Junot Díaz, author of two books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, appeared on three panels over five days at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival. In his first, “Storyteller-in-Chief”, he spoke to author and journalist Sonia Faleiro about Oscar Wao and his first book Drown (a collection of interlinked short fictions), as well as some issues that underpin his narratives: race, location, masculinity and modern-day US.
Some of these came up again in “Imaginary Homelands”, where he spoke with Ian Jack, Kamila Shamsie, Manjushree Thapa, Marina Lewycka and Chandrahas Choudhury about the language and politics of migration.
“I don’t want to be part of a deracinated class of ‘universal’ writers who don’t really exist,” Díaz said, in response to a question about being identified as a writer of place—in this case, a “Dominican writer”—instead of more simply and possibly universally, as a writer. “Because let’s face it, no matter what language you’re writing in, the majority of the people on this planet can’t read it. I can be a Dominican writer if I can also be five billion other things at the same time. Otherwise, I’m not down with that shit.”
He also appeared on a panel discussing a crisis in American fiction, along with Jay McInerney, Richard Ford, and Martin Amis (who is British). Together, they examined and refuted what Amis identified as “the myth of decline”, perpetuated by writers such as V.S. Naipaul, who famously declared some years ago that the novel was dead. Díaz remarked dryly: “As he dies, so does the novel. How very convenient.”
Even as his works sold out at the festival book store and attendees pursued him for autographs and conversations, Mint cornered him in the relative quiet of Hotel Diggi Palace’s courtyard. We had 8 minutes to speak with him. Edited excerpts from the conversation:
What’s visiting India been like so far?
It’s been fantastic. What I’ve been enjoying immensely is that India is in the midst of an incredible transformation. It’s an enormously exciting place with tremendous burdens and challenges. I’ve just been having so much fun asking people about what they think is going on, getting opinions from people all across society.
Have you had a chance to meet people from all across society?
For my first two days in Delhi, I did that more than I’ve done in five days here.
You work in education (Díaz is a creative writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston). Did I read right that you’re involved with Dave Eggers’ literacy foundation?
No, I just did a conversation with him (in 2009 at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, which was reproduced in the Boston Review). I am a professor. I teach creative writing to young people. I’m also part of a non-profit group that does a series of workshops for writers of colour in the US. It’s called the Voices workshop—it’s something I love and support. I don’t mind being ridiculed, so I feel like I’m perfect for being a teacher.
I wonder if there’s a sense, in the US, that the fiction that emerges out of the great traditional workshops isn’t representative of a range of American voices? Is that why you do this?
Of course. I do this because there’s an enormous need. Students of colour don’t feel safe in the traditional workshops because their issues are not allowed to be discussed seriously. A lot of students feel they’re not getting the same rigorous analysis about the things that they’re interested in writing about—things about race, culture, gender, sexuality—that a mainstream white student is receiving. So, of course. Part of my whole civic engagement has to do with trying to fill in the gaps.
The panel we’ll hear, about the decline of American fiction, is really about the decline of one kind of writer, isn’t it? Not the decline of the artist who is fully engaged in public life.
There’s generally been a stereotype, a vision of the artist at a remove. The artist who’s up in his tower. But there’s always been a second strand too: of an artist who is engaged with society. Whether they’re engaged at the level of being the sort of artist who is hanging out with the so-called low lives, or whether they’re engaged with the political, these strands have always followed the Western sense of what an artist is. They’ve been in battle with each other.
I think I’m much more comfortable with the sense of an artist being a member of some sort of larger progressive social project. I think that all art is politicized in some way. I do my art because I love my art. But I think that that’s not enough. This society, no matter what anyone says—I take more out of this society than I put back in. And unless I’m in some type of civic engagement, I certainly feel like I’m taking advantage.
We have just 4 minutes now, but I’m going to chance a big question. You write both novels as well as short stories.
Could you talk about any differences in the way you approach each form?
It’s kind of simple for me in some ways. The short story is for me—I’m not explaining it for anyone else because there are more short stories than there are definitions for them, so this is just my point of view—my experience of writing short stories is that it’s all about what’s not said. It’s all about what you leave out. In a short story, you’re always looking to cut things out.
A short story, in my experience, can be completely held in your mind. In some ways, a short story can be perfect. In a novel, you’re not looking for excuses to cut things out. You’re looking for ways to put things in, to integrate.
Because a novel is too big for you to hold all together in your mind, they are two entirely separate practices. The short story is all about, could we say, your mastery. The novel is all about your trust. You can’t keep it all in your head, so you have to have faith that all the pieces are working together. Because unlike the short story, in the novel, your unconscious is doing all the heavy lifting.
Are there any writers you’d consider your literary forebears?
A ton. Edwidge Danticat, Chris Abani. There are current writers who I think are beyond brilliant. I think of people like (Salman) Rushdie, Leslie Marmon Silko, Edward Rivera—people to whom I owe a tremendous amount of debt. Again, the list is too long.
What are you currently reading?
I’m just reading Siddhartha’s (Mukherjee, also a panellist at the festival) book, The Emperor of All Maladies, which is brilliant.
What are you currently working on?
Nothing right now. I’m trying to work on a new novel, but I haven’t even got to page 1.