July 19, 2024

Junot Díaz on Writing as an Act of Faith – Repeating Islands


Cressida Leyshon (The New Yorker) interviews Junot Díaz, who discusses his extraordinary story, “The Ghosts of Gloria Lara” [Brilliant! I really loved it…], published in the latest issue of The New Yorker. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Your story in this week’s issue, “The Ghosts of Gloria Lara,” features characters whom many readers will be familiar with—Yunior and his family. The story starts in 1980, when Yunior is an eleven-year-old in New Jersey, having emigrated from the Dominican Republic. Why did you want to return to this time in Yunior’s life?

I’ve always been struck by James Baldwin’s oft-quoted claim that “every writer has only one tale to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.”

Whether this is true of me only time will tell, but there’s no question that throughout my writing “career” I’ve returned again and again to the eighties—a lonely, turbulent decade for me personally, and a historically important decade to boot. Who among us is not haunted by a particular time in our lives? Well, maybe some people aren’t, but I am powerfully haunted by the eighties for so many damn reasons.

On the one hand, I suffered a lot of desolation and dislocations in the eighties for reasons that are too numerous to get into here, but, by visiting versions of these agonies onto Yunior, I’m able to think them through in ways that are generative to me as a person and an artist. Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted that animals are good to think with. Well, literature is also good to think with—and, more vitally, to feel with.

I also wanted to return to Yunior’s stay on what he thinks of as cancer planet because I feel as though I ain’t done justice to this gutting experience. No matter how often I write about that time, something of that harrowing period escapes me. In Yunior’s fictional biography, his stay on cancer planet was on one hand calamitous, marred by a complete dissolution of his family: his father’s departure, his brother’s cancer death. In other words, his deepest losses. And yet cancer planet was also the beginning of Yunior’s grownup life, his moving away from his family/neighborhood crater and into the wider U.S. world of books, of college, of his first artistic stirrings.

A lot to untangle and, therefore, the compulsive revisiting.

The political background in the Dominican Republic enters the story almost immediately. Yunior is listening to the news on the radio with his mother, or hearing his father respond to what he’s reading or watching. His father is a supporter of the D.R.’s various right-wing regimes. His uncle—his mother’s brother—was a radical leftist who was killed shortly after the family moved to the U.S. How much does Yunior grasp about the situation in the D.R.? What do you want the reader to understand?

Growing up, I had a lot more awareness of the political situation in the D.R. than Yunior does. He has no interest in the D.R., really, just wants to become a white American as quickly as possible. But it’s amazing what we pick up through our relations, whether we want to or not, and Yunior’s bond with his mother insures that he cannot simply turn the page on the D.R., that he cannot white it out and, by extension, he cannot white-out what’s happening throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

The eighties were turbulent times in the lower hemisphere, to put it mildly. We had U.S.-backed torture regimes and civil wars and guerrilla insurgencies and right-wing counter-insurgencies and political strife of every kind. Sure, the eighties also saw the rebirth of democracy throughout the region, but what a slow, agonizing, incomplete gestation that was. The aftershocks from those last colonial massacres were still fucking everything up in the eighties (not that those tremors have subsided much).

For a lot of the kids I grew up with, the eighties were MTV and John Hughes movies and Atari and “Miami Vice,” but for those of us who came out of the open veins of Latin America and the Caribbean our vision of the eighties was a lot more messed up, a lot more horrifying. What I heard on Spanish-language news was a world away from what English-language news was showing.

This is part of what I was trying to depict in the story. Yunior might be desperate to be an American cyclops, to shut his homeward eye and focus only on the country he’s desperate to be accepted by, but he is too immigrant for such a cognitive blinkering (too sensitive, too). In spite of his acculturation fantasies, Yunior’s contact with his Colombian neighbor, and his experiences with his father’s cruelties and his revolutionary uncle’s death, means that the hemispheric imaginary, the ghost-colonial imaginary, possesses him, for better or worse.

On February 27, 1980, a group of Colombian guerrillas seized the Dominican Embassy, which was throwing a party to celebrate Dominican Independence Day, and took the attendees hostage. Yunior becomes obsessed by what’s happening in Colombia, and by the guerrillas themselves. When did you first think that this situation might form the precipitating event for a story?

I learned about the siege on Spanish-language news the very day it started. For Dominican news, it was the story. I was more obsessed with the Iran hostage crisis at the time because that was an American problem and I was desperate to be in conversation with America, not with the Dominican Republic or Colombia. But, because I was a curious kid and because the whole thing lasted for two months, I ended up learning more about what was happening in Colombia than I might have otherwise. I was really struck by the fact that there were female revolutionaries in the mix and asked one of my teachers about it. For the life of me I cannot remember what her answer was, but sometimes the fact of the question is as important as the answer.

Anyway, that Embassy siege stayed with me. In fact, when I wrote my novel “Oscar Wao,” I kept trying to wedge that in, along with Trujillo’s rumored attempt to assassinate the President of Venezuela. Never worked out—until now. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/junot-diaz-11-06-23 [Artwork from The New Yorker. Source photograph by Nina Subin.]

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