Junot Diaz & Hilton Als Talk Masculinity, Science Fiction, and Writing as an Act of Defiance
A Conversation From Upstairs at the Strand
Hilton Als: Junot—reviewers, who are generally hemmed in by political correctness, tend to avoid the pato. I’m a pato, and I don’t feel demeaned or criticized by this epithet in your works, since I come from the same world. Can you talk to us a bit about the machismo?
Junot Diaz: This is a foundational question, really interesting. When I think about the political unconsciousness of masculinity, it’s queerness. So the first book I ever wrote was an essay, a first pass at a specific kind of masculinity, and I thought I’d name the book after the queerest story in the collection. But from everything I’ve seen, I don’t think a single critic mentioned it. It was weird, such an obvious lacuna.
Anyway, it’s something that I’m deeply interested in, and the project continued in Oscar Wao. You don’t need to be a scholar to see this character as a very queer subject. But I can’t imagine masculinity without this sort of tissue that is used to prevent any thought about its own queerness. Masculinity comes with a beard attached, so it can pretend that everything is really, really straight. As an artist, I was really interested in that, and how it plays itself out in the kind of culture where I grew up. My Dominican background is no one else’s, guys. I grew up in a tiny, granularly particular place and time, with a particular set of people. There is no universal claim, and I hope you get that. This was such a present discussion when I was growing up, that later I had to jump into it.
HA: When we were having Chinese food around Christmas time, you showed me pictures of a trip to the Dominican Republic. There was a table of queens, and I pointed out that they looked really nice and asked if they were your friends. You said they were kind of your only friends down there, because they could do sensitivity, and at the same time they could also play into the culture. That was a great discussion we had about masculinity as a kind of drag.
JD: Without any question. In Santo Domingo, there are these kind of performative, hyper-masculine spaces where you can’t have an openly gay friend. That’s the rule. Of course, the point is, you’re supposed to break all that shit. If people see you’re hanging out with a queen, they’re going to be like, “You’re gay.” It’s a way to actively patrol this. Where I grew up in New Jersey, the homo-social was okay, as long as we called it straight. It was okay that you got naked and wrestled with your boys, but that was called a sport.
On the other hand, my life in Santo Domingo makes it really, really explicit. The friends that I have down there, who have borne the full wrath of a culture, tend to be more interested in discussing things in explicit terms. And if you’re an artist, the least helpful friends are people who say things like, “I don’t think there’s racism.” It’s okay if they are your family members, because you cannot disown your family in the ways you should be able to. My entire family, they’re like, “Racism? I just don’t like niggers.”
HA: My brother is very light-skinned, and my West Indian grandmother would tell me to get out of the sun, because I had had enough of it. Haitian and Dominican cultures, in terms of the color scale, can be deeply wounding. It took me many years of growing up and thinking that this was some sort of internalized craziness. Throughout your books, they’re always talking about the color scale. One of the things that I find very brave is that you say it, and then let the characters illustrate it.
JD: I’m not jumping to some conclusion about some abstract culture. You and I come from backgrounds where people were echo chambers for a lot of the cultural, racial sort of defaults. People would say wild things explicitly, and I thought it would be such a lame thing if my characters weren’t half as frank as my uncles.
HA: Like one of the tías grabbing one of the characters’ balls by way of introduction.
JD: I’ve gotten emails about that from dudes I know, who say, “Dude, my aunts grab my balls, too.”
HA: It takes a village.
JD: It takes five genders to raise this particularly malevolent form of masculinity that we tend to produce so efficiently. You could take two people, who look identical in skin color, and my mom can distinguish them at the molecular level, and say, “That motherfucker’s lighter.” All the vocabulary we’ve lost in America to talk about race is omnipresent in the Caribbean. We’ve lost so many words to talk about race, we don’t even have a conversation about it, we have lost it. Yet, in the Caribbean, there are more than twelve words that I can come up with to describe people’s skin color, at least in the neighborhood where I grew up in. In some ways I think that is useful, because it helps when it comes time to approach the question of privilege. People don’t claim amnesia. Some can think my uncles are super-backwards because they didn’t go to Ivy League schools, but they don’t cop to any of that ridiculous liberal amnesia. The sort of thing that translates into statements like, “Oh, it’s not race, it’s class.” I think you can’t have class without race. It’s called colonialism. Some people come right off the bat and say, a guy is ignorant. My uncles would never make those claims, but rather say it’s about black people. But I find that level of frankness, even if it’s considered regressive and messed up, a better starting point than the constant illusion of the sort of liberal moment that we have.
HA: Is that why the critical discourse around your work hasn’t been as substantial as the work itself?
JD: Hilton, that’s always weird. It’s like talking about—
HA: Relatives you haven’t met yet.
JD: It’s just weird. I have these great cousins, who tell me that I should have better-looking chicks than I do. It’s kind of the same thing, a weird statement to make. Like, “I should have better critics than I do.”
HA: You can have better girls and better critics.
JD: I think for most straight men, the problem is not that we don’t have women worthy of us, the problem is that we have women ten times more worthy than us. But coming back to your question, in general, whenever I read about people of color as artists I think it is so overly simplified. We tend to be reduced to the cultural element. Like somebody will trot out a Spanish word to describe our thing . . . How many reviews have I got where a non-Spanish-speaking person will put out a Spanish word to attempt to describe what I do? It’s like watching people who can’t dance salsa trying to do it. Or we’ll be reduced to simplistic visions that say that in these works of art, this artist is talking about this crucial moment, or about the problem of race. They’ll use these terms that mean nothing, because they don’t want to approach what exactly a person is getting at in their work. If white artists were discussed along racial terms as often as people of color, we would be a better country. I never see a white dancer discussing how their whiteness impacts their dance. The first question out of an interviewer’s mind when they talk to a white artist is never if they have experienced racism. But as an artist, I must say it’s incredible the amount of times these questions come up, and when they ask me, I’m always ready to ask back, “Have you been racist lately?” Now, one of the best things about art, as anyone who’s studied a Victorian text knows, is that the future comes faster than we imagine, and there is a future coming up, of young artists and young critics and young scholars, who are thinking in ways that make the current conversations about our art look incredibly reductive.
HA: You touch upon this idea of what’s coming up and we’ve had several conversations about time travel. You’ve said that one of the reasons why you loved science fiction by people like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany is because they were talking about time travel, and that literally you have gone from a slave culture to talking to hundreds of people at the Strand Bookstore. How does that happen? Being one or two generations away from the characters in your books, who are living below subsistence level, how does that affect you as Junot?
JD: And how do you narrate it? I always think of that question. I’ll sit at the Christmas table next to my grandmother, who basically grew up in a proto-medieval—comes from an almost slavery background in the Dominican Republic, working as a tenant farmer, in a terrifying kind of subsistence. I’m squinting at her with one eye, and then I’m squinting at my little brother, who’s U.S.-born, a Marine combat veteran, who sounds like someone turned the TV to the Fox channel and broke the dial. And I’m thinking, how do we create a self that takes both of those people in?
HA: You’ve catapulted yourself, through artistry, into another realm, so how do you physically and emotionally take it?
JD: It’s really helpful to assemble selves not always deploying realism. Realism cannot account for my little brother and my grandmother, but Octavia Butler’s science fiction can. Samuel Delany’s generic experiments can explain them. I read his book and that range is present, not only present, but what is unbearable about trying to hold the two together in one place. So it helps not to have realism as the only paradigm to really understand yourself.
HA: Is the story “Monstro” a move towards a surrealism that explains things better?
JD: I wouldn’t say it’s an advance. It’s more a trying to see what would it look like if I was more explicit about not using realism. With Oscar Wao I obscured how little the genre of realism is deployed in the novel. I sort of hid it. Someone can read Oscar Wao and be convinced it’s a realistic novel, with a couple eruptions. Now I wanted to see if it’s possible to get similar effects without obscuring the pedigree. I felt like Oscar Wao was like an octoroon cousin of yours, who doesn’t pass for white, but won’t deny it when people treat him real well. I wanted to take the drag off, and see what happens.
HA: When you began writing your first fiction, did you know that you were going to focus on your particular world? Was it a process or a discovery? And since you mention that pedigree, I’m wondering why modern writers of color, and Philip Roth, are particularly drawn to that.
JD: I came up as a young activist in college. How many Latinos are here? I don’t know if you were part of Latino organizations, like if you had a LALSA, or if you had a LUCHA, or if you had an LAL, or an LAO, or whatever. I was in all. And I was a young activist. That’s basically who I was all through college. That was my identity, and in many ways it continues to be my default identity. You know when you wake and you don’t know what room you are in or country you are in? The one thing I always know is I’m like, “Fight the man! Get him!” These days they’re trying to shut down all the Ethnic Studies programs, because they don’t want to produce students who begin by saying, “Yo, it’s fucked up we’re not talking about us.” And I’m a product of these programs that aimed me directly toward writing about this tiny neighborhood that nobody really knew or thought about. It’s an old pattern, but one that is super-reliable. We’re so erased. If you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you come from a poor background, if you come from a family who worked like dogs and never got any respect or a share of the profits, you know that ninety percent of your stories ain’t told. And yet we still have to be taught to look and to tell our stories. Many of us have to stumble our way through this. Despite the utter absence of us, it’s still an internal revolution to say, “Wait a minute. We are not only worthy of great art, but the source of.” It takes a lot of work to get there.
HA: I’d like you to describe this process. Did you feel that fiction would be the form, or were you writing in other kinds of genres?
JD: I always did fiction and I always wanted to write. When you’re young, if you’re aware of your parents’ infidelities, your cosmology starts with this concept that your parents are real big liars. My cosmology begins with this constant deception. So of course I wanted to write about deceivers, people who were wearing masks, and for this purpose fiction felt more useful. As a kid I was that literal, thinking I lived in fiction, so let me write it. It started there, and it seems it’s going to end there. I was always terrible with essays, whether they are confessional or critical, because in that form the whole thing can’t be a lie. My idea for an essay would be to write about a book that’s never been written, or to draw a completely ridiculous conclusion, and then when somebody checks the footnotes . . . I think in fiction, I can lie on multiple levels, which is always what my family felt like. I felt at home.
HA: That essay sounds Borgesian. But looking at your first collection, were there stories that were just a sort of working out before you got Drown?
JD: Certainly, I had so many absurd stories. I still hadn’t mapped out what it meant to be living in central New Jersey. We were one of the first Dominican families in the area and we grew up around a predominantly African-American community, with some poor whites, most of them Irish immigrants. I couldn’t figure out how to scale a family that existed in this really dense Dominican world at home. I had siblings who were black, who didn’t look like me, who weren’t, like, Terrorism Act bait. They looked African-American and I couldn’t figure out a way to scale it. I was reading so many New York writers describing the Latino experience in a really urban setting that my first stories sounded like I was living in NYC, which is a very different world.
HA: Who were you reading?
JD: People like Edward Rivera, who wrote Family Installments, probably one of the greatest memoirs. If you want to know how I wrote my first book, read that, because I just completely copied that book. I also read some of the most classic folks, such as Nicholasa Mohr—even though she was writing about Paterson, it still had a much more urban edge—or Piri Thomas. In my first thirty or forty pieces of writing, a character was always robbing a bodega. It was so stupid. I was an embarrassment to myself. I started out writing film scripts, and before, you know, I jumped to fiction, but even then, I wanted to do a kind of film scripts. So my first few years I was doing scripts, and those were even worse than anything anyone can imagine.
HA: When did you find your voice? When do you feel that you made something good enough to be sent out, to be published?
JD: I never feel that, but I do remember finding my voice while I was writing a page that got thrown out of Drown. That was the guiding spirit of it, and it’ll go back in if I ever write another book . . . You know how everybody today wants to claim urban backgrounds? If you look at fashion and compare a bunch of pictures of what women wore back in 1992 and how they dress now, you can see how these clothes and looks have been completely Latinized. All women are dressing now like Latinas. For real. Don’t make me bring the slide projector out.
HA: There’s this great quote of Capote, in an interview by Warhol. He said he really liked Bianca Jagger, because she was South American chic. Warhol asked what was that, and Capote says that it’s a Spanish adaptation of Negro culture.
JD: How about a Spanish continuation of Negro culture? Because most of the cultures we’re talking about were deeply Africanized. But going back to that one page I mentioned before, I remembered every time we would have to visit my family in the Bronx or in East New York, my siblings would beg not to go. You couldn’t go outside. People would always menace us when we would go to the store. And I remember writing that page, and realizing that this was so different from that memoir Fresh Off the Boat.
What I want to point out is that there’s been this whole tendency where everybody wants to take on this hip urban culture. As a kid I remember it and we were already part of that culture, and we didn’t want to get stuck in the Bronx. We were so honest that at eleven and twelve, we were sure we did not want to go up there. Then as soon as I had that scene written down, I knew I had nailed my New Jersey moment, where we were black and Latino. There were no identity issues about that we weren’t or were, but we didn’t want to go to East New York, and we were honest.
HA: I didn’t want to go there, either, and I grew up there.
JD: You grew up there! You know the deal.
HA: One of the things that beats beautifully in Drown and all your work goes back to this idea that if you’re an artist, the hardest thing to survive is the people you come from. And the people that you come from are the stories that you tell. Often. Can you tell us a little bit about your family reaction?
JD: That is a really honest question and recognition. Most of my friends had to protect their parents and the rest of us from their ambitions. A childhood like mine meant that you could not openly air your ambitions to people because it would have been an enormous threat. When I think about it, I guess my family’s situation was always a heartbreaker, regardless how my career turned out. The family dynamic internalized all the craziness of growing up as an immigrant. Immigration is difficult as it is, but the worst way to take it on the chin is to turn it against each other.
JD: It’s weird, my immediate family gets together almost never, and when we get together, it’s always like a heartbreaker. There’s all this kind of awful stuff: who’s not talking to whom, how some brothers live in California, as far away from the family as possible. And I’ll be honest, I think my family barely tolerates me, and part of the barely-tolerates-me is that I should never speak about my art, that’s like the price of admission. If I want to go home and sit through Christmas dinner and not have a meltdown, I should never ever talk about it. I’ll lie. I’m a big old coward, not a complete coward. Because no matter who you are, you can stand up to a whole bunch of different stuff, but sometimes it’s really hard. I’m still auditioning for my family’s love. I still hold out this thing that they’ll be nicer if I play along. You wrestle with your family your entire life. People who don’t, that’s like the most blessed resource in the world, since the rest of us are still caught in a dynamic which doesn’t always leave too much room for you to be compassionate to yourself.
HA: While that narrative is going on, and it’s deeply painful, you are able to be open enough and funny enough and friendly enough to find someone like me, who was not so different. We can make our own family. That’s a declaration of love.
JD: Those of us who have near misses with families yearn for families. I grew up around Koreans, and let me tell you something, if you know anything about that national history it’s like the Caribbean in a day, compressed madness. But you’d meet people whose families are the only reason they survived from starvation, and you get the sense that it can really work, though there are other relationships, too, that can do the same thing. I’m just arguing that, when it works, it has some strength. So, of course, I’m a kid who’s always looking for people that I can connect with profoundly, and I’m willing to take the risk. You get kicked around enough, and you either do two things: you withdraw totally, or you say, I can take another kick.
HA: Can I share the jokes we told each other about fathers this Christmas? My favorite was, Junot said, “Yo, your father was like my father. He would drive by the house in his car and that was a visit.” It was really true. Except my father didn’t have the car.
JD: Right. Yeah. Again, it’s a Jersey thing. With no train, they start saving for their cars when they’re nine.
HA: Do you think that part of the struggle, all worth it for Oscar Wao, was learning how to become a public figure while you were involved in this private occupation of writing?
JD: Oh, no. I wrote my first book, and the sales would convince you not to be a writer, but it got some notoriety among people who were into fiction, among public school teachers, Dominicans, and allies, such as the Puerto Rican, the Cuban, the Chicano community, but that was it. I wrote this book in 1996, and I spent the next eleven years having like no career. I had a six-year period where I didn’t even publish like a minor essay. It was awesome. I got this little burst of attention, then I proceeded to lose . . . When I hear my students talking, they have all this professional language. They are all ready to be famous; they use words like momentum. So part of the experience of Oscar Wao was out-waiting my desire to sound like my students. I didn’t want to hear myself saying, “You’ve gotta publish this fast, you’ve got momentum. Strike while people know who you are.” I remember spending at least five years just waiting for that voice to die, for real. I didn’t write anything useful until that voice died, till it no longer had control of the board. When I finally heard the voice say, “Well, you should just write the bad book that you knew you were going to write, because you suck,” I was like go. It took sixteen years for This Is How You Lose Her to get done. I had to keep wrestling with that voice. I had to wait for the moments that voice died, so I could write the next chapter. If it would flare up again I wouldn’t be able to work on the book.
HA: There are other voices that intrude into your life in beautiful ways. I remember one day we were walking down Sixth Avenue, and all of a sudden I heard three girls screaming, “Junot!” One of them said she had been waiting for your new book. Can you take that voice?
JD: Nah. Because the engine that propels me is the one that doesn’t want to be anybody’s friend, doesn’t want popularity. I’m not joking. I’m not that bad a writer. I can write a short story collection in under sixteen years. You may trust me when I tell you there’s nothing wrong with my “craft,” it’s just that none of those other voices produce the horrifying deceptive intimacy that I need to tell my stories. There has to be this voice, there has to be a presence in the book that wants to tell the truth . . . I grew up in a post-dictatorship dictatorship society. The axis of likability is how dictatorships survive. Becoming popular is part of what dictatorships hijack to remain in power. For me to write things from the same toxic axis that made stronger the dictatorship that completely disfigured my family and my society, it just wasn’t going to happen. My father was a Dominican military police apparatchik. He was emblematic of that culture. And I lived in a place where it was so much better to be liked because your shirt was ironed, or because you had a good posture. It was just insane, the way a military dictatorship is like Reddit. Honestly, man.
HA: Something like The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez is a work of realism.
JD: Autumn of the Patriarch takes the twilight of it. My experience of living in a post-dictatorship society is that everybody believes that they’re going to be the Reddit article that gets pushed all the way up. The like axis is just very, very powerful, and I needed to tilt a different way. I needed to say that it is possible to say things, to be involved in a conversation with people where the relationship is determined by things more complicated than whether you like me or not. Maybe the content of my communication would be in itself worthy of discussion, regardless of how you felt at an emotional level about the person bringing the news. In a dictatorship, the two things get quickly put together. The news you bring stands as a moral judgment about you, and this is the way you keep critics silent, because you basically say, “If you criticize the dictatorship, it’s not only your thinking, your body is out of order, which is why we must destroy your body.”
HA: So this writing is an act of defiance.
JD: This is how I understand it. This is like a self-aggrandizing lunacy that helps me understand why I wait so long, and why I hear that voice so clearly. I’m so desirous to want to play along with that, with my father. I knew that if I ironed my clothes every day, my dad would like me, but my dad made a mistake and took me to the military prisons in the Dominican Republic that he worked in. His game was to put us in the cells, pretend to lock the doors, and walk away. My brother thought this was the funniest thing, but I remember looking around at the feces-covered walls and thinking, we were in the space of this culture. Even though I didn’t have the language to express it then, I knew that this was home. My dad was taking me to work, but he was also taking me home. That created in me a deep visceral desire to tack a different way, because that’s not where I wanted to end up. Despite the fact that I would have loved to set up a torture-prison if my dad would have loved me, I was trying to figure out how even with that impulse, how could I pull away?
HA: How did you build your own home?
JD: I think part of it is what you identified. It’s hard to describe my family without seeming completely made up, but what got you love was how many fights you won in the leisurely arranged boxing matches in our neighborhood, and how many bullets you nailed to the target during our Saturday rifle-range outing. My escape from that weird regime was trying to read. Being a nerd was an act of escape in my family, because everything else was like, shoot guns and get punched by your neighbors.
HA: Reading as an act of aggression and salvation; parents who don’t read, who don’t have any access to that stuff, often think that a child is putting up a wall. And they’re not agreeing with them. But they can’t say it’s wrong.
JD: They’re so caught in the enlightenment bind. Your parents, especially if they’re immigrants, know that the only way out is education. At the same time, when my family would see me with a book, they would be like, “¡Anormal! Go outside and play!” There was this constant back-and-forth, and as a kid you find spaces there where at least you can hide.
Questions from the audience
Q1: This question has to do with This Is How You Lose Her. We read it for one of my classes, and one of the topics of discussion was why you included the chapter with the women who work at the Laundromat.
JD: Wait a minute, are you doing a paper? Just checking. I know this sounds completely ridiculous, but the persona who writes my books, is a writer writing my books, Yunior, is a big liar, and he filters the whole thing. He’s also way smarter than I am, because one can write someone who is smarter than you. One of the things about Yunior is that he loves to destabilize a reader’s sense of who he is and who his family is, and he loves breaking up any kind of authoritative narrative about his family or himself. So he will actually tell different versions of a story. In my first book, Drown, you have a version of the story, where his father abandons the family, and goes and lives in the United States, a story called “Negocios.” This is a second iteration of the story, told from the point of view of the woman whom his father almost leaves the family for. He keeps the father’s name, but changes everything around, because this way it’s hard to tell which story is true. Yunior is so not about truth.
It’s not just something that’s to make up stuff. In Drown, the first book, you see Yunior describe his brother and his brotHer’s relationship in great detail and then stop talking about it, there is complete silence about where the brother goes. In This Is How You Lose Her, you realize that the brother has died of cancer, and that the brother had been dead of cancer in the first book, but it had been completely left out. I always assumed this second book would come, and it would explain the first, but it would also destabilize it. So that particular story about the Laundromat is Yunior retelling what would be called “his family’s foundational myth.” If I ever write my next book in this series, Yunior will tell that story again. For those of us who grew up in immigrant families, the foundational story takes on this luminous glow. It takes on its own authority, except it’s completely fictitious, because, if you pay attention, the story doesn’t ever cohere. There’s always stuff that doesn’t come together. People always switch their narratives.
Q2: As a fiction writer, did you ever worry about misrepresenting the immigrant experience?
JD: No. People want to read stories by “marginal artists” as universal in the exact wrong way we want them to be read. I want to be read as universal not because this stands in for all Dominicans and therefore this is a great map for any of you who are going to that country. This story is about one tiny dot in that shifting constellation of people and moments and identities that we would call the Dominican diaspora. I’m not claiming to represent anyone but this tiny group of people. I mean, why do you think I’d create a character like Oscar, who absolutely fits no formula of what is a Dominican? He spends his whole time saying he really is Dominican while everybody insists on saying he is not.
All art, because it scales to the human, because of that human-level distortion, is disqualified from becoming a stand-in for a nation, or a time. There’s something about the granular complexity of any novel, or short story collection, which almost seems to immediately invalidate it as a larger argument about this group or this people. If you understand that complexity, you shouldn’t get worried. I think that we only worry about this because we ourselves sometimes want to claim partially that we’re spokespeople for our nation. Por abajo, on the lower frequencies, where we don’t like to admit things, we really truly want to be the writer of our generation, of our people, of our moment. That’s what leads us all astray. On the one hand, we don’t want to be called out for that, but on the other hand, we want all the banners and prizes and privileges that come with that. It’s a terrible, terrible two-headed dragon to serve.
Q3: You describe this childhood of deprivation, and this experience of growing up with crazy role models. How do you explain the fact that you succeeded so beautifully, and didn’t succumb to all the other terrible things that could have happened to you and follow these dysfunctional paths?
JD: But who says I haven’t? I’m not just being tendentious. This is the mythography of America, progressive, where you have this idea that everything moves upward, and people are always on this journey to improvement. So, “How did you make it?” Listen, this is very important to understand, I don’t speak the language of “make it.” Our moment, in late capital, has no problems, through its contradictions, occasionally granting someone ridiculous moments of privilege, but that’s not what matters. In other words, we can elect Obama, but what does that say about the fate of the African-American community? We have no problem in this country rewarding individuals of color momentarily as a way never to address structural cannibalistic inequalities that are faced by the communities these people come out of.
And the record ain’t done yet. Has anybody tabulated my full account of cruelties towards people? I just mean . . . I don’t think we can safely say just because someone has some sort of visible markers of success that in any way they have avoided any of the dysfunctions. That is the kind of Chaucerian, weird physiognomy-as-moral-status. We don’t know anything about anybody. Yes, I have made a certain level of status as an artist and as a writer, but what I am reminded of most acutely is not of my “awesomeness,” or some sort of will to power that has led me through the jungle. What I am aware of, being here, is that I am representative of a structural exclusion.
Q4: I’m sure you felt some sort of displacement within your society and especially in your own culture. How did you overcome that?
JD: I think we accept too much at face value these ideologies of transcendence, that one overcomes their . . . I guess my first thing was that I noticed nobody was at home. I think that some of us have better operational masquerades than others. Last time I noticed, America isn’t epically addicted to cocaine, especially white upper-middle-class America, because it feels at home, because it feels comfortable in its own skin. Some of our displacements are pathologized in ways that other people’s displacements are. We try to explain everything is that we’re immigrants of color. Because that’s the way the society explains everything, it’s the easy go-to myth. But I just knew, from everything that I saw, that there is no transcending the human experience. You’ve got to realize that most of us feel permanently displaced and savagely undone. Most of us try everything we can to manage our fears and our insecurities. Most of us are profoundly inhuman to ourselves and other people, and that makes us no less valuable, and no less worthy of attention and love. I didn’t transcend all this stuff, you just got to live with them, man, and there’s nothing like trying to run away from all that stuff to guarantee its supremacy. My idea is to change at least the percentage of the vote. These voices are always going to get a vote, but do they always have to have the majority of the vote?
HA: They don’t get to win all the time.
JD: You try to distribute who you are in different proportions, but the transcendence myth will just do you in, in the long run.
HA: And this idea of the arrival myth is what you’re speaking of, that once we arrive . . . but one of the great and amazing things about America and Americans is that they never do.
JD: No. Only one person attended my first reading at Boston, my best friend, Shuya Ohno. Today, there are all these fine faces here, but tomorrow, you’re back to one person. America is not like Latin America, that tends to be much more committed to its artists, and you could be thirty years in the game and not publish one book and people still think you matter. We are a fickle, fickle nation, and today’s arrival is tomorrow’s “See, I told you, what a fraud.” Somebody will come along and that’s the reality of it. I know that I’m back to reading to my boy Shuya, always in my heart, because that’s the place where most of us end up as artists, and you have to be comfortable there, no matter what your fantasies of supremacy and success are, because tomorrow that’s where you’ll be at.
The best part about art is that as long as the civilization survives, somebody out there will keep one copy of your text, and perhaps that will give comfort, inspiration, and more importantly a space for an individual to be in touch with their humanity. To be temporarily in touch with their best selves, which is fragile, flawed, weak, scared . . . That’s worth working, and that’s the moment why most of us go this very long, shadowed path into producing art, because we fundamentally believe that what we do is the best of what we call human, the best of us, even if at times we don’t like to recognize it.
Excerpted from UPSTAIRS AT THE STRAND:Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore, edited by Jessica Strand and Andrea Aguilar. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2016 by Strand Books.
Feature photograph by Nick Doll, taken at the Key West Literary Seminar, January 2016.