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Junot Díaz

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Junot Díaz portrait

Junot Diaz portrait.
Copyright Nina Subin; used by permission.

“All societies are organized by silences that they need to maintain. I think the role of art is to try to delineate, break, and introduce language into some of these silences. I think more than anything I was just trying to get people to acknowledge how much of what we call ‘Caribbean history and culture’ is, in reality, one vast silence.”

— Junot Díaz discussing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao[1]

Over the course of just three books, Junot Díaz has enchanted readers with a unique prose style that blends Dominican and American street slang, pop culture allusions, and gritty lyricism. Writing in the New York Times, critic Leah Hager Cohen warned, “His prose style is so irresistible, so sheerly entertaining, it risks blinding readers to its larger offerings.” And yet, in this exuberant, hybridized prose style, Díaz finds a language perfectly suited to elucidating the often unspoken struggles of Dominican immigrants as they grapple with racism, misogyny, and poverty in their daily lives. Díaz’s work has enjoyed both popular and critical success, consistently appearing on bestseller lists and earning him several major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship. A public intellectual, Díaz has also been an outspoken advocate of a range of progressive political causes and shaped a new generation of writers as both a fiction editor at the Boston Review and a teacher of creative writing at MIT, where he is currently the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing. The formal inventiveness of Díaz’s writing and its engagement with the devastating legacy of colonialism on the Caribbean diaspora have also attracted significant scholarly attention, including 2012 symposium at Stanford on “Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination.” We are delighted to welcome Junot Díaz back to Stanford to deliver the 2017 Presidential Lecture.

Born on December 31st, 1968, in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Díaz was raised by his mother and grandparents in a poor, working-class community. In 1974, Díaz, his mother, and siblings moved to the United States to join his father, who had been working there for several years. Díaz found the experience of immigration profoundly dislocating: “I came to the U.S. at six and with a single flight I jumped literally from one world to another, from one Age to another.” [2] Growing up in a working-class Dominican neighborhood in the industrial city of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Díaz found refuge in local libraries and popular genre fiction, which provided a frame of reference for his experience:

“I sought narratives that might bind together the two disparate sheaths that were my life, that could suture my diasporic self together with any kind of coherence, that could provide (if only through analogy and metaphor) a frame for what I had experienced—if not the actual content of what I had passed through, at least its surreal extremity. Those needed narratives I found in ‘Malinowski’s triumvirate’—the genres of sf, fantasy, and horror.” [3]

After graduating from high school, Díaz attended Kean College in Union, New Jersey for a year before transferring to Rutgers University. While at Rutgers, Díaz encountered a burgeoning Latino/a culture and a wave of feminist writers of color, such as Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, and Octavia Butler, all of whom would exert a strong influence on his understanding of the role writing could play in giving voice to the complicated interaction of race and gender at work in the world around him.

After graduating from Rutgers, Díaz, like many aspiring young writers, sought to further his development as a writer by pursuing an MFA in creative writing. Somewhat self-deprecatingly, Díaz has said, “I applied blindly and not very widely. Six programs, and out of some strange pocket of luck that the Universe reserves for total fools I got into one: Cornell.” While at Cornell, Díaz struggled with what he has called the “unbearable too-whiteness” of his writing seminars and workshops. [4] “Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc).” [5] Despite the shortcomings of his program, Díaz found solidarity in his participation in an emerging Latino/a movement on campus that, among other achievements, successfully pushed for the hiring of the first faculty member of color in the MFA program, Helena Maria Viramontes. Just as he was finishing his program at Cornell in 1995, Díaz learned that Story magazine had accepted his first short story, “Ysrael,” for publication. The story introduces the character of Ramon de las Casas, also called Yunior, the consciousness that narrates much of Díaz’s subsequent works. Sent to a campo outside Santo Domingo for the summer, Yunior and his brother, Rafa, relieve their boredom by hatching a plan to unmask a local boy named Ysrael, whose face was badly mangled when he was attacked by a pig as an infant. (See excerpt.) Told in Díaz’s indelible style, the story introduces themes that will animate his later work—the pressure to conform to dominant models of masculinity, the absence of fathers, and the young man’s complicity in the very structures of oppression that constrain his own life as a member of the Antillean diaspora.

Drown

In 1996, Díaz published his debut collection, Drown, a loosely connected cycle of short stories chronicling the lives of young Dominican immigrants from the poverty of their boyhoods to their attempts to find love in the working class suburbs of New Jersey. Yunior, the young Dominican boy with whom Díaz shares some biographical similarities, narrates many but not all of the stories, providing an anchoring consciousness for the collection. Díaz has said that “the arc in Drown is about the creation of a New Jersey immigrant Dominican male subjectivity. The book is a how-to guide to how boys are assembled—one specific boy, at least.” [6] Critics hailed the collection for its gritty, unsentimental depiction of Dominican immigrant life and its distinctive linguistic style, mixing Spanish phrases and American ghetto slang. Reviewing the collection in the Times Literary Supplement, Phyllis Richardson notes that the stories “attest to his considerable gifts for conjuring disparate worlds through a merging of languages—Spanish, English, Dominican slang, drug jargon—to convey piercing images of loss and pain.” [7] In interviews, Díaz has characterized his refusal to provide any gloss or translation of the Spanish phrases and Dominican slang as a deliberately political choice, noting: “By keeping the Spanish as normative in a predominantly English text, I wanted to remind readers of the fluidity of languages, the mutability of languages. And to mark how steadily English is transforming Spanish and Spanish is transforming English.” [8]

In the wake of the critical success of Drown, Díaz took up a position teaching creative writing at Syracuse University, where he taught from 1997 to 2002. Acutely aware of his own terrible experience as a person of color in a writing program and the importance of his own critical and commercial success, Díaz has aimed to be a positive force for social justice. In addition to mentoring a new generation of writers in university writing programs, with fellow writers Elmaz Abinader and Diem Jones, Díaz also cofounded The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) in 1999. According to Díaz, VONA offers a place for writers of color “Where our ideas, critiques, concerns, our craft and, above all, our experiences would be privileged rather than marginalized; encouraged rather than ignored; discussed intelligently rather than trivialized.” [9] In addition to his advocacy within the academy, Díaz has been active in numerous progressive and leftist political causes, including the Dominican Workers Party and the ProLibertad campaign to free Puerto Rican political prisoners. As a public intellectual, Díaz often uses his status as a well-known writer and academic to call attention to injustices not given mainstream media coverage in the United States. More recently, Díaz has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, criticizing the government’s efforts to strip them of citizenship.

Fukú Americanus

A self-described “crazy perfectionist” and “slow writer,” who often writes dozens of pages for every one he keeps, Díaz took a decade to publish his second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. [10] While Drown limned the individual experience of the Dominican diaspora, in Oscar Wao, Díaz dramatically expanded his scope to explore the effects of the “fukú americanus,” “the Curse and the Doom of the New World” on a Dominican family from the time of the Trujillo dictatorship through their immigration to the United States. As Yunior, who returns to narrate sections of novel, explains, the “fukú americanus” was unleashed when Columbus first landed on the island of Hispaniola, resulting in a legacy of colonialism, slavery, dictatorship, and poverty: “Santo Domingo might be fukú’s Kilometer Zero, its port of entry, but we are all of us its children, whether we know it or not.” [11] Loosely patterned on the comics series The Fantastic Four, Oscar Wao chronicles the effects of the fukú as they play themselves out in the lives its four main characters, Oscar Wao, his sister Lola, his mother Belicia Cabral, and his grandfather Abelard Cabral. With his predilection for fantasy, comics, anime, and role-playing games, Oscar Wao provides the novel with a language and narrative framework for describing the effects of colonialism on the Dominican diaspora. (See excerpt.) “You can read all of the literary fiction that you want, and never really come close to approximating the horror of belonging to a society that was basically de facto a genocide zone, a place where human beings were bred, a place where human beings were enslaved,” Díaz has argued. “But you don’t have to go very far in comic books, in science fiction, and fantasy to find these sorts of concerns and these histories, not only on display but writ large.” [12] A critical and commercial success, Oscar Wao, went on to win multiple major awards, including the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, the John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize, and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. 

This Is How You Lose Her

In the fall of 2012, Díaz was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for his use of “vernacular dialogue and spare, unsentimental prose to draw readers into the various and distinct worlds that immigrants must straddle.” [13] Shortly after he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, Díaz published This Is How You Lose Her, his second collection of short stories. Like Drown, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her move back and forth in time, exploring events in Yunior’s life from the death of his brother from cancer through a series of failed love affairs that often founder on his own infidelity. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Francine Prose criticized the repetitive nature of the stories in which “Yunior cheats on the girlfriend he adores, then tries to keep his infidelity secret until he is found out, abandoned, and stricken with heartfelt grief and regret.” [14] Yet Yunior’s repeated infidelities, his almost compulsive lapses into the self-destructive habits of what he calls “a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole,” shape the collection’s exploration of the personal costs of the diaspora experience.[15] (See excerpt.) As Díaz explained to Stanford Professor Paula Moya, “In my books, I try to show how these oppressive paradigms work together with the social reality of the characters to undermine the very dreams the characters have for themselves…. [Y]ou get both the ugliness that comes out of showing how people really are around issues like race and gender, but also a hidden underlying counter-current that puts in front of you the very real, very personal, consequences of these orientations.” [16] Like its predecessors, This Is How You Lose Her garnered significant critical acclaim, winning the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and a finalist nomination for the National Book Award.

Taken together, Díaz’s three major works—Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This Is How You Lose Her—offer what José David Saldívar has called “collective historias” of the consequences of the colonial experience on the Latino/a diaspora. [17] Díaz’s characters may bear the scars of this diaspora experience, but they also seek what he has called “decolonial love” through their often flawed, and often failed, attempts to find love: “The kind of love that I was interested in, that my characters long for intuitively, is the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence.” [18] In so doing, Díaz’s work offers not only an account of the toll the colonial experience has taken on the Caribbean diaspora, but also a possible way forward.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Moreno, Marisel. "' The Important Things Hide in Plain Sight': A Conversation with Junot Díaz." Latino Studies 8.4 (2010): 539.

[2] Taylor, Taryne Jade. “A singular dislocation: an interview with Junot Díaz.” Paradoxa 26 (2014): 97.

[3] Taylor, Taryne Jade. “A singular dislocation: an interview with Junot Díaz.” Paradoxa 26 (2014): 97-8.

[4] Díaz, Junot. “MFA vs. POC.” New Yorker. Advanced Publications. April 30, 2014. Accessed March 17, 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-poc

[5] Díaz, Junot. “MFA vs. POC.” New Yorker. Advanced Publications. April 30, 2014. Accessed March 17, 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-poc

[6] Stavans, Ilan. “Driven: Junot Díaz.” Conversations with Ilan Stavans. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005. 51.

[7] Richardson, Phyllis. "A Boy from the Streets." TLS.4882 (1996): 22.

[8] Céspedes, Diogenes, and Silvio Torres-Saillant. "Fiction is the Poor Man's Cinema: An Interview with Junot Díaz." Callaloo 23.3 (2000): 904.

[9] Díaz, Junot. “MFA vs. POC.” New Yorker. Advanced Publications. April 30, 2014. Accessed March 17, 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-poc

[10] Danticat, Edwidge. "Junot Díaz." BOMB 101 (2007): 99.

[11] Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007: 1-2.

[12] Moreno, Marisel. "'The Important Things Hide in Plain Sight': A Conversation with Junot Díaz." Latino Studies 8.4 (2010): 541.

[13] “Press Release.” MacArthur Foundation. October 2, 2012. https://www.macfound.org/press/press-releases/23-macarthur-fellows-announced/

[14] Prose, Francine. "Beyond the Circle of Hell." New York Review of Books 59.17 (2012). Accessed March 24, 2017. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2012/11/08/beyond-circle-hell/

[15] Díaz, Junot. “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars.” This is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. 3.

[16] Moya, Paula M. L. "The Search for Decolonial Love: A Conversation between Junot Díaz and Paula M. L. Moya." Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination. Eds. Monica Hanna, Jennifer Harford Vargas, and José David Saldívar. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 396

[17] Saldívar, Jose David. “Junot Díaz’s Search for Decolonial Aesthetics and Love.” Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination. Eds. Monica Hanna, Jennifer Harford Vargas, and José David Saldívar. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 338.

[18] Moya, Paula M. L. "The Search for Decolonial Love: A Conversation between Junot Díaz and Paula M. L. Moya." Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination. Eds. Monica Hanna, Jennifer Harford Vargas, and José David Saldívar. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 396-7.

 

 


Text by Rebecca Wingfield, Curator for American and British Literature.
Stanford University Libraries ©2017


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