A writer who believes that standing together is key
Photo by nina subin
Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award (2008)-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, sees himself as a writer of color, no more and no less.
Themes of inclusion and representation permeate the work of this Dominican-American author, who speaks April 20 as part of the Just Buffalo Literary Center Babel Series. Though his own immigrant experience—he was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey—shapes his writing, that singular creative effort does not replace for him the collective responsibility to uphold, and fight for, American democratic ideals in fractious times.
Diaz, who has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1999) and was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow in 2012, is a graduate of Rutgers (BA) and Cornell (MFA) Universities, and currently edits fiction for Boston Review, and teaches creative writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest venture is a children’s book, Islandborn, published in March. Diaz is a cofounder of Voices of Our Nations Writing Workshop, supporting multigenerational writers of color. He is an unpretentious practitioner of what he preaches, which is to bring a multitude of voices to the world stage. In a recent phone interview, he talked about his life and work.
How does a climate that seems increasingly anti-immigrant affect your writing process?
It is hard to say how any of this impacts my work and my writing. I write so slowly; I find that I tend to be working on experiences that are twenty years in the past. I must have the slowest literary nervous system around! But, certainly, my students at MIT are well aware that the current political elites are anti-intellectual and antiscience.
Do you feel a responsibility as a creative writer to speak out about some of these issues?
That is the burden of every member of a civic society. Artists have no more of that responsibility. We all share that burden.
Tell us about your foundation, Voices of Our Nations.
The annual writing workshop is one of the bright lights of my year! We bring together a community of writers to deliberate, to share—for example, linking Caribbean writers in conversation with East Asian writers. It is very inspiring, helping to empower writers of all ages at the start of their careers. It is unlike any space I had access to. I was an immigrant kid who couldn’t speak or read a word of English. An educator—a librarian—took an interest in me, and welcomed me to a community of books. I was fortunate, and later was admitted to the MFA community, where I had many mentors who helped me endlessly. What we do at Voices of Our Nations is very aspirational, very relevant, and important to our democracy. It creates understanding, the language we need to produce solidarity in this time of disturbing retrograde politics.
Critics have called your writing “vulgar, brave, and poetic” as well as “sinuous, gutsy, and imaginative. ” Do you consider the reviews much?
You’re supposed to. But I try not to read anything about my writing. It took me a long time to see myself as a writer. It was a steep learning curve for me.
Among your fellow authors, whose work do you particularly admire?
Octavia Butler (American science-fiction writer)—I find her to be remarkable. I also admire younger—well youngish writers—including Edwidge Danticat (Haitian-American writer) and Colson Whitehead (American novelist).
Your books are both funny and sad. What has given you the greatest joy? And how do you hold onto hope?
Certainly being a member of a vibrant, critical, and resistant community. Working with my students to deepen their critical selves. And hope? Practice it, first and foremost. If hope is conditional, that is, certain conditions must be met for us to be hopeful, if we contextualize it—see where we are—we see that plenty of people have it a lot worse than us. Things are never as bad as we think they are. Ultimately, fighting for what’s right is something you can do anywhere, anytime. For many of us, resistance is free.
If you could recommend one book for the President to read…
I don’t think any amount of reading would lessen his malignity. He is a full-blown negative force.
What distresses you most?
Junot Diaz closes out the Babel season at 8 p.m., April 20 at Kleinhans Music Hall. Call 832-5400 or visit justbuffalo.org for information and tickets.