Authors@Google: Junot Díaz

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 03.10.2007

>>presenter: I'm gonna keep the introduction short because he's a super interesting guy
and I'd like to get him on the mic sooner. But just briefly, he's a Dominican American
writer; he lived in Jersey after moving here with his family around age six. Just from
talking to him, I learned that he worked in a steel mill and, I think, probably a lot
of other things. If you haven't checked out his first short story collection, it's called
"Drown". It's super excellent. And his newest novel, which hopefully you have a copy of,
got rave review from Michiko Kakutani in The New Yorker and an excerpt of it was illustrated
by one of the Hernandez brothers--famous cartoonists. He also wrote this really, I read this really
great story in NPR's, "This American Life"-- I thought it was hilarious-- called "How to
Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie" and he also teaches undergrad creative
writing at MIT. And the last thing I'd like to say is that if you open your book, the
epigraph to the book is from The Fantastic Four comic book: "Of what import are brief,
nameless Galactus?" It's probably the best epigraph I've ever seen. Please welcome
Junot Diaz.
>>Diaz: Thank you.
Guys, thanks so much for coming out here. It's kind of a cool thing and I really don't
know what the actual details of it are, but it's really kind of a wonderful thing that
the, that they give you these kind of little events, yeah? And for me, it's just like--
I'm always kind of astonished and humbled when anybody will take any time from their
lunch break to come talk to an artist or interact with an artist or some kind of writer or anything
like that. So, I find that to be extraordinarily human and touching. So, thank you for taking
a little bit of time. It's hard to make any time for anything, so this is like, I honestly
just can't believe it, so thanks so much. And it's sorta weird, I have this year off.
I'm not teaching at my school; MIT. And so I have these bizarre pangs when I'm walking
around your campus because it's like the same architect who built the damn MIT and built
this place? You know? It's like, just the numbered buildings and your signs don't work.
Which is like MIT. My students always change all the signs. So, they're like, "Building
41; it'll actually be the opposite direction." So, I felt like, "Aww. God, this place is
equally fucked up. I think it's cool."
So, thanks guys. And since we're-- I hope you guys don't mind, we're like an intimate
group, if I like talk more like I would normally talk and not how I would talk with my students?
Is that ok? Cause it takes a lot of energy to pretend to be someone else, yeah? Which
you have to when you're at work, yeah? So, at least we have to. But I'm sure other people
do. Yeah, so I got asked here, what I was gonna do was just a small reading and then
probably we could have some questions to talk about some things. By way of introduction,
I'm a writer and I'm really interested in probably the dumbest thing you could be interested
in if you're a writer. I'm like interested in the gaps in stories, like the places where
there isn't a story. Like, if someone misses four or five, if there's like a four or five
month gap in someone's life, that's what really pulls me, yeah? If there's a period of history
where there's no writing or there's no records about it; I'm absolutely fascinated. So, it's
like a bizarre thing because most writers want to write about things where there's a
least some documentation. So, in some way, this book was--I wanted to write a book about,
you're talking about the Galactus quote about nameless lives. I wanted to write a book about
this period in the island I came from, the Dominican Republic, where everybody talks
about this dictatorship, but nobody actually says anything. It was like such a weird trauma
that people would always say,"Oh, and the time of Trujillo..." But then they won't actually
say anything. There's no details. And I was fascinated about how you can hide something
in plain sight. It's like the dictatorship is hidden in plain sight. Everybody mentions
it, but nobody dares actually give any details about it. And I started doing this about ten
years ago because my grandfather, he's like an old country guy, real funny dude. He belongs
to that tradition, which he would like this, because when he used to work in the Dominican
Republic, they would have a lector, somebody who would come and read while they were working.
So, in his mind, this shit would be really normal. He'd be like, "This is awesome!" Someone
would always come in and usually read like communist work, you know? And he told me this
crazy story about during this dictatorship, about how he was walking down the street and
somebody was eating an orange and threw the peel down. And at this time, they believed
about 50% of the island were informants for the dictatorship, which kinda makes East Germany
look like normal. And somebody threw an orange peel on the ground and the secret police came
from all over and arrested the guy who threw the orange peel and the three nearest people
who didn't stopped and apprehend the guy who threw the orange peel and my grandfather was
number four. And so, the guy in front of him was arrested and he was like, "Yeah, had I
been walking any faster I'd have been in prison for ten years for an orange." And he said
this story and I have never, ever heard that things were that crazy over there. So, part
of this novel is about that, but part of it is also about growing up in New Jersey, about
kind of a big dork in New Jersey. Yeah, like the huge nerds; '80s was like the perfect
time for nerds, you know? It was like, personal computing, role playing games; comic books
became really big. And like video games, yeah? It was all this perfect storm of nerdery,
so I wanted to write about that. So, I'm just gonna read a small, little piece and then
maybe some questions or some comments and then we can take it from there. All right?
The piece I'm gonna read is from, it's called "Sentimental Education". There's like a lot
of voices in this book cause it's-- I always say, "Have you guys read A Wrinkle in Time?"
Anybody read "Wrinkle in Time?" Poor Madeleine L'Engle just died recently. Yeah, "Wrinkle
in Time" was like, I loved that book. Do you remember who the bad guy was in "Wrinkle in
Time?" Does anybody remember that? C'mon, man, the bad guy was called either "the enemy"
or he was called "it". They were so afraid to name him and anyway, for a kid who grew
up in the shadow of a dictatorship, the "Wrinkle in Time" really wigged me out because it was
a dictatorship taken to the extreme. Cause when the enemy had taken over a planet, do
you remember what he did and how people acted? Do you remember that all the kids would come
out of their houses and bounce the basketball at the same time? And I was like, "God." And
I'd always-- for me, struck me, I was like, "Fuck! That's a dictatorship gone nuts." So,
there's all these voices in this book because it's an attempt to get away from that single
voice. And so, this is a kid talking about his college life and how he meets, how he
meets the-- the biggest nerd in the world. But first, he meets his beautiful sister who
he falls in love with. And so the voice is kinda college-like, in Spanish would be a
"sucio", I guess like a playboy. Dude's got like, 25 girlfriends, yeah. So, it starts
like this:
"Sentimental Education: 1988-1992
It started with me. The year before Oscar fell; I'd suffered some nuttiness of my own.
I got jumped as I was walking home from the Roxy by this mess of New Brunswick townies;
a bunch of funking morenos. Two AM and I was on Joyce Kilmer Ave. For no good reason, alone
and on foot. Why? Because I thought I was hard; thought I would have no problems walking
through the thicket of young dudes I saw on the corner, which was a big mistake. I remember
the smile on this one guys face the rest of my fucking life, only second to his high school
ring which plowed a nice furrow into my cheek. Wish I could say I went down swinging, but
these cats just laid me the fuck out. If it hadn't been for some Samaritan driving by,
the motherfuckers would probably have killed me. The old guy who saved me wanted to take
me to Robertwood Johnson, but I didn't have any medical insurance and besides, ever since
my brother had died of leukemia, I had not been hot on doctors. So, of course, I was
like, 'No, no, no.' And for having just gotten my ass kicked, I actually felt pretty damn
good. Until the next day when I felt like I had died. So dizzy, I couldn't stand up
without puking; my guts feeling like they'd been taken out of me, beaten with mallets
and then reattached with paper clips. It was pretty bad and all the friends I had, all
my great, wonderful boys, of all of them only Lola came through. She heard about the beat
down from my boy, Melvin, and shot over ASAP. Never so happy to see someone my whole life.
Lola, with her big, innocent teeth. Lola, who actually cried when she saw the state
I was in. She was the one who took care of my sorry ass; who cooked and cleaned and picked
up my class work, got me medicine and even made sure that I showered. In other words,
she sewed my balls back on and not any woman can do that for a guy, you know? Believe you
me, I could barely stand my head hurt so bad, but she would wash my back and that was what
I remembered the most about this mess. Her hand on that sponge and that sponge on me.
Even though I had a girlfriend, it was Lola who spent those nights with me combing her
hair out, once, twice, thrice before folding her long self into bed next to me. 'No more
night walking,' she said, 'Ok Mr. Kung Fu?' At college, you're not supposed to care about
anything. You're just supposed to fuck around like crazy. But, believe it or not, I actually
cared about Lola. She was a girl who was easy to fall in love with. Lola, like the fucking
opposite of the girls I usually went after. Bitch was almost six feet tall and no chest
at all and darker than your darkest grandmother and she was like two girls in one: the skinniest
upper body married to a pair of Cadillac hips and an ill donkey. One of those over-achiever
girls who runs all the organizations in college and wears suits to student meetings. She was
the president of her sorority, the head of Salsa and co-chair of Take Back the Night
and she spoke perfect, stuck-up Spanish. We'd known each other since pre-freshman weekend,
but it wasn't until a year later, till sophomore year, when her mother got sick again that
we had our little fling. 'Drive me home, Junot,' was her opening line and a week later, things
jumped off between us. I remember she was wearing a pair of Douglas sweats and a tribe
t-shirt. She took off the ring her boyfriend had given her and then she kissed me. Her
dark eyes never leaving mine. 'You have great lips,' she said. And I ask you, how do you
forget a girl like that? Only three nights we were together before she got all guilty
about her boyfriend and put an end to it. And when Lola puts an end to something, she
puts an end to it hard. Even those nights after I got jumped, she wouldn't let me steal
on her ass for nothing. 'So,' I said, 'you can sleep in my bed, but you can't sleep with
me?' And she laughed. 'Junot,' she said, 'yo soy brierta pero yo no soy bruta.' Because
she knew exactly what kind of sucio I was. Two days after we kind of broke up, she saw
me hitting on one of her line sisters at a party and she turned her long back on me."
So, that's it. It's just a small entry, yeah? So, I think the best thing to do is to read
a little bit, yeah? And then maybe take some questions and I'll just finish off by reading
something else. Or comments, yeah? You guys can't be any harder or meaner than my kids,
so I figured anything you wanted to say or talk about, that'd be cool. It spares you
having to listen to me for another 15 minutes of reading. So, we can save that for the end.
Am I blocking my--?
>>presenter: No, no, no. I just forgot to mention, anyone wants to ask a question if
you can line up at the mic so we can get it on the tape.
>>Diaz: Oh, Lord.
>>presenter: Yeah.
>>Diaz: That's even worse. I'm sorry, guys.
It would've been so much easier if you just said some shit. Ok, we at least have one.
>>member #1: Sure.
>>Diaz: Hi.
>>member #1: Just a quick question, I understand that this is your first novel, but you've
written fiction for The New Yorker. What inspired you to, at this point in your life, to take
this leap into writing a novel and this novel?
>>Diaz: That's a good question. I always was a, I come from this immigrant, over-achiever
family, my family--you know when you're a kid and you score well at anything? In my
family, they were so fucking excited. They were like, "We got one." You know? They were
like, "Ah, he's gonna be a doctor, he's gonna be a scientist, he's gonna be whatever." And
so, I was like really good at scoring those damn tests that they give you as a kid. I
was always scoring like the 99th percentile at those stupid, little tests, but I loved
to read. And I kind of screwed my poor parents who wanted something more professional and
I became an artist. I wanted to, I loved to read and I wanted to be a writer like, probably
since I got into high school, I thought writing would be cool 'cause I liked to read so much
and it was also kinda reacting to my old man. My old man was like a military guy, he was
like a boxer. It was like, he got a black belt in Judo. Every Sunday, the pain in the
ass would go take us to the rifle range, you know? And I was like, I didn't want to be
anything that he kind of approved of in a weird way. And so, being a writer seemed like
a cool thing to do and I got pretty serious about it 'cause, despite how much I wanna
resist my parents, you have that immigrant work ethic where if you don't have three jobs
you're lazy. My mom would be like, 10 p.m., she's like "Why aren't you at work?" And the
commercial would be on, "Do you know where your children are?" My mom was like, "Oh,
you better be working."
So, probably from about college, I started bringing that weird work ethic into writing
and I'd been writing for awhile. It's just that the two books I published were the only
ones that worked. I had written like, three other books, but they were like really, really
bad. So, it's like, I'm telling you, if any of you guys ever want to be artists, I'm a
perfect encouragement. You can't be farther worse than me.
It's like, three for two-- that's bad, guys. So, it was a lot of that, but I think like
more fundamentally, growing up, I mean, I'm older than most of you guys here. It's like
you guys look like babies to me some of ya'll, you know? Like, little. But I grew up in the
'80s, yeah? And it was like a weird time to be poor and Dominican and immigrant cause
the '80s was like, it was crack, it was AIDS, it was genocidal wars in Central America,
it was voodoo economics, where basically, that was when they say, "We take all the money
out of the system and we give it to the rich. We promise you, it'll trickle down to the
poor." Which, of course, didn't work at all. And so, all these things were happening and
as a kid, I was really observant and there was a part of me that felt that there was
this vacuum in the historical record. I would turn on the TV and all these things that I
saw happening at once, nobody was talking about. And so, of course, there was this desire
to bear witness. It sounds like kind of lofty, but as a kid I really did want, I felt like
I was seeing shit that nobody wanted to talk about. And there was this desire in me to
know that and that was part of my writing. I mean, first, all I ever wrote were like
kinda news reports from my neighborhood; all the shit that was happening that nobody would
ever care about. It was really weird. So, I think that was some of it. Yeah. Oh, Lord.
This is a set-up. Sir, if you ask a question, I'll repeat it so you don't have to get up.
>>member #2: Great [inaudible]. So, based on what you've said, what I'm reading here
is has like, college in New Jersey. Well, can you describe the relationship between
the Trujillo regime and what's the link between that and this story.
>>Diaz: Yeah, no that's an excellent question like just from what I was talking about. I
was talking about a dictatorship and yet the first thing I read to you is a story about
being at Rutgers; just running around chasing chicks. And the real question is that what
happens when you're a kid like me, who goes to Rutgers and basically runs around and chase
chicks and you're, you visit a home where your parents were like victims of a dictatorship.
Do those histories ever meet and do they actually ever influence each other? Does one speak
to the other? Does the fact that I had all this access to all this privilege-- and I
thought it was incredible privilege being at a state school and learning all this stuff--
did that impact my mom at all? And did the sorta silence around her personal history
did that have any influence on me? And in some ways the book is about, I thought, was
about the tyranny of the present. How the present is such a strong force that it's very
hard to think about the past. It's a lot of historians talk about this term, "the tyranny
of the present," that it's like the present is such a force that people don't even wanna
see old movies; they'd rather see a remake because they're like, "I don't want really
to do anything with history. I don't want to think about the past." And the problem
is that it's, we live not only in the present, we also live in a historical moment. A lot
of the things that have happened in the past have very subtle influences on our choices
and our decisions and part of what the book was about was trying to run these two stories
side by side and see if there was anything that was happening between the two of them.
Is it true that I always felt that even though I was living in a real contemporary, Jersey,
into baseball, into hip-hop, I always felt the shadow of that past history; it was on
us? Even though none of my siblings believed it was. And yet, all of my siblings act the
same way in some ways. I mean, you wouldn't have to be a super smart person to figure
out that all of us are the children of victims of a dictatorship. It's like, kids who grew
up in Jersey who seem completely normal, they never speak in public. It's like my parent's
ability to not to say anything incriminating. Anybody calls the house, it's like nobody's
ever home and you've got the wrong house. When I got accepted to Cornell, it took them
months to track me down because my mother was like, "Who? Junot? No, he doesn't live
here." Click.
And so, it seems really minor, but I do think that there's a tremendous amount of history
that bleeds into the present and has an influence on us that we don't even understand. And so
for me, I guess that was the point of the question. How much of the present, or what
we call the present, is made up of the past? And even at an unconscious level, are we influenced
by-- they talk about the unconscious, it's like when somebody is cheating on you and
you don't know it; your kinda unconscious knows it. And they say that that's like real
common for people's unconscious to know that somebody's betraying them and their conscious
not to know. And so I've always wondered how that works. And I was very, very curious about
the link between a pair of parents who grew up disciplined in a dictatorship and then
how do they raise their kids in their own house? And yet, you know Rutgers? It seems
so far away. When I was at Rutgers dancing salsa, Santa Domingo and Secret Police, that
seemed a million miles away. And yet, I would go home and see my mom and my mom's back would
be all scarred and it would suddenly be right there. And I was like, "Hmmm. Is it just that
I'm pretending that the history's not here? Or is it really here? We're making it all
up." And I'm not sure that the answer is more about putting these pieces together and seeing
if I could generate any conversation. Sir?
>>member #3: Yeah, I had a question. The first thing when I read your excerpt in The New
Yorker that like jumped out at me was like, "Oh, this character is talking about comics,
he's talking about video games, he's talking about all this stuff that I'm into." And then,
as I got into it, there's this brutality and sadness that comes over you, just in the excerpt
even. And a lot of my friends were talking about this. It kind of, there's this thing
that's been happening where these writers like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon are
getting a lot of praise for breaking genre and talking about comics as if they're important,
but a lot of my friends are second generation immigrants and so they were like, "You have
to read this. There's a brown nerd in this story. And I was just curious to hear like,
it's only one part of your book, but what are your thoughts on that whole kind of like
McSweeney's meets Cosmopolitan comics are a high art thing? That seems to be a lot about
upper middle-class white dudes talking about it and just how your book fits into that.
>>Diaz: Hmm. That's in interesting question. Look, it's, part of this whole thing-- it's
only because the market is rewarding it that you suddenly see all these "the white guys
suddenly talking about comic books and stuff." I mean, there's been white guys reading comic
books for a zillion years, but it's only now the market's beginning to reward those kind
of books. For me, the real question isn't about whether, the real question is that it
seems that the relationship between high literary figures and, let's say, comics is unidirectional.
So that Michael Chabon and Lethem can turn around and they're literary figures even though
Lethem started in a genre. He started as a really cool science fiction writer. They can
go and write comic books, but it's sorta like going slumming; they can always come home
to that really great suburb called Literary Fiction. So, they can go dance with the black
girls down in Darkie Town and come back and they still got their really nice zip code.
And my thing is that I feel like things will change when Michael Chabon is losing a Pulitzer
Prize to the comic book writer of Spiderman. In other words, it's like the literary figures
can go loot the genres all they want, but they never have to worry about the people
who are actually genre-practitioners challenging their literary prerogatives so that the borrowing
is unidirectional. I don't know if that makes any sense. I seem like I sound like I'm crazy.
But it's sorta like having an American passport versus having a Third World passport. I feel
like the genres, they have passports from like, North Korea. So, you're not allowed
anywhere. Oh, American Academy of Arts? Sorry, fool! You write what? Hulk? Nope.
But Michael Chabon can turn around and write a Hulk novel and it'd be the best selling
thing. And he'll be like everywhere. And for me, as a writer of color, one of what it did,
what's interesting is that in the United States, if you're a writer of color, no matter what
you write about, you're considered a genre anyway. You're never accepted in a real literary--
you know, there's always this bizarre question. I went to do a book signing earlier and the
owner of the bookstore said, "Hey, I heard if you don't speak Spanish you can actually
read your book." I'm like, "Well, it's in English, so I'm assuming you can fucking read
the book."
I'm just like, Jesus, I wonder how many people who are like--anyway. So, there's this sense
that part of the joke for me was that being a writer of color, you're already considered
as bizarrely marginalized. Your passport is always being checked three times before you
get let in. You'll get let in, but boy oh boy, they'll run you through security for
20 minutes. And so, I felt part of the joke was I can't decide who's more of a genre in
this book. The parts about the Dominican Republic and the parts about being a Dominican kid
at Rutgers, or the parts about the science fiction comic books? Like who gets the better
passport? In fact, I feel like if you're a Dominican writer in the United States, you
have a lot more in common with somebody writing The Hulk than Michael Chabon has in common
with anybody writing Superman. Because, in the end, both me and the comic book guy, we
go back to our crappy ass neighborhoods; sorta the neighborhoods where you fit in the art.
I mean, these are like generalizations, which, again, if we had more time there's way more
nuanced ways to talk about this, but it's always like when you only have 30 minutes
to talk, you end up having to try to get your ideas across in the brute and never in the
way that they really deserve to be crossed. So, in my mind, I always was working in that
joke. I always felt so separated from all those dudes who were doing it and were gonna
win the awards because I just felt like, historically, writers of color in the United States have
been even more marginalized than comic book writers. I mean, I think about Joseph Campbell,
No, excuse me, I think about that-- Joseph Campbell. God, I don't know why it's flying
out of my name because remember the name of the science fiction editor who basically put
together the Silver Age Science Fiction? His last name was Campbell, too. Anyway, he didn't
allow no black writers, Latino writers or women. He refused to publish them. And if
anyone wrote about a black character, he would reject it. And so, for 40 years all of the
main science fiction organs refused to publish work by anybody of color or who had people
of color in them. This was up to the '70s. So, I really was interested in that question
as I was writing. It's like, which is more weird? So, yeah. Madam?
>>woman #1: My question is--
>>Diaz: Sorry. Yeah, no. My man got away with it.
I like how you order, you order the youth around.
Terrible, the tyranny.
>>woman #1: My question is related to what you were just talking about; writers of color,
authors of color. And I find that a lot of times authors of color or writers of color
are sorta pigeon-holed to be the voice of their people, right? So, do you find that
people say, "Oh, Junot Diaz, he's the voice of the Dominican Republicans." Or, "He's the
voice of Latinos." Or, like I find that black writers, Asian writers, they write a book
and its like, "Oh my God, she's the voice of Asian Americans." Or, do you ever, do you
resist that characterization? Is that something you find kind of offensive? Or, how do you
feel about that? And if that's something you don't like, how do you combat that and say,
"This is a book that I've written. Take it for its merit."
I'm not suddenly representing all the Dominicans in the US or abroad or whatnot.
>>Diaz: Thank you. It's a really good question. Yeah, I mean, it's the weirdest thing. One
of the things again, these are issues which people tend to be not so comfortable about,
but it's kind of bizarre, man, that if you're a writer of color in the United States you're
always viewed as a collective. In other words, you're viewed as somehow an ambassador from
this larger collective. But it's at every level, at a societal level. You'll even see
it amongst ourselves. I mean, how many people will tell me they won't date--, an entire
group of guys-- but always that group of guys tends to be ethnic. It's like, you're much
more likely to collectivize an ethnic group cause assume they all share something really
deeply in common. And I think that it's something that is part of the condition that we're dealing
with. It's like, trying to be simultaneously viewed as someone who belongs to a community,
but also an individual, that's a really good thing, but most of us are usually viewed just
as a part of a collective. And I am no more the representative and the spokesperson for
the Dominican community as I am to the New Jersey community. I mean, if you wanna understand
what the Dominican community is, you would need about ten million novels and then you
would only have the first pass. And I do think that it's, there's a deep desire in American
culture to have native informants; to have people who are gonna translate something for
you. Because it's far easier to have a native informant explaining to you a larger culture
than it is for you to encounter the stupendous complexity and diversity of that culture.
Like, it's so much nicer to boil down Japan down to your one JA friend you know and that
dude probably doesn't like rice. But you're like, "Yeah, that's Japanese culture."
And everyone in Japan, you're like, "Yeah, yeah, he knows."
And a lot of us fall into that because it, it, it's also a weird, we become complicitive
in that. Cause I have a lot of friends of mine who, they're like the expert in all things
Korean. I'm like, "Motherfucking, you never been to Korea. How did you get an expert in
this?" 'Cause his parents are Korean, so I feel it's, there's a double-sided, as in.
As a writer, as an artist, what really matters to me is that a piece of art is really, in
some ways, a distillation of a single subjectivity interacting with usually a very random and
bizarre collective. And if you get the proportion wrong, you in some way erase what's important
about a piece of work. If you see a piece of work only as an example of a larger collective,
you've erased that person, that individual arches and whirls of the thumbprint of the
artist who made it. But if you reduce someone just as the individual, you lose the fact
that this person came about in a context, yeah? It's like, Picasso doesn't make sense,
he does not make sense if you don't understand the context he came out of. There's no way
an individual makes sense without their context 'cause usually you're reacting and interacting
to it somehow. So, I think that both elements are vitally important and often the stress
is put on you to be, as a writer of color, as an artist of color, more towards your collective.
But then we take it too far sometimes where some writers of color are like, "I am the
supreme individual. I want nothing to do with my community." And that's equally toxic and,
I think, misleading. And it's the hardest thing for all of us is equilibrium.
I know the gap while we get to the microphone.
I have like, the whitest shoelaces. I'm like, in envy of you.
It rocks, man.
>>woman #2: I have a few things cause as you were talking, I'm thinking once I heard Julia
Alvarez speak about how she, her process and she said something that I thought was very
interesting. She said, "I feel in Spanish, but I write in English." And so, I was wondering,
for you, is there a voice in one language that comes easier than in another or are they--
whenever I read anything you write, it just seems like the Spanish comes out at the right
time to convey something that is really, almost as if you couldn't say it in English. I don't
know if that's my own interpretation, but so that's one question. And then I also wanted
to know about your experience teaching at MIT.
>>Diaz: Cool. Thank you. I have this bizarre thing with language. It's like, typical immigrant,
you come and you have to learn the damn language and all my siblings learned it within six
months and I had to get put in Special Education because I couldn't speak it. For some reason,
English wouldn't come out of my mouth. And I learned to read English within a few months,
but I couldn't speak it for a very long time. So, language has always been tricky in some
ways and then typical adolescent reaction, you're like, you get that weird self-hate
period where you hate everything that has to do with your larger culture. So, I almost
lost all my Spanish in my teens and then I had to relearn it all. And the thing with
me is not so much that I have either a Spanish or an English voice, it's more that I have
those two voices running through my head at the same time. And sometimes, I'm in my English
self, my English dominant self in a complete Spanish setting. And so, people are speaking
in Spanish and I'm translating the Spanish from my English self. And sometimes, I'm in
my Spanish dominant self in an English setting and I'm sitting there listening to everybody
speaking English and I'm just like, "Oh, brother." And I'm translating the English to my Spanish
self and the best parts are when my languages actually coincide. 'Cause it's just whatever
frame of mind you're in and sometimes you encounter these worlds. And for me, it's like
I feel both languages are running simultaneously and they'll cross at weird moments and when
I'm writing, I tend to have both of them running through my head and the one that bullies through
the most, because English is what I write in, but Spanish and English are what I think
and speak in. And so, in my head, Spanish will always like seize control. It's like
the really angry driver, like passenger, who grabs the wheel. So, anytime I'm writing in
English and Spanish is like, "Enough!" Yeah, [speaking in Spanish] Suddenly, it just, it
comes in. But it's also a process of rewriting. I don't want you to think that it's completely
this intuitive bizarre relationship to the linguistics. When you're rewriting, different
languages begin to help out. Sometimes, I'll be reading a sentence in English and it's
not until I read it from the Spanish frame of mind that I'll understand the way the sentence
works. So, a lot of times I'm doing all of that and teaching at MIT is really great.
I mean, I dunno guys, being an artist-- to get medical insurance.
Guys, I'm not kidding. I didn't have medical insurance at the steel mill. So, I was like,
it's awesome, but also I still have the energy to work with young people, which means you
can put up with a lot of ridicule and being completely irrelevant to them. And that requires
a certain kind of constitution and I still have that and MIT students tend to be like
people who, they tend to be like anyone who's superlative. You've basically sacrificed a
huge chunk of your childhood to get to this place, but you didn't get to MIT because you
went, you got drunk two nights in a row. That didn't fuckin happen.
You know what I'm saying? You didn't do what I did when I was in high school and got into
MIT. You didn't skip a week of school to watch the play-offs. Like, that just didn't happen.
These kids sacrifice an enormous amount of their childhoods just to get there and so,
part of what's really cool about it is you're teaching what everybody teaches at a university.
It's how to be more critical minded. Beyond just the subject you're teaching, if you're
teaching literature, if you're teaching high energy physics, you're also teaching that
component of how to be critical minded. But the second thing at a place like MIT what
you're teaching is compassion. It sounds really like kissy smoochy softy, but those kids have
like, no compassion. You didn't get into a top select college because you were a compassionate
person. You're like, "Oh, you failed. I forgive you." That wasn't you. You got in there because
you got a B. "You fucking suck!"
And so, one of the weirdest things that I learned at MIT was that, beyond just teaching
them what I had to teach them, compassion, which I normally never thought about I had
to learn how to teach it. Because I would have kids who, if they would make one error,
they would just be like, you know? I would be like, "Whoa." You know as an artist, you
know that errors are the fountain of your inspiration. It's completely unlike the academic
process. In an academic process, if you make a mistake, you're punished whether it's through
low grade or through, "You don't get the little golden sticker." But as an artist, your mistakes,
that's the foundation of your work because you can't explore without making mistakes
and exploration is the root of all artistic endeavor. You're taking chances and you're
messing things up. And you mess things up and that leads you into another direction.
But in an academic setting, too many mistakes and you're getting kicked the fuck out. And
so, it's this weird thing that you're involved with as a teacher. You're involved with attempting
to make the student know the material, make them more critical minded, this other aspect,
which is compassion and then trying to teach the ethos of exploration, which is quite different
from the ethos of approval. Exploration and approval tend to be two entirely different
things. So, there's one more question, yeah? Or, someone, anyone? Sir?
You guys are so good, I'm telling you. In fact, I make my students come with me sometimes
to do stuff and they are like, so pissed at me.
>>man #4: You touched earlier on this issue of high culture and low culture with the literary
fiction writers kinda adopting comic books. So, I wonder if you could speak to, I don't
know what the academic perception for your work or other similar work has been, but I
wonder if you could speak to the role of the academy and disseminating this culture and
what you think it's doing to it? It's sort of the problem with the Ivory Tower, I guess.
>>Diaz: Yeah, no, that's a really nice question. I'm, again, my awareness is really limited.
There's people who study academia as a subject, like what's happening at the select colleges,
what's happening at the university press level, what's happening at the level of the people
who are getting tenure. And those people tend to have a much more holistic longitudinal
view of what's going on. So, what I'm gonna tell you now is completely provisional, episodic
and reveals more of my narrow, my narrow exposure of than probably any real significant knowledge.
My sense is always that there's a real tension between readers-- those of us who love to
read-- and the rest of the critical apparatus. So that like, readers are a really big part
of what makes this business roll; people who just love to read. And reading is deeply anti-heirarchical.
If you've ever met a reader, their bookshelves tend to be wild. They tend to be like, "Yep,
they've got Jude Deveraux right next to William Gaddis." Or, they'll read like Drizzt, the
crazy, dark elf, Dungeons and Dragons character dude who has like, 80 novels. And the same,
these same people will talk to you all fuckin day about how important Tony Morrison is.
Readers are very, very creolized in a way that's kind of interesting. And the problem
with academy is not the problem, but its structural limitation is that it has to create categories,
it has to create canons and it has to create hierarchy. There's only so much time in a
class you have to study. And I feel like in there there's already an implicit, an implicit
opposition so, in a way, I'm always writing for readers. Cause readers, I feel, are far
more generous and far more likely to understand that your work isn't always there for you
just to give it a decimal point value to it. It's like, the love you have for a piece of
crap literature, is it more or less than the love you have for Dickens? And can you tell?
That's what readers are about. They have this love that's really hard to quantify and the
thing with canonical work is that it's, I mean, the thing with academic work is that
if you're a person that your work is being picked up for dissertations, that you're work
is interesting for the current theoretical apparatus, it's all good. If you're outside
of that purvey, it can be problematic. And so, there's a sense in my mind that you're
really dealing with two kinds of legacies. You're dealing with your legacy among readers
and you're dealing with your critical legacy. And both of them are dynamic, both of them
are changeable, both of them are hard to predict where they're coming from and I'm always way
more scared of the, I'm always way more scared of the academic one. Not just because it's
some anti-intellectual streak in me, is that there's so much at stake in academia. There's
tenure, there's your relationship with your professor, what you're getting published,
what's the current critical climate. While readers tend not to have any of those considerations.
They tend to be reading far more freely and far more unencumbered. And so, currently,
I'm like, as a writer, I could have a dozen people writing dissertations on you, but it
doesn't mean much other than that you're just, you're fitting, you're fitting the profile
of what the critics need right now. And yet, if you're not read, it doesn't mean, either
because most writers are writing for a future audience. Few writers are writing for an audience
that's here now. Most of us are waiting for an audience to assemble itself that can really
interact with you. And so, I think they're both kind of sketchy, but I also don't want
anyone to get a sense that either one of them is quite evil. I think they just have their
advantages and disadvantages. But again, both the academic and the standard reading audience
are provisional. And as an artist, you're trying to engage, you're trying to engage
a kind of a collective over a long term in an unpredictable way. And neither of those
can really predict where your work is gonna end up. So, guys, I thought I would just end,
I was just gonna read a little footnote to you cause there's all these little footnotes
in this book; very weird. Again, I, I, the critics, a lot of the critical responses compared
these footnotes to David Foster Wallace, which is so weird because I like, openly and nakedly
robbed the footnote technique in this book from a writer from Martinique. His name is
Patrick Chamoiseau, how do you pronounce that name in French? Anybody? Chamoiseau? Anyway,
he wrote this incredible novel called "Texaco" and in "Texaco" he has the most astonishing
footnotes, but unlike sorta the post-modern white boy writers who use the footnotes to
reinforce authority and reinforce erudition, Chamoiseau used the footnotes to gossip, to
get involved in an homonym attacks. To like, undermine his own authority, he'll be like,
"Oh, oops. Four pages back I made a mistake. You're fucked.--
"But I don't feel like changing it 'cause it sounds cute."
And he was the one, I'm telling you, go read this novel "Texaco". It's one of the best
novels I ever read. "Texaco" and then there's a fantasy novel called "The Etched City".
You guys ever read "The Etched City?" Yo, "The Etched City" is bananas. It's bananas.
It's like Cormac McCarthy wrote a love story. You've gotta check it out. I was like, by
the end of it, my military father would have been ashamed. I was all tearing up. I was
like [sniff, sniff]. "I can't believe he fell in love with the sphinx."
This is bananas. Yeah. So, anyway, I just wanted to read one small footnote and I thought
I would recommend those two 'cause those are like, those are really two cool, those are
really two cool books. And if I can find this damn thing, I'll be there. So, in the book,
does anybody speak Spanish? You guys know what a criada is? What's a criada, culturally?
Sir, what's a criada?
>>man #5: A maid?
>>Diaz: Yeah, like the maid. Yeah, a criada in Santo Domingo there's like a whole, you
can tell we're like, you're asking a question about history. The Dominican Republic the
whole island, we had like 300 years of slavery plus and there's still a culture in the Dominican
Republic in Haiti of Restavec, or criadas, which are children who are given away by their
families to other families to be the built-in slave. So basically, maid for life. And their
just given away. It's usually your excess child, your youngest child, and it's fucking
bananas. And it's like, common. They believe like, 20% of the United Nations that are studied,
20% of all children of the Dominican Republic have lived in this situation at one time or
another. And so, this is the narrator talking about the criada. A criada, and it's a footnote
and the main, one of the main characters is sold to be a servant by her step-parents and
then the narrator breaks the narrative to give this tiny footnote and he says,
"I lived in Santo Domingo until I was nine and even I knew criadas. Two of them lived
in the Callejón behind our house and these girls were the most demolished, overworked
human beings I'd known at that time. One of them, Sobetha, did all the cooking, all the
cleaning, fetched all the water and took care of two infants for a family of eight and the
chicky was only seven years old. She never went to school and if my brother's first girlfriend,
Johanna, hadn't taken the time to teach her ABCs, she would not have known nada. Every
year, I came home from the states it was the same thing. Quiet, hard working Sobetha would
stop in for a few seconds to say a word to my abuelo and my mother before running off
to finish her next chores. I tried to talk to her, of course, Mr. Community Activist,
but she would skitter away from my questions, from my stupid questions. "What can you two
talk about?" my mother demanded. "La pobrecita can't even write her own name." And then,
when Sobetha was 15, one of the Callejón idiots knocked her up and now, my mother tells
me, her family has got her kid working for them, too, bringing in water for his mother."
Thank you. Thanks so much for sharing this time, guys.