence, he read a variety of novels that took place in the western U.S., but were from different canons of literature: Russian, Argentinian, American and Italian.

“I started thinking, if we usually define the desert as a void, can there be different kinds of voids?” Diaz said. “Also, since I’ve been a foreigner in one way or another my entire life, the desert seemed very productive in that regard. Can one be a foreigner in a totally context-deprived situation such as the desert?”

Although the book takes place in the West, Diaz does not define it as a western, and he took steps to differentiate it from definitive aspects of that genre. Diaz describes westerns as a “glamorized version of the worst aspects of our history.”

“The genocidal violence, misogyny, the obsession with private property, exploitation, it goes on and on and on,” he said. “At the same time, it’s kind of a tragedy genre, nobody really pays attention to westerns. If they do … the good ones are all anti-westerns.”

He said in appreciating the genre, there is an element of denial, which Diaz considers an “interesting scaffolding to walk on.”

The most obvious difference between “In the Distance” and typical westerns is that the character is traveling East during a time in which western migration was taking place.

“He’s going against the tidal wave of history,” Diaz said. “Then I also took sort of most of the elements in the genre and inverted them or messed with them.”

The horses in the book are sick, slow and dying, rather than fast and strong. The characters are not good at shooting and the guns are rusty and broken. The role of women is also questioned in the book.

“In the genre women appear almost as private property, right? I mean they’re either prostitutes or housewives,” Diaz said. “So I also inverted that and I have an extremely powerful, strong woman who actually turns the hero into a sex slave.”

Diaz wrote a significant portion of the book so that the reader would be equally as confused and disoriented as Håkan by writing from his perspective. For two-thirds of the book, Håkan does not understand anything that is being said around him.

“Sticking to his point of view was a way for me to explore his utter disorientation — linguistic disorientation, temporal disorientation, spatial disorientation and solitude,” Diaz said.

Diaz began writing the novel during President Obama’s first term and he finished it in July of his last year in office. The book deals heavily with immigration and foreignness, and had Diaz written the book during the political climate we now find ourselves in, he is not certain how it would have changed the novel.

“If you’re awake and attuned to what’s going on, you’re influenced by reality,” he said. “And what’s going on and everything that’s going on is so intense right now so I’m sure, I don’t know to what extent, but I’m sure it would have been different. On the other hand it’s a very self-contained world as well.”

When it came to choosing the name for the main character, Diaz said he wanted something that would not bring too much attention to itself as Håkan is a fairly common name in Sweden. However, it is still confusing.

“I wanted a name that people would struggle to pronounce because that’s also my experience with my first name,” he said. “It’s such a big part of my day everyday, people dealing with my name, so I wanted that to be in the book.”

Diaz’s unconventional writing process allowed him to create a piece of literature that is completely unique to his own experience and, as a result, Håkan’s.

“I’ve been writing my entire life. It’s not like one day I woke up and said ‘oh I’m going to write this book,’” he said. “I’ve had rejection in great, great doses. I’m well acquainted with that so I was expecting more of that rather than what happened.”

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