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Junot Díaz

A Writer's Wondrous Life

With his first novel, the Dominican American writer nets the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Can you discuss the historical and political background against which the narrative of the novel is set?


When I think of the first historical layer, there’s the layer of the New World, which is the colossal, apocalyptic violence that occurred in the Caribbean and gave rise to …slavery, the extermination of indigenous people, the violence of these early forms of capitalism. What were the early years of this thing we call “the Americas,” what we’ve now come to call “the American century”?

Then there was the history of the Trujillo dictatorship, which lasted 31 years in the Dominican Republic and was extraordinarily cruel, brutal, and often bizarre. Rafael Trujillo dominated and deformed this island country, which he isolated from the rest of the planet. What happens when somebody cuts off a country that already has shallow roots to its history, already sketchy connections to recollection, to memory, and seals the country off and forces it to live this kind of imposed delusion? That’s the second part.

The third part, historically, is the lives of my contemporary characters in New Jersey.

Do these histories have anything to do with each other? Is there an argument to be made that, in some ways, we are living historical moments simultaneously?


In your novel, there is an exploration of identity, of what it means to be Dominican as in: “Harold would say, ‘Tú no eres na dominicano’, but Oscar would insist unhappily, ‘I am Dominican, I am.’” Is it because Oscar is not, perhaps, what people would typically think of when they think of a Dominican? Is playing into stereotypes something you were consciously not doing?


Stereotypes, they’re sensual, cultural weapons. That’s the way that we attack people. At an artistic level, stereotypes are terrible writing.

The thing is, you don’t cure yourself of a culture. You’re in a struggle with whatever rules the culture teaches you, and that’s a struggle that lasts your whole life. We know every culture comes with a prepackaged wall of clichés and stereotypes and shortcuts and specifications. You don’t cure yourself of that. You spend your whole life trying to make sure that you don’t duplicate these in a harmful way.


In your introduction to Drown, you quote Gustavo Pérez Firmat: “The fact that I’m writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere else.” In your own work, you provide an idiosyncratic mix of Spanish and English. What is your relationship to the Spanish language, and how involved are you in the translation of your work?


The translator sends me each chapter. I go over it and make all of the corrections I think are worth it, and then I give it to this one friend of mine. She’s super-Dominican, super-picky, and particular. Between the two of us, we pretty much straighten out anything that needs straightening out. The actual heavy lifting of doing the translation is something someone else does. They can do that so incredibly fast. If I had to translate this book it would take me about two years.


Have you noticed a difference in how various generations respond to your work? Have your parents and grandparents read your novel?


My parents and grandparents can’t read the darn thing until it’s in Spanish. They’ve got to wait to see what’s up. I’ve been hearing from a lot of teachers who have been teaching this book over the last few months, [and] they keep telling me that what’s fascinating is that it has gotten their kids and parents talking in ways that they normally wouldn’t. The parents are suddenly telling the kids about what it was like to live under Trujillo. I’m hoping that it becomes a two-way conversation because part of what turns a traditional reader off from a book like this is that they’re not accustomed to someone from a younger generation being the narrator of an epic. They don’t want to hear the hip-hop kid; they want somebody with nice, smooth British or Castilian tones. If kids are going to be respectful and listen to the stories of the elders, I think it’s only right that the elders have to be respectful and listen to the stories of youth.

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