Interview
The Ethos of Writing, Alexander Parsons Talks to Junot Díaz

The Ethos of Writing, Alexander Parsons Talks to Junot Díaz

La idiosincrasia de la escritura

Junot Díaz

The Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series is presented a Junot Diaz reading a propos of his new story collection This Is How You Lose Her, one of the most anticipated books of the year. At the heart of the stories is Yunior, an irresistible and reckless young man from his earlier story collection Drown. The new book focuses on the power of love–obsessive love, illicit love, maternal love. Here is a conversation between the author and Alexander Parsons.

* * *

Alexander Parsons: You really show a mastery of dispersive style. You’ve used the first person point of view in your work, but in your latest collection, you chose the second person. Could you talk to us about the appeal of that voice?

Junot Díaz: I think what happens with the second person is that most of us know that in practice, it is a difficult mode because of how it’s simultaneously intimate and distant. If you spent your childhood like I did, you’re constantly under the influence of that second person command: “You, you, you!” So it’s a form in which you have to overcome many people’s resistance. The thing with me, and with most artists, is that when you discover that you have a weakness in a mode, you try to pour yourself into it. I can write in the first and third voices far more contritely. I always knew it was a deep weakness when I encountered those old war stories, where I felt I knew the person. I had been trying to write those kinds of stories on my own, and I knew it was a problem. So in each of my books, I always try to have something in second person, if only to exercise it. In a book, you never know when you’re going to need a mode. And so if you keep an area weak, you’re going to have to learn it on the fly rather than practice your weaknesses and be ready to go.

AP: With that perspective in mind, in your latest collection, you use the female voice a lot more, and you are writing fuller and stronger female characters. Do you feel that was a weakness that you really wanted to grasp, or just something you wanted to explore? Where do you stand in relation to women in your works?

JD: First of all, as an artist, and especially if you are an artist of color, there is this amazing impulse to rely on your work, so that no one has to talk about your artistry. The best way that people can obviate the hard work that goes into being a writer is to just sidestep your formal interest or formal experimentation to do the kind of stuff that makes a story possible to structure. The best way for folks not to have to recognize or tangle with it is to do something you might call “biographying,” where they don’t write characters, they just are their characters, and that’s a great way to be really lame. It’s exceptionally redundant, but it also ducks the questions that an artist like me is trying to raise about what sort of masculinities will we feel more comfortable reading about, and how that has nothing to do with the masculinities we encounter. So, you encounter an average male asshole on the street but you don’t want to actually be that. Or as my sister says, none of my girlfriends have trouble fucking these dudes; they just don’t want to be the guy. So for me, when I think about another huge weakness as a male writer, it’s true… You don’t have to have washed up from the same island as Wonder Woman for you not to be an intrinsically bad writer of women. As men, we spend our first forty years living in a culture that reinforces the masculine privilege of not seeing women as fully human… And as an artist who grows up seeing women as not fully human, you reproduce that. The average man starts writing women at level zero, and if he practices his whole life, he gets to twelve out of a hundred. He starts writing about men at level seventy-five! Because, whether you accept it or not, we live in a society that tells women that they are not human, and men are. I grew up with four sisters, and they more readily acknowledged my humanity than I theirs, and so I think these are factors that don’t apply to everyone. But a writer who ignores them misses the opportunity to make a necessary intervention with their art. I work with my male student writers, and they are universally abysmal. But we don’t generally say in class, “gather round, gentlemen, you fucking suck.” For the most part, I think male writers should hang a vag around their necks and say, “I suffer now.”

AP: So in terms of taking risks, you have a wonderful voice that jumps off the page, it’s polyglot, it’s filled with all sorts of slang, and you just roll along. I wonder, when you began writing, is that the voice that you heard, one that announced itself more or less fully formed? Or is it something that you really fought to develop?

JD: I’m interested in this, because especially when it comes to the question of elaborating “a voice” as an artist, some might call it an ethos. Before anything, as a writer you have to determine what your ethos of writing is, but even before that, what your ethos of reading is. Most young writers can’t articulate what their ideas are about the act of reading, and I thought about that before I began to think about elaborating a voice that could bring together all the disparate parts of me. . In the beginning, my work was so bad. And one of the things that was helpful was not approaching it from a writer’s perspective, which is a dead end. A far more generous and productive approach is to ask yourself what your ideas about reading are. The average reader is a million times more open and generous than the average person in a writing workshop. Most of my students are writing for other writers, with whom they are locked in a sort of deathly competition. So there’s an enormous amount of fear in them that suggests they might be doing something wrong, and none of that comes from readers. Readers will put up with a bunch of nonsense, and they are always happy to see the books they love. You’re not going to dislodge a reader’s love for a book, and readers bring a lot to the books. They excuse all our writerly flaws, they make up for the gaps we have in our calendars. If our plots don’t work well, readers stitch them together to make them work… Readers are happy to see you. So when I realized that I was really writing for readers, I was good to readers. As long as I gave them the classic pleasures of character and storytelling, they would put up with a lot of things. Readers of the Lord of the Rings put up with thousands of images of Elven poetry because they love the books, and they don’t understand any of that shit! The baseline for coming up with a voice for readers is trying to harmonize with the generosity of the form we’re in. If only more writers turned their eye away from other writers, toward readers, these beautiful generous people and who are way smarter than most of us writers give them any credit for. When I hear my students say, “Oh, that’s too much of a foreign language!” I say, “What reader are you talking about?” Before we can even get to a voice, I always tell them, “Let’s get to the ethos of reading, so at least you know where you’re at.” When you have a generous environment, you’re far more likely to experiment with your voice, and you’re far more likely to be tolerant of your errors.

AP: Why hasn’t Junot Diaz written any science fiction and fantasy? Is it that you feel that even though it’s part of your ethos of reading, the formal constraints of it are not what interest you in terms of format, or can we expect you to come out with your own trilogy?

JD: I do love all the nerd forms. If there’s a competition for nerds here, I might not make it to the top ten, or even make the Olympic team, but I’ll give you a good run for it. Part of it is my own set of limitations as a writer. I’ve tried to write these things, but am exceptionally bad at these genre forms. Even my most tolerant reader friends will say, “Dude, don’t show this to anyone!” Part of it is that I’m slow. I’m trying to write this weird apocalyptic monster novel. I keep having dreams. I don’t know anyone else who grew up in a house with those huge, scary, Catholic paintings… They had one at my house of St. Michael smashing a dark-skinned devil with one of those curved angel swords. When I was a kid, they looked forty feet tall, and so I always had the idea that I would write a story about forty-foot monsters who were kind of angelic, but no one liked it.

AP: Well, getting back to the short story collection, I was thinking about them in relation to Oscar Wao. And Oscar has a very open heart; he’s doomed by it to a degree. Do you think that Yunior suffers from that? He seems to inhabit this area of loss rather than love; he seems to always be in mourning. So could you talk a little bit about Yunior and his situation, and whether he seems fated to mourn the loss of his relationships… or do you see yourself working with him further down the line?

JD: I think I always thought of these stories kind of simplistically; I believe they open an opportunity for people to encounter themselves. Not so much that you walk away from art in some ways healed, or made better, but art has this ability to take those who spend their time in this society rarely thinking about our human, flawed, imperfect yet utterly beautiful self. Art gives us a chance to be in that human presence, and that’s often really hard. If anyone grew up like me, spending most of my time pretending I was better than I am, as if we were not supposed to have flaws or make mistakes, we’re not supposed to be conflicted, we’re supposed to be these smoothly functioning machines. And art gives us a chance to, for a moment, drop our act. So that’s what I think this work gives us an opportunity to do, and as far as Yunior is concerned, I guess that he’s a character that, like many of us, has had a remarkably difficult childhood. He doesn’t make anything of it, which always fascinated me. As a character he never scores that he has a father who despises him, he misses his native country, his immigration wasn’t cute, his mother is indifferent, she’s way more interested in his brother, his brother is a borderline sociopath who doesn’t care if he takes his brother’s eye out to make a point… It’s not the best childhood. He really doesn’t make any hay of it, as a narrator he doesn’t describe how he’s suffering, and I think Yunior’s problem with relationships come in this context. He is someone who is so guarded, that had to close himself off to survive, and yet he is desperately longing for love. And I think the idea that our past haunts us in some ways, that our past makes arguments against us that we have to, with our lives, counter, is something that I think about with Yunior. His past is weighing, and he certainly has to figure out a way to tell a certain story. He’s stuck in this weird story in which he tries to figure out a certain story, and I think most of us are in that place.

AP: You said earlier that society is often indifferent to the arts. How did you come to writing, what sustained you? Perhaps tell us of a crucial moment in which you thought, “It’s going to happen,” or “it’s not going to happen.”

JD: I think it’s one of those stories that a lot of us have as narratives; I came from an eminently practical immigrant family. I come from a military family; my father was in the Dominican military, my little brother is a Marine combat veteran who just came back from Iraq, my sister has married into the military… The idea that one of us would become an artist was so absurd because we were so poor, we were on food stamps, the whole nine yards. It was a massively impractical move, but part of what moves this stuff… My writing comes out of my love of reading. Writing would be impossible for me if I didn’t love reading so much. I am a very slow writer. I find writing extremely difficult; I’ve never been a writer who is fluent. I have never said, “Oh, that was a good day of writing,” but many of my friends do. What happens with someone like me is that you’re faced with a family’s granite resistance, adamantium resistance when you’re faced with how difficult the work is. I think the only thing that makes this possible for me is that I love books so damn much. When I was a kid, I constantly dreamed of books that were never written, like the Lord of the Rings having a fifth book, and I would always find it in the library, but before I could check it out I would wake up, and this was a nightly thing. Part of what was happening, of course, is this enthusiasm for reading, and I think it helped push me. If you love something enough, it will help with the discouragement. And I was also, as an immigrant kid, super practical. I was never one of those artists who asked to be supported for months while I wrote. So I always worked delivering pool tables, I worked at a steel mill, and all these other crappy jobs because in my mind was always the thought that you give unto Caesar what you owe him. So I got jobs and then wrote at night, and I thought that was going to be my life. I thought I was going to have a regular mosaic job. Part of why I felt I could do this was the notion that I loved these books so much, that the dreams of these books would keep me together. And I do remember the day when I woke up in my college dorm and realized that it was going to be very difficult for me to become a lawyer or go to school.

AP: What are your thoughts about the work being banned in Tucson, Arizona?

JD: Beyond my own personal statement on what it means to have your work banned, I think the larger question you’re raising is that we’re in such a perverse historical moment in this country. We cannot separate the banning of Latino-themed cultural books in Arizona from the ongoing full-scale attack on ethnic studies programs across the country. Nor can we disentangle the fact that ethnic studies programs most consistently provide young people with a critical lens through which we attempt to view and improve our democracy. Take an ethnic studies class, and you’ll be a way better member of our civic society than otherwise. But, as you well know, the reason that you’re a better member is because you suddenly have a racial, cultural, gender, class lens with which to approach the world, and that is deeply disturbing to these assholes that want to ban this stuff. On top of that, you can’t uncouple any of that from the perverse and inhuman wave of anti-Latino activity that has gripped this country. It is madness! The way we have victimized the Latino community, the way we continually demonize it; it’s like a free for all. If anyone had told me that the real domestic victims of 9/11 were the Latino community, I would’ve been surprised but believed it. I guess it all comes together most explicitly in a place like Arizona, but as a nation, what we’ve mostly shown to our “largest minority group,” and the group whose undocumented labor we are all addicted to, is nothing but cowardice, scorn and cruelty. I think we will one day get the president that we deserve. We don’t have him right now, but we will get a leadership who doesn’t think it’s a good idea to afflict the most vulnerable people in our community, and I think nothing speaks about the decline of national character than a nation which practices the affliction of the weak.

*PHOTO BY CAROLYN COLE

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