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Junot Diaz Says, Writing Is a Lot Like Basketball

The best interviews are the ones when you can talk about girls, white supremacy, and video games. Junot Diaz is an authority on all those things.

Photo by Andy Chappell

Junot Diaz has won a lot of prizes for his three books: Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This is How You Lose Her. He writes in a smart, homie vernacular that gets the unaccustomed really, really tripped out; especially because he likes to mingle Herman Melville references with Fantastic Four knowledge.

A staunch “forever immigrant” the works circle around the life of Yunior, an admitted version of Junot, and the type of world a Domincan-American might live in. We spoke at the Sofitel hotel lobby in Melbourne, on Collins street, down the road from the Louis Vutton store.


Vice: You write about love and relationships a lot. Do you think if you were a woman you’d be taken as seriously?
Junot Diaz:Oh, no. I think what it really comes down to is the way that we code “seriousness.” Literary culture, it’s so masculine that even if a woman does exactly the same thing a guy is doing they’re like oh that’s just some woman shit. And you’re like, what the fuck? That’s the same thing a guy’s writing about! Women’s work is just being marginalised and dismissed the same way that people of colour’s work is.

Do you think you’ve gotten through and away from that marginalized “immigrant” niche?
I don’t think you transcend white supremacy. You don’t need to be a cultural anthropologist at NYU to understand that the systems of aesthetic evaluation are over inscribed by white supremacist ideologies. White supremacy does everything possible to erase its own sort of tiny minority states by attempting to argue that this is the universal, that this is the indispensible; when in fact this is just another minority literature.

I guess you have to butt heads against “normal” culture trying to tell your story. Whereas a guy like Jonathan Franzen can tell that same domestic story again and again.
What we’re talking about is racialzed privilege. The invisible hand of inequality which turns the pages, which cranks the movies, which mixes the ink. A writer like Franzen, with each coming generation looks more and more absurd, and more and more like exactly what he is. The mask slips off the wizard. Which is to say, to the group of young people that are coming, not all of them, but he looks more like a white minority writer than I look like a Dominican immigrant minority writer. Our work as artists provides safe harbour, inspiration, connectedness, that really has palpable effects on people’s lives. I’ve witnessed how artists of colour are able to put their hand into this fucking horrifying maelstrom of this culture of which we live and support a person—and give them courage. And that’s not a minor thing. Which is why I don’t have a problem having this fight, because I know these people I’m having this fight with are very valuable to me. They mean the world to me.


Do you think you have a responsibility as a writer, activist, or person?
There’re multiple positions one takes as an individual. I do think what keeps me from jumping off a fucking bridge is this sense of collective struggle. I’m a descendent of 500-years of slavery. That’s kind of bananas. What my ancestors suffered to make me and my siblings possible, to make my community possible, for me, this is part of my imaginary.

Untranslated Spanish is fairly frequent in the books—how’s that been received? It’s not italicized and exoticized, it’s just part of the whole.
Well, one of the things, I’m like you, I came over to the United States when I was 6. I think the problem for me is that all languages are in italics. I mean, really, I’m not just saying that.

So you’ve got two tracks running through your head.
I guess my whole thing with the Spanish is that I grew up in a culture in the United States that was fantastically hostile to Spanish. I mean, whether they were black or white Americans, one thing Americans have in common is that they fucking seem to have a knee jerk reaction to Spanish. I think I could not avoid representing the Spanish to represent the world of the characters. I think there came a point when I would rather just write for people who were not going to fucking deport me because there was Spanish, then I’m going to make excuses so people don’t check my passport.

What did you imagine a reader would do?
I assumed that most people are like me, where as they feel no shame about asking someone. I always was a kid who did not mind seeming stupid. I knew if I didn’t seem stupid, I would not learn. I would interrupt the class and be like, question: What the fuck are the Beatles?


You’re quite overt about your politics, but your work goes the other way. On the surface, Yunior can be awful, and you have to dig to get to the criticsm. How do those two sides work together?
I think first and foremost that my core is progressive. I think even as an artist, I might not write from that; the parts of my brain that get engaged when I write are unknown to me, therefore are more complex. But it’s pretty hard for me to kind of disconnect entirely from this world view. I’m definitely driven by an ethos of equality. I think what’s helpful for me is that there must be a part of me that knows something about restraint.

I find people’s first reactions are always to be guarded, like: “Of course he’s criticising being an asshole,” with sort of an eye roll.
Yeah, yeah. One of the outcomes of writing so slowly is that one can elaborate. And where I elaborate tends to be in the hidden structures. I’m a fucking structural wonk. When my friends come and see the work bench, they’re like, “Dude, nobody cares about any of this stuff.”

You’re just building back-stories.
Not just that, but they’re like: “Okay, I see, the structure, but why did you even bother? No one cares.”

You can feel it, I guess.
I don’t know. For me, even if you couldn’t feel it there’s a part of me that without the game it’s not fun. I do think I’m more and more inclined in my older age that it’s the game of the secret structure that keeps me on the page as much as anything. I fucking live for that game.


You teach creative writing at MIT, yeah?
I teach Creative Writing and Comparative Media Studies.

What’s that? Is that video games?
It’s a fancy way of talking about teaching narratives for people who do video games and movies.

Are you looking forward to the new Grand Theft Auto? With the three characters? That’ll be an interesting narrative structure.
You know me: again there’s a part of me that’s intellectually looking forward to it, and there’s a part of me that can’t wait to lock them all up and start chopping people. I love that fucking game, yo.

I just need to shoot someone.

Or LA Noire? I couldn’t get into that. Too slow.
How about, what do you call it—The Last Of Us?

Nah, I haven’t bought that yet.
What!? That game’s fucking awesome dude.

I know, I know. That one looked good.
That game was the perfect balance. But again, the gender politics are the worst.

Oh, because he’s got a little girl with him, right?
Oh it’s the worst. It’s just about killing women. It’s like okay—you’ll see, you’ll play it. I give the game a fucking A-. It’s really great. Really fucking great.

Would be you be interested in writing video games? Structure would be huge in those.
I’m in that weird situation where I’m in the business where everyone thinks they can do (it). A friend of mine said,  “Being a writer is like being a basketball player—everyone thinks they are.” Think about this: no one thinks they’re a fucking musician. You know, you be like: oh I dabble a little bit. But you don’t tell people like—because there’s such a high metric.


Think about how many people think of themselves as dancers. Dancer is just such a high metric—you either can dance, or you can’t. Writing is like basketball, bro. Everyone thinks they’re a baller. I don’t mind. I think it’s kind of cute.

Follow Adnan on Twitter: @whotookadnan

Junot will be speaking August 23, 24, and 25 at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

For more talks with writers:

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Benjamin Law's Queer Reading List

Anna Krien Explores the Dark Side of Australian Football Culture