A few weeks after we spoke, Junot Diaz sent me a friend request on Facebook and thanked me for the interview. I should be thanking him – for having extended our chat despite being hounded by a bad back (we spoke standing up), and watchful minders anxious to deliver him to the closing talk of the Singapore Writers Festival.
The event, Hope And Resistance In The Age Of Dystopia (a part of the Singapore Writer’s Festival) was, I would find out later, sold out, with attendees coming from as far as Bangkok and the Philippines.
Diaz has not published much since the publication of his first short story collection, Drown, in 1996. In 20 years, he has produced only two other major works and a handful of essays. He admits to crippling procrastination: “For me, writing is the thing I wish to escape from the most. I write when I can no longer delay anymore.”
His latest work, the picture book Islandborn, written to fulfil a promise to a young girl, is to be published next month, six years after the short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her.
But what Diaz, a Dominican American who grew up in New Jersey, does produce belongs in the pantheon of genius. His 2007 novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won him the Pulitzer Prize and glowing praise from critics. As much as it is a literary achievement, it is also the novel equivalent of an addictive Netflix series, hooking the reader from page one with talk of Caribbean curses and brutal dictators.
The scintillating story traces the misfortunes and tragedies of an immigrant family, spanning the Dominican Republic and the US. At its heart, it’s a tale about a hapless boy whose sole purpose in life is to lose his virginity and his ultimate hallelujah moment.
I ask Diaz about his own epiphany, the instant he crossed the threshold from boy to man, and the 49-year-old cites an instant of compassionate awakening above any macho rite of passage. “It’s the moment that I discovered in college that my sisters, who had lived in the same apartment, come from the same family as I did, that their lives were so starkly disadvantaged compared to mine. I was never in constant sexual peril. My mother treated me differently as a male and I had no problem allowing that to go on.”
This identification with the plight of others only strengthened in Diaz in the years that followed. He is a well-known activist, lobbying for the rights of undocumented immigrants in the US and the Dominican Republic. His Facebook feed is one, long running collection of articles about the struggles of the underprivileged, whether it’s race, class or gender.
“I am better at serving other people than I am serving myself,” he says. “Every time I am interested in me, I want to vomit on myself. Not because I have an ethical, systemic reaction. It’s just so limiting – being an activist is about larger issues.”
This deep empathy stems from a backlash against his family’s values. “My family was super individualistic inside a culture that was community-minded. Most of us who come from traditional communities, normally our reaction is to become more liberal, more individualistic, more enlightened. My rebellion was to be more about community. My mother and father would encourage me to think about myself. ‘F*ck your neighbours. Get rich, get famous’.”
“My mother and father would encourage me to think about myself. ‘F*ck your neighbours. Get rich, get famous’.”
Despite his Pulitzer and countless accolades for This Is How You Lose Her, his mother still doesn’t think he’s a success. “Cultural capital doesn’t translate,” begins Diaz. “When I told her the Pulitzer was a US$10,000 prize, she scoff ed. My sister is a lawyer with a lot of money. That’s tangible. To my mum, ‘You have no kids, you live in a rinky-dink apartment. If you show up in the papers, it’s about some ridiculous progressive nonsense.’ She still sees me as a big disappointment.”
To this, Diaz feels relief. He admits he’s uncomfortable with fame, and has grown more cautious because he doesn’t understand the metaphorical lay of the land. “It has taken a long time to build me. I am not so quick to abandon that person.”
Knowing him to be an avid fan of fantasy and science fiction, I ask Diaz what super power he would like to possess. Clearly familiar with the game, he declares that the player has to name not one but two superpowers, because that will better reveal what he really thinks about himself.
“I lived in a culture in the Caribbean and grew up in a diaspora where there’s an enormous amount of sexual abuse. In my mind, I want to be able to fly and speak every language, or force people to relive their crimes every day until they repent. That’s the two sides of me: The adolescent side, which wants to see the world; and the part of me that as a child, witnessed this sexual economy, but didn’t want to hurt anybody.”