Between the two of them, Junot Díaz and Francisco Goldman have produced some of the most mesmerizing literary fiction today -- vibrant and soulful, often screamingly funny, and always searching. Each of their debuts was selected for the Discover Great New Writers program -- Díaz's Drown in '96 and Goldman's The Long Night of White Chickens in '92 -- and since then, both have published to ever-growing acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The longtime friends generously agreed to let the Barnes & Noble Review eavesdrop on their conversation, one that I kicked off -- and closed -- with some questions of my own. -- Miwa Messer
The Barnes and Noble Review: Which comes first, voice or place?
Junot Díaz: For my first three books the setting (or place if you will) has always been a given -- NJ and the Dominican Republic and some NYC -- so from one perspective you could say that the place in my work always comes first. But really what comes first is something even more basic -- my desire to write about the Dominican diasporic experience, to write about a movement of people, a set of experiences, a history, which I witnessed firsthand and which shaped almost every part of my life, and yet which was largely ignored, erased, and misunderstood by the larger culture. That was the first impulse, certainly. But with all three of my books there were other very specific evolutionary conditions that made them possible. Oscar Wao for example cohered in a period of terrible distress. All the novels that I wanted to write were not happening. I was living in Mexico City, next door to you, Frank (in fact you were the one who enticed me to come down to the DF [Distrito Federal], thinking the distance and the city would inspire me.) My apartment had almost no furniture and garbage bags for window shades -- I definitely wasn't taking care of myself. I was going nuts from my lack of success, and I kept playing the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack over and over thinking that it might spark something.
Now that I've had time to reflect, I realize that in all the failed books I was attempting to write about the deepest shit in both my life and in Dominican history. I was trying to tackle the traumatic after-effects of dictatorship, specifically the afterlife of the Trujillato, starting with my own family and projecting that out to my fictional characters. This was not an easy thing to do. Not for me certainly. I grew up in the shadow of the Trujillato, saw how the regime had ravaged so many families. The sexual violence that the Trujillato deployed to terrorize the Dominican people was one of my principle concerns and given all the silence and shame that surrounds it -- no wonder I was having trouble with the material.
So one night we were all at a party with some Mexican actors, and I was drinking beers and listening to the chatter, and one of the actors came up to me and said that his favorite writer was Oscar Wilde, but of course I heard it as Oscar Wao and that was how it all started. With a name misheard. As soon as I heard Oscar Wao the title came to me, and then this vision of Oscar and his sister and their crazy mother and over them all the shadow of Trujillo. I wrote the Oscar section of the book very fast; the rest of the novel came much slower. What kept me going even in the darkest periods was that strange third person first person voice that mixed the nerdish with the historical, which was so vibrant and flippant and yet so dark. Oscar Wao more than any of my other works was a delicate balancing act -- keeping the voice from becoming too funny or too bleak, too historical or too nerdish. Drown, my first book, was something else altogether. I was an immigrant kid who grew up in a neighborhood that I never saw depicted anywhere, who remembered a Dominican Republic that was very much alive and kicking. I wanted to write stories about both these worlds. I floundered for years until I hit upon Yunior's voice. Then suddenly the pages started flowing out of me but before Yunior's voice crystallized in my head nothing was working. Nothing at all. Even stories I was dying to tell were flat on the page.
Francisco Goldman: And what a creation Yunior's voice is, one of the great literary
character voices of our time! Some people probably believe that Yunior's voice must be close to your own, a directly autobiographical voice. But it's something, as you imply, that you developed. I'd love to know more about what went into your discovery of that voice. Are there earlier versions of that voice filed away somewhere that make you cringe?
The sources of most of my novels have been a mix of things. What is interesting to me is the question of what finally sparks the writing, how do you get to that moment when, as you say, Yunior's voice crystallized and the writing took off.
My first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, grew out of my immersion, beginning in 1979, in the war and nightmare repression in Guatemala. Sure, I had a Guatemalan mother, but I'd had a mostly typical suburban middle-class New England upbringing. I was so innocent that I thought that our old family cottage on Lake Amatitlán, just outside Guatemala City, would be a perfect place to hole up and write the stories I needed for my MFA applications. When I arrived and told my uncle my plan, he freaked. Don't you know there's a war on in this country! The cottages are shut down, the night watchman who looked after them was murdered, the police station was attacked by guerrillas, etc. So I was forced to live in my uncle's house. That's where it started: when, miracle of miracles, a short story I'd written for the MFA applications was accepted by Esquire magazine, the editors invited me to write non-fiction, and I asked to be sent to Guatemala, and just like that I became a freelance journalist, that's how I (barely) supported myself, working out of Central America until 1991. One of the reasons I was so committed to this was that I thought it would make me grow as a writer. In that grand tradition, I was after experience.
But I didn't know how to write fiction about violence, suffering, injustice, absolute evil, the inevitable political and moral entanglements, didn't really understand my place in all that as a human, never mind as a would-be fiction writer (Me quedaba grande, as they say here in Mexico.) I was obsessed with writers who'd written novels that were also rooted in historical tragedy and violence and that somehow managed to balance light and darkness, the all too real and the mysterious. How did they do that? One of those was Faulkner of course and when reading that he described Caddy from The Sound and the Fury as his heart's darling, something clicked. Flor de Mayo Puac was partly born in that moment, but she was still only an idea for a character. In 1986 Morgan Entrekin offered me a modest advance. I escaped to Madrid, worked on my novel every day, failed every day, had stupid fist-fights with Spaniards who thought I was a moro, and a few months later returned to Guatemala having blown my advance, and without a single page of the novel.
One day I said to myself, Okay, this is a ludicrous and complicated story you want to tell, but ludicrous and complicated things happen to people here all the time, and if it had really happened to you, and you absolutely had to tell it to somebody, you'd be able to. And that's how the narrator Roger's voice finally came forward, with him speaking as if to a friend about what had happened to him, and that opening page never changed. Since then, every novel but one has begun with this terrifying process of failing every day that lasts for months and months. I'm convinced that while we are consciously flailing away, trying, say, to find that voice, our subconscious is actually doing the work, laying down a foundation, exploring paths, a sponge absorbing ideas and impulses until it begins to take on the weight of obsession and conviction. Twice, after months of anguished failing, it's been a dream that's finally gotten me rolling. A dream that I was on a freighter at sea with no other person on board gave me the tone I needed for what became The Ordinary Seaman. I'd done a ton of research for The Divine Husband, but when I tried to start it nothing came, I gave up, went back to it a few years later and it was the same. At a party in Mexico City I drank a daiquiri made with bad ice, ended up in bed hallucinating with fever, and dreamed a scene of convent servants searching the streets of 19th-century Guatemala City for a suitable Indian to take back to their Mother Superior for her foot washing ritual, and it was only then that the novel finally found a spark of life and lurched forward.
Say Her Name was different. I began it six months after Aura's death and was helpless to do anything else. Now I've gone back to a novel that I was working on when Aura died. It's a different novel now, just as I'm a different person. I failed at it for much of this summer. The difference is that this time, the weeks of failing didn't panic me, I'd been down this road before and knew that sooner or later it would resolve.
So Junot, my question to you is up at the top. Related to it is another question: how do you find your way forward when you write a novel? Did you know where you wanted the novel to go when you began Oscar Wao? How radically different was that process for you than when you write short stories?
Junot Díaz: I have hundreds of pages filled with failed versions of Yunior's voice. That's how I roll; I always have to write a lot of crap before anything useful emerges. I don't necessarily cringe. I just shake my head, amazed that I have to sow so much to glean so little.
But I totally agree with you -- my unconscious mind does better work than my conscious mind. And it was without question the best guide to get me through the earlier stages of my novel-writing process. In the first abortive stages of Oscar Wao I was trying desperately to write a Rushdie-esque encyclopedic novel about contemporary Dominican history. I wasn't listening to what the writing was telling me -- I, Junot, was trying to be in charge. I wanted an encyclopedic novel for no other reason than I wanted it. The arrogance of our executive selves. I lost years chasing that lame dream. Turns out that Rushdie-esque is just not my bag, but I still persisted, writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of junk. All the while my hidden brain was putting together a different kind of book, one that was more fractured and more filled with silences, an archipelago of a book, whereas the usual Rushdie novel is a goddamn continent. Honestly if I'd not insisted, if I'd not been stubborn, I probably could have finished Oscar Wao in half the time. But I kept trying to push my agenda, and boy did my agenda suck. But every now and then I'd put the encyclopedic novel crap down and just play around on the page, and that was when the real work would come out, the sections that make up the novel today. But between each of those sections was always a massive time-consuming battle between my pride and my creativity. Between my conscious and unconscious selves. Hopefully I've learned a lot since that time, but we'll see. Right now the book I'm working on is not going well at all, and I fear I might be falling into the same bullshit pattern. I keep telling myself listen to the work, but you know how hard that can be.
Short stories unfortunately are not a whole lot easier for me. I've never been able to jump from one story to the next, can never build up any flow or momentum. I'm like some shoddy warp drive that has to take long breaks between jumps. As a form, stories require me to be vicious in my discipline. I'm always trying to cut things, to pare them down -- excess truly is the enemy. (Not for every story but just the ones that I find myself writing.) There's a spirit of restraint that guides my writing of stories that is not present at all when I'm working on a novel. The novel has always been a lusher process for me, less teleological, more generous. A novel can easily withstand any number of digressions, but rare is the short story that can sustain even one.
In all honesty I doubt I'll write any more stories. They're too damn hard. Besides, I find myself resisting the small canvas these days, wanting to test myself on the longer form. One should never say never but I feel like I've done enough of these bad boys to last me a lifetime.
So let's talk inspiration, Frank. Am I wrong to suggest that your complex relationship with Guatemala brings out the best in your work? Or maybe this is just how I think of my complex relationship with the Dominican Republic. From where did this new book of yours spring? Is it an old dream or something else altogether?
Francisco Goldman: But I don't really think of Guatemala that way, as bringing out the best in me, but maybe I'm taking Guatemala for granted now, because I did learn and see so much there. (I think Mexico City is the place that brings out the best in me, but not in the way you mean.) I mostly grew up in a mean, almost Shirley Jackson-type of New England town, that's how I experienced it, where my house offered no escape, where we all lived in fear of my father for one, always angry and often violent, and where my mother, like some kind of Tennessee Williams diva, was always holding Guatemala out as a lost paradise, where her family was respected, a loving and happy family, where we owned toy stores, where I could have a pet monkey. Never forget you're Guatemalan too, she was always saying. So home was also always somewhere else, and that home was this place that didn't really exist. In my twenties I really got to know Guatemala and I learned about fear, every kind of violence, the suffering of so many other people, and so much else, not all negative, far from it, but all playing out on that horrifying stage. The traumatic reality versus the dream of another reality, I think that's a fundamental conflict for me. The reality of death versus the dream of life, that more than anything else intrigues me now, though I think it's always been there. I'm probably pretty happy by nature, yet, as for so many others, the reality has often been cruel, incomprehensible, sad, overwhelming, whatever. I'd always dreamed of loving and being loved and had rarely experienced it, and when I finally truly did, it was taken away in an instant.
Anyway, that kind of conflict or incongruity or engaging of loss drives my writing (though if I'm going to be totally honest, maybe all this is just a guess, something that sounds about right to me today.) I partly mean the imagination as refuge and even rebellion, but mostly fiction writing as a way of making something out of words that has meaning and coherence in a world where it's hard for me to find it any other way, or that I could never express in any other way, or just as a way of making something that for some reason I really want to make, so that I think that it's actually writing that brings out the best in me, though obviously not in a social way, the discipline and conviction of it, the getting up every day and working hard at it, living with the mystery and insecurity of it, challenging yourself to be as brave and true and even ruthless as you can or need to be in the writing, and so on.
Bolaño said writers should leap head first into the abyss, but you really can't do that, you'd never come out alive, and anyway, I didn't have to leap into it, I was already there. After Aura's death, I wrote a book that is mostly about her, a very poor substitute for Aura, of course, but something to put back into the abyss so that it won't only be emptiness. The new book is something like that too, an unhappy person, the death of her essential loved one, and how will she live now? Things will happen to her and hopefully some of those will be marvelous and hilarious, but others will be awful. (It's set in a sort of Lovecraftian New England, but it does have Guatemalans in it, and also Mexicans.) I think you were suggesting something similar to all this at the end of your amazing short story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love." It's a story about Yunior's loss of his fiancée, which devastates him, the loss of his great love and his relentless remorse, and in the end his seeming answer to that loss is to return to his writing, and it is such a lonely solution and such a powerful and inspiring one, and I don't mean in a therapeutic way, it's actually kind of mystical. Why is that the answer, or the only way he can find? I know we're not supposed to confuse a character with the author, but now Yunior is a writer, teaching at a university in Cambridge, and so that ending seemed very revealing and hard-earned. You seemed to be saying something about what writing means to you and about why you need to do it. What does it mean to you and why do you need to do it and what is it that inspires you? Brotherito, take a few decades away from them if you want -- more novels! -- but please don't stop writing short stories.
Junot Díaz: Frank, no one could have said it more clearly or more beautifully than you so I'll just paraphrase: at the end of This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior, who has lost about as much as he can lose, turns to the writing to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be loss and regret. In my mind Yunior re-engages with his writing to bear witness, to inform on his self. This bearing witness, this reckoning with self, with all his actions and lies, this shouldering responsibility for what he has done to his ex-fiancée and to the other women in his life, represents a tremendous step for Yunior. A movement towards recognizing the humanity of the women he has so persistently denigrated and in recognizing their humanity finally finding some of his own. This is not insignificant. Not every guy achieves that simple breakthrough in the imaginary that transforms women from objects into full human beings. This writing/bearing witness is a sign that Yunior is finally becoming the person he needs to be in order to find the intimacy that he so desperately longs for but was never able to achieve.
OK, I'll see what I can do about the short stories, but damn, Frank, these things have just about worn me out. These days I'd rather read the short stories than write 'em but let's see what the future holds. I guess I'd have the same reaction if you suddenly announced that you were going to abandon journalism. I'd be like: you better not. Every time I read your nonfiction works, whether it's the chilling Art of Political Murder or your excellent profile on Camila Vallejo, I am forcefully reminded that you are that illest kind of switch hitter: you are brilliant in more than one genre.
But before I lose the thread you asked about me and my relationship to the word: I guess we all have our covenants with the world (or at least we should have). For people like my mother, it's her religion. For other people, it's their children or perhaps their families. For me storytelling is my sacred. About the only covenant I have. As reader and writer I believe in the infinite worldmaking power of stories. I'm with Leslie Marmon Silko when she says in Ceremony: "I will tell you something about stories, (he said). They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death." If I have a faith, that's it. Stories are all we have to fight off illness and death. I suspect Silko's words resonate with you too, Frank.
But there are many reasons, really. On the most selfish level I write to make sense of the universe, to make sense of my self, of my immigrantness, my Dominicanness, my New Jerseyness, my maleness. I feel like I've lived so many weird disparate lives, often simultaneously -- DR, NJ, native, immigrant, first generation, Dominican, Latino, Black, Spanish, Black English, Official English, hiphop, nerd, military family, high school dropout, grunt worker, Rutgers, Cornell, activist, writer, professor -- sometimes it's hard for me to fold them all into one coherent identity. But in my writing all the pieces of me come together, if not happily then at least beautifully. Writing allows me to be simultaneous in ways that the larger culture seems to resist.
Also: I grew up in a Dominican community that was totally erased, totally ignored by the mainstream. I grew up never seeing myself or my neighbors or my friends in any kind of literature. I grew up with no books or movies or tv shows that reflected my world, my identities, my struggles. The brief instances my community did appear in, say, the news or books it was always as monsters: either some drug-dealing pathology or illegal immigrant menace. The real us was never shown, totally elided. (In college I read books like Down These Mean Streets and The House on Mango Street and Sula, which came close to showing us, but when it comes to seeing yourself in the representational universe close is never enough.) Growing up I felt that absence, that wound, viscerally -- who the hell wants to come up in a hole, in a silence? It's astounding how little some of us have in this culture to build healthy selves from. The Jeremy Lin phenomena writ large -- some groups have thousands upon thousands of athletes that reflect them -- some groups have only one or two and when that one or two appears you suddenly realize how long you've lived with none. If I had to parse my first motivations for becoming a writer down to one it would have to be my profound desire to battle that fucked-up erasure (which is really a violence) by singing my community out of that silence. I guess that's really what launched me into the words -- I wanted to be part of that movement of artists that were insuring that the next generation wouldn't have to endure what I endured.
But ultimately I suspect what keeps me on the page, despite all my slowness and all my difficulties, despite the failures and the long doubt, is the same force that returns Yunior to his writing: the profound need to bear witness, to leave a trace, a record, an account of a people that many, including many of the people themselves, didn't know existed. For a people like mine, children of the abyss, of apocalypses without end -- from slavery to dictatorship to immigration -- bearing witness is sometimes all we had, like firing a flare up into the dark vault of the universe. Bearing witness in order (to quote you Frank) to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be silence and loss. In order to mark that we were here, we lived, we mattered. In order to have a little light by which to see ourselves and others with, a little light to carry us into the future, a little light to call our own.
Francisco Goldman: You witness a lot as a journalist, and what you witness becomes a part of you. The Art of Political Murder is about the nine-year Bishop Gerardi murder case. More than twenty people related to the case were murdered, and numerous others fled; throughout it I worked closely with some of the most wonderful, courageous people, but it brought the vilest people imaginable into my life too. The last two times I went to Guatemala I had to have bodyguards, and was taken out by a side exit at the airport. Just a few weeks ago I received a creepy anonymous twitter message. I don't feel like I can go back to Guatemala right now, I don't want that stress. The Gerardi case was incredibly complex, and it could only be narrated with authority through the most devout attention to concrete detail and substantiated acts. I had to learn to write in a new way, to strive for a transparent style that would let those details and acts convey the story. You're always learning, with each book hopefully pushing ahead. Say Her Name wasn't a book, of course, that I ever expected to write, but one of my writer friends has pointed out that it's as if The Art of Political Murder, with its forensic detail, and The Divine Husband too, which is about the yearning for love, prepared me to write it. Because, as you know, Say Her Name is framed as a sort of trial or investigation, conducted by myself against myself, seemingly in response to the legal dangers I was threatened with in Mexico after Aura's death. I knew that a journalistic examination of Aura's death would never reveal that I'd been legally culpable, and even though I did include those facts in the book, that's not, finally, the mystery I was "investigating." I was nearly finished writing it when I came across this sentence that I love, from Lydia Davis's translation of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. "For one thing love and death have in common, more than those vague resemblances people are always talking about, is that they make us question more deeply, for fear that its reality will slip away from us, the mystery of personality."
I've been living in Mexico City and love it here, I have the best friends in the world and am only half-ashamed to admit that this summer I've carried on at times like a wild teenager. Mexico City has largely been spared the violence happening elsewhere in the country. None have it worse than the Central Americans who trek through on their way to the U.S., who get kidnapped by the Zetas and others, their relatives in the U.S. extorted for money, and often they get killed anyway; the Zetas rape the women and girls and kill them, or they take a young man and say, Okay kill those other two or else you'll die too, maybe he has to kill his brother or friend, and then they force him to become a Zeta sicario, or else he refuses and is killed anyway; the deserts of Mexico are filled with the graves of kidnapped migrants, no one knows how many have vanished. What, as a writer, do you do with that? I don't know, but I don't see myself writing about it in a documentary way. But it's something I know about, and that strikes close. After college I got a scholarship to a summer writing workshop where William Gass was a teacher. Gass is a philosophy professor, and when a student asked if his "philosophical ideas" inspired his writing, Gass answered no, that he knew he was "smart," and so he just worked on his sentences. You have to trust that who you are is going to come out in some way. You focus on your sentences or on the most daring and delirious narrative vision, and trust that you'll show up. In U.S. discourse, immigrants are mostly represented as less than human, a policy problem, or as just that, a category, and categories are prisons. The novels I love are prison breaks -- what you did, Junot, in Oscar Wao, and Bolaño with the Ciudad Juarez femicides in 2666, Yuri Herrera with the narco war in Trabajos del Reino -- the categories get smashed open and the unexpected, the unthinkable, the forgotten, the ignored, the unknown, the terrifying, the secretly beloved, the misunderstood and astonishing, the mesmerizingly human, it all breaks out.
Junot Díaz: That's what we dream about, what we long for, books like those. Certainly as a reader that's the kind of books I've loved. Of course what you end up writing is something else altogether. You're working on that new novel set in New England and I'm trying to imagine the world of a young teenage girl in Santo Domingo, a Third World striver, the kind of girl that wants to do everything right in a country where for poor people even that can't keep the catastrophe off you. I'm hoping she'll lead me through to my next novel. But who knows -- it takes me years of patient scribbling before my characters ever deign to speak to me.
The Barnes & Noble Review: Before we finish, I can't resist asking you both the classic question: Tell us what books you'd want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
Francisco Goldman: Desert island books, damn. How big is the island, and how long am I going to be there? Long books, I guess. In Search of Lost Time. War and Peace. The Collected Shakespeare. Moby-Dick! The Collected Borges. 2666, why not? Something immense that I haven't read yet, The Man without Qualities. Emily Dickinson's poetry too, which I've been reading all summer. And definitively the Guia Roji, which contains all roads, a Borgesian cartography of Mexico City, as immense and dense as the city itself, but all its maps packed into a single fat book. Currently, for a piece I'm writing, I'm using it like the I-Ching, closing my eyes, opening it to any page, and then trying to drive to the spot my finger touches down on. I've never driven in Mexico City before, and it terrifies me.
Junot Díaz: Les Miserables is perfect for the stranded. It's immense and has a lot of Melville-esque post-modern outbursts, and it's about justice -- few books are about that anymore -- and it always gets me crying. I'd also need something from my childhood. Watership Down. Every time I read this line --"My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here." -- my heart feels like it's going to burst. And I'd need something from real life. Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men or Edward Rivera's Family Installments. And something from home (the Caribbean). Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco or Cristina Garcia's Dreaming In Cuban. And a book of poetry. Aracelis Girmay's Kingdom Animalia. And a comic book. Katsuhiro Otomo's AKIRA. And something for the ancestors: Song of Solomon. And something I haven't read before, something that ain't out yet but that will be by the time I'm shipwrecked.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.
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