Junot Diaz

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 July, 2016, 6:44pm


COMING TO AMERICA I'm from a low-level military family of old, conservative, country people. They moved to the city of Santo Domingo [in the Dominican Republic] before I was born. My memories of the Dominican Republic are very strong, because leaving home was so traumatic that it cast everything that I would have normally forgotten into amber. I moved to the United States when I was six. At the time, in the 1970s, there was enormous instability in the Dominican Republic. My mother told us we were going to visit a friend and drove us to the airport. We never said farewell to our grandparents or friends or anybody. In Santo Domingo, we didn't have electricity, running water, television or a phone. I never saw any pictures of the US before I arrived. That was the 70s in the Dominican Republic. In those days the divide was enormous, so the US came as a tremendous shock. I certainly remember the day we arrived. First of all, I couldn't believe everything was electric. The other thing that stood out is American culture is violently competitive. I think very few people are prepared for it. Americans, unlike the Chinese, for example, are unrestrained by public shame.

FAMILY AFFAIRS The first time I met my father was when I immigrated. I'd never seen him before, at least not consciously. He left when I was one, under tragic circumstances, and he had been in the US the whole time working. My dad did everything that was considered semi-skilled. He worked in a Chinese restaurant as a line cook, but he mostly got by as a forklift operator. The strange part was my father had actually abandoned our family, and he was in the US living with a new family before that family left him. We were taught not to have relationships as men, we were taught to have dependencies. So being the kind of third-world guy that can't exist without a woman to take care of, he brought us over. I had a very clear, early sense that not only would I have to survive being an immigrant and a kid of colour, but I would also have to survive my crazy f***ing family. My mother was totally dependent on my dad until he left and then, suddenly, a woman who didn't even know how to put a stamp on an envelope had to take care of five kids. She worked in a factory and we did what all immigrant kids do {minus} we pulled together. I'm very close to my mom. She's crazy, but I love her to death. I have five siblings and you couldn't imagine how different we are, but the one thing we all have in common is that no one speaks to my father. My reaction to our family situation was to make really good friends. And I was an insane, inveterate reader. So my friends kept me in the world and books kept me in hope.

WRITE + LEFT When I was 26, I published one story in one magazine which was seen by one agent, and I hit the literary jackpot. I wasn't looking for a big name. I was just like 'Yo, this person believes in me.' When I sold my first book [the short story collection Drown], in 1995, I was working at a job making photocopies and living in an unheated apartment in Brooklyn. I quit my job right there. I just walked out.

GRAPPLING WITH OSCAR My novel took 11 years to write and it was hell. There are people who come under hardship and do everything possible to make their lives easier. I came under hardship and decided to make my life, and those of the people around me, harder. I f***ed up the great relationship of my life and I drove away my family because I was p***ed off the book wasn't coming fast enough. Long failure is a good teacher and you learn humility. I thought I was really something. By the end of those 11 years, to this day, I know I'm not really something. Basically, I bit off a story that required me to become a different person to finish it. The guy who conceived of Oscar Wao is not the guy who would have been capable of finishing it. You don't conceive of these stories because they're unnecessary, you conceive of them because people out there need them, because you need them. What kept me going was the love I felt for my form {minus} for writing, for stories, for reading. I love it terribly. In many ways, the Pulitzer was wonderful. It changed my life. But, on the other hand, no prize will write your next book. I don't know what my next book is right now. I wrote the first half very quickly but the second half looks like it's going to take a very long time. I'm terrified. But more terrified? No. I can't add any more fear to my system. I live in primitive awe of my own craft.

DEFINING SUCCESS I look at my childhood and nothing proves to me more the utter randomness and arbitrariness of what we call success. I hear that word and in my mind I flash to every single person who was better than me and, through a complete accident, wasn't served what I was served. I'm here because of an incredible amount of luck. You have to work hard and you have to turn everything you've experienced into some kind of vision, but none of that is enough. I would never have been a writer if I hadn't gone to college and met feminists. The feminist project is absolutely essential to writing good literature. A large part of the planet is encouraged to view women as partial human beings. You can always tell a good writer because, whether they're male or female, they effortfully resist that idea. I think that apologising for one's privilege is an easy out. But who escapes from lives like these and doesn't suffer the pangs of survivor's guilt? It's a miracle that things came out this way.

Junot Diaz was the distinguished visiting writer at City University's summer residency for the master of fine arts programme in creative writing.