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Junot Diaz’s most recent collection of stories, “This is How You Lose Her,” comes five years after his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and fans and critics say it’s worth the wait. The stories center on Yunior, a character familiar to fans who struggles to define what it means to be a man in a deeply macho culture. We talk with Diaz about his latest exploration of Dominican-American identity, his recent MacArthur “genius” grant and the renaissance of the short story.
- Junot Diaz Author, "This is How You Lose Her" (Riverhead Books)
Video: Inside The Studio
Author Junot Diaz debunked the idea of a “racial paradise” and compared American perceptions of race with Dominican perceptions, explaining that even baseball star Sammy Sosa experienced racial discrimination while at home in the Dominican Republic. “It’s important for us to understand that the world is a complicated thing but that forces like racism and sexism really are pervasive,” Diaz said. “They’re stronger than we give them credit for. And even in places we don’t think they exist, if you scratch a little bit, if you dig underneath you begin to see their cold hard calculus.”
Junot Diaz speaks at the 2009 National Book Festival:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJunot Diaz's most recent collection of stories comes five years after his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Fans and critics say it's worth the wait. The story center on Yunior, a character familiar to those who know his last novel. Yunior struggles to define what it means to be a man in a deeply macho culture. Like the characters in Diaz's earlier work, Yunior inhabits the fault lines between cultures, between Spanish and English, between the Dominican Republic and Latino neighborhoods here in America, places where the women endure and the men often fail to rise above their darker impulses.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJunot Diaz joins us in studio. He is the author, as I mentioned, of "This Is How To (sic) Lose Her." That's the latest. He teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He is a recipient of this year's MacArthur Genius grant and a finalist for the National Book Award. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Thank you so much for joining us, Junot Diaz. Good to see you again.
MR. JUNOT DIAZIt's great to see you again. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDILet me get to the important stuff in this book first because, as you visited me before, you know I was born in Guyana. I turn to page 31. There's a mention of a woman from Guyana. I turn to page 48. There's a mention of a woman from Guyana. And then I turn to page 158, and somebody's wearing a Howard University sweatshirt. What's up?
DIAZYou know how it is, us Caribbean folks, especially those of us of African descent. You're never more than one degree away from Harvard -- from Howard or from Guyana.
NNAMDIYou're absolutely correct about that. You were recently awarded a MacArthur Genius grant. Congratulations, by the way.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that it was something of a surprise. What went through your mind -- well, first, tell us how you found out 'cause this was unusual.
DIAZWell, no, I had been asked to come into the offices of the foundation. And I had supported a number of candidates, and so I assumed that this was a conversation either to ask me to be a selector or to talk about my candidates. And the first time they asked me, I was super, super -- you know, I kind of blew it off 'cause I was, like, you know what, just email me the info. And then the second time I realized that, if I didn't go, my candidates might not get it.
DIAZSo I suddenly manned up and ran over, and when I went over there, they just were like, oh, Dr. Diaz from the Chemistry Department. And I'm, like, damn, man, these cats don't even know who the hell I really am. And then I sat down, and I had my ready to go and my reports. And they were, like, no, actually, you won the grant, so...
NNAMDIWhoa. That's how you found out about it, so obviously it was a surprise to you. Does this give you a little breathing room or is it -- well, let me tell you my conversation that I had last week with Dinaw Mengestu who also won a MacArthur Genius...
NNAMDIHe said, I feel this now puts more pressure on me. I now have to work to produce some more because, I guess, that's what I'm supposed to be doing with this. I said, only writers can think like that. Is there now added pressure in your view to produce?
DIAZI guess I can't imagine how anything, even a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, would add any more pressure to me. I think...
DIAZ...I come carrying Himalayas and Matterhorns. And so this grant probably weighs as much as a, you know, as a bay leaf on me. And, yeah, I mean, I don't feel it -- I don't feel the negative part of it, though I'm sure if I was a normal human, I would. I guess what I sense more is that I've got some room to maneuver. And you know how us immigrants are. When you get extra room to maneuver, it makes you very happy.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. If you'd like to put some more pressure on Junot Diaz, you're free to call 800-433-8850. Do you have a favorite collection of short stories you'd want to share it with us? You can also send us email to email@example.com. Do you prefer short stories over novels? You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Your most recent book, "This Is How You Lose Her," is a collection of interconnected short stories. What was the idea when you began this book?
DIAZI think the idea was the same idea of my first book, "Drown," which was to create a piece of literature that kind of talked about a specific chapter of the Dominican experience, both in Santo Domingo and the United States, and also to create a book that makes the reader have to make a decision about whether this is just a broken novel or this is a really tightly built collection of short stories. And, you know, especially with this book, I kind of was thinking a lot about the way boys are and the way the kind of boy I was raised to be, was supposed to be, and that kind of, I think, fueled the book.
NNAMDITogether, the stories in this book trace the loves and losses of a man named Yunior, whom you introduced in an earlier book. For those who have not yet read it, tell us a little bit about Yunior.
DIAZYunior is sort of a strange kind of, I think, a complicated character, the way most dudes can be, Dominican immigrant, African diasporic, super, super smart. He's a lot smarter than me, which isn't saying that I'm super smart, but he's one of the smartest people. You can write smart people just by looking stuff up.
DIAZHe's a dude who hides almost everything he is. He's a smart guy who never seems smart. And he seems to be absolutely incapable of maintaining intimate relationship with a woman. He's that kind of deep Negro, as we used to call growing up. One of these dudes can talk a good game but can't really stand his ground when it comes down to it.
NNAMDIWhy'd you decide to focus on him for this collection?
DIAZHe just seemed perfect because I felt like, on the one hand, he's the product of the very privileges which end up undoing him. His father is a big time cheater. He comes from a broken family. He sees the costs of that kind of masculine, Caribbean, African diasporic, you know, behavior. But then he can't seem to escape it. I mean, he's a child of a broken home, but he turns out and does exactly what his dad does. And I felt like that kind of conflict from a kid who knows better, a young man who actually knows what this is doing, but can't stop himself, it makes for really good literature.
NNAMDIAnd when you talk about the Caribbean, African-American, black African nexus, if you will, and you refer to Yunior as a deep Negro, I notice that, in a lot of places in the book, you use the word Negro. Sometimes you use the term nigger, and I couldn't help remembering Felipe Luciano's poem which was called, as I think of it, "Jibaro: My Pretty Nigger."
NNAMDITalk a little bit about how that word is used in the Latino community, its relationship to the African-American community, your own feeling about this relationship to Africa, and you even use it when Yunior goes down to the Dominican Republic.
DIAZYeah, yeah, yeah. I think that this is, like, an incredibly complicated issue, clearly. And so from one hand of it, it's like, how does an artist who's spent their entire life in the United States, living with that word, what is our responsibility towards it? For example, I grew up, starting from 6 in the U.S., I was called every kind of N word you could imagine. I was called a Sand Nigger. I was called a Light Nigger.
NNAMDIYou're a difficult person to describe.
DIAZSure, sure, exactly. And so, you know, you spend a lot time with that word on you, and you start to decide, well, what's supposed to happen with it? And then you grow up in a community -- now, not every community is like this. You grow up in a mixed Black Caribbean community where the brothers grow up and all of us are calling each other, yo, you're my Nigger this, your Nigger that. And then that, just because it happens in your community, doesn't mean it applies to other people's community. There's other places where you -- that's only used among Black Americans.
DIAZBut, of course, Jersey, that wasn't true. And I guess, as an artist, what really interested me was simultaneously reproducing the culture in which my characters grew up, but also trying to put the finger on it a little bit, to try to kind of push it and to show the people that, you know, even though you grow up using this stuff and even though this has become part of your culture, it's not exactly the most awesome thing in the world. It's not exactly without edges.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Junot Diaz. He is the author of his latest, "This Is How You Lose Her." It's a collection of short stories. He teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, recipient of this year's MacArthur Genius grant, finalist for the National Book Award. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." On to the telephones, speaking of language that you use, here is Roberto in Ashburn, Va. Roberto, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTOThank you, Kojo, and congratulations to you, Mr. Diaz. As a New Yorker of Dominican descent, I'm proud of you my brother, and I think it's great what you're doing.
ROBERTOI did have a question for you. You know, I've read all your work, and you use extensive -- you have an extensive amount of slang from the D.R., a lot of Spanish in there as well. Do you get a lot of feedback from people that are not familiar with the terminology as far as following the train of thought that you're writing about?
DIAZWell, you know, sometimes you do. I mean, clearly -- and I think part of what I think about, whenever I write a word that I think someone might not get, in my mind -- now, this is not to say this is the way everybody thinks. But in my mind, a word that perhaps only has limited intelligibility, like a slang from a certain country, a real fancy grad school word, in my mind, a word that someone doesn't understand is an invitation for that person to seek communities, an invitation for that person to reach out to somebody.
DIAZIt's not meant to be an act of exclusion. So, yeah, some people say, yo, I can't follow this. And I'm like, well, that's there so you can reach out to people. You know, it's not there so that I can try to be cuter or smarter or anything. So I guess some people see it a different way. They think it's exclusionary. But I see it as a door, you know, a way for you to connect to someone else.
NNAMDIPlease go ahead, Roberto.
ROBERTOWell, I just wanted to say that your books are a part of what I'm giving out for Christmas this year. And I'm adding to the book a little note saying that I'm available for translating any of the dialogue that they may be lost on.
DIAZThat's brilliant, brother. That's it.
NNAMDI...you know what I notice? As they say, context is everything. Readers who many not speak English are left to figure it out from the context, and, in a lot of ways, you can't. Is that a way that you use of putting your readers not only into the shoes of the characters generally, but into the shoes of characters who, at times, may have trouble speaking in an English-speaking world?
DIAZNo. I mean, I don't think that's -- yeah, certainly, Kojo. I think that's one thing. But I also think it's important to know that it is okay for us to read a book and not understand everything and that that is normal. From the first day we started reading, the thing that we got used to was not understanding. And I think we forget when we're adults, we're afraid to ask people questions 'cause we still think that we're going to be quizzed. We're not being quizzed as we read. It's nice to lean over and ask somebody, hey, what does this mean? I like that.
NNAMDIYou have said that after a celebrated novel like Oscar Wao, a short story collection, "like a girl being born is -- is like a girl being born," this is quoting here, "like a girl being born to a conservative Dominican family that wants a son." Can you explain what you mean by that?
DIAZOh, man, I was just saying that, you know, in the business I'm in -- the business I'm in is the business of novels. You know, publishers, they don't want a book of collected short stories that may be a novel, may not be. What they want is, like, something safely in a category. And so let me tell you something. You'd be surprised how many people have come up to me and said, you know what, this is great, this is great, but when's your novel coming out?
DIAZAnd it just reminded me of when I'm in Santo Domingo and people are like, oh, my God, congratulations on your daughter. So when are you going to have a son? And it just seemed like real familiar, like we privilege one form over the other, but I don't know, man. I don't have kids myself, but I kind of like my nieces just as much as my nephews, and I like a book of collected short stories just as much as novels.
NNAMDIShort stories for me I like because I can read -- I finished your entire book last night and -- because one story just kind of lead me into another, and, well, frankly, if you got a certain bedtime, it's better to read a short story because at least you can get through it. You're short-listed for a national book award for this latest collection. Do you think the short story form may now be getting its due?
DIAZI don't know about that, my friend. I think when you add up the number of sales that short stories have compared to the number of sales, the novels -- and you also add up how many places now publish short stories, the numbers get fewer and fewer. I think there's a committed group of readers who are very open to the stories.
DIAZI think there's a committed group of writers who are doing their best to make the form as beautiful, as magnificent, as capacious, as fascinating, as weird as possible. I feel like the form itself may be, you know, renaissance. And readers who love short stories will never go hungry right now, but I still think there's a lot of challenges, my friends. I think there's a lot of, lot of challenges.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. The number's 800-433-8850. Are you a fan of Junot Diaz? Do you have a favorite story you'd like to talk about? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Junot Diaz. He is the author of his latest collection of short stories. It's called "This is How You Lose Her." Junot Diaz teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." He's a recipient of this year's MacArthur Genius Grant and a finalist for the National Book Award. If you have questions or comments for Junot Diaz, please call us at 800-433-8850. Can you read a little bit of the book for us?
DIAZSure. Again, this is from the last chapter of this book. All of the stories are sort of connected, and it's this crazy cheating young Dominican brother. And he finally gets caught at his last cheating. He's all grown up with his fiancé, and so here goes, called "Year Zero." "Your girl catches you cheating. Well, actually, she's your fiancé, but, hey, in a bit, it so won't matter. She could've caught you with one sucia. She could have caught you with two. But as you're a total -- it says you're a total cuero who didn't ever empty his email trash can, she caught you with 50.
DIAZSure, over a six-year period, but, still, 50 girls. God damn. Maybe if you'd been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita, you could've survived it. But you are not engaged to a super open-minded blanquita. Your girl is a badass from Salcedo who doesn't believe in open anything. In fact, the one thing she warned you about that she swore she would never forgive was cheating. I'll put a machete in you, she promised. And, of course, you swore you wouldn't do it. You swore you wouldn't. You swore you wouldn't, and you did."
NNAMDIThat is Junot Diaz reading from "Year 0," one of stories in the collection "This is How You Use (sic) Her." Relationships between Yunior and the women are central to these stories. He's an interesting kind of cheater. In the end, he suffers the loss of that relationship enormously.
DIAZYeah, yeah, and Yunior's the kind of guy who likes exactly the wrong women for a inveterate cheater. Yunior likes really, really smart, strong-willed women who always find him out and always dump him and don't give him any chances. Believe me, if you're a cheater, there's better ways to go than his approach.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones now. We go to Nicki in Fort Washington, Md. Nicki, your turn.
NICKIHi, yes. I wanted to thank Junot for his wonderful book "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." And I wanted to talk -- ask him two quick questions. One, how do you resist the pressure of speaking for an entire collective, particularly when that collective is not, you know, seen as, you know, mainstream, if you will? And how do you develop characters from not being read as caricatures of the community?
DIAZThose are great questions. I mean, first thing's first, is that if you're a person of color in this country, you're always assumed that you're a collective. You're never an individual. Yeah, if one Dominican does something, it somehow ties back to all Dominicans. And I think that there's a tendency in this culture to generalize people of color the way it doesn't generalize white folks, to deny us our individual humanity the way white folks are not denied it. And I think part of what I do is constantly remind them, people, everyone, Dominicans included, that I'm this kid from New Jersey.
DIAZI'm this kid from Santo Domingo from a very specific particular background. I don't stand for everybody. I don't speak for everybody. There's absolutely no way this nerdy immigrant brother can. And so, one, it's part of it is just you constantly have to push people and remind them that I am not a larger category, a metaphor. And then the second thing is, listen, a character is a complex contradictory artifact inside of any story. For a character to work well and for a story to work well, characters have to have nuances.
DIAZAnd the best way to break any kind of stereotypical representation of a Dominican, of an African American, of a Caribbean is to create characters that are nuanced and contradictory. You can point at Yunior and say, well, if I'm sort of mean-minded I could say he's the caricature Dominican male. But I don't think there's many caricature Dominican males who are as smart as him, as intellectual as him, who are activists. And I guess part of it is always put contradictions in, and you will defeat stereotypes.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. And when you talk about creating characters and, I guess, writing stories about those characters, thinking of the narrative, you really seem to take a lot of time to do this. I think of one of my favorite beginnings of a book, James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" in which he said, I've begun this letter five times and torn it up five times, reading about your process writing this book, I wanted to say to the late Mr. Baldwin, hey, five times is nothing compared to what Junot Diaz goes through writing these stories.
DIAZWell, he's a greater writer and wrote far faster, and I think there's no connection between speed and greatness. I -- listen, my old man -- I grew up with a real pain-in-the-ass father, the kind of dad that you never want. He was a military dude, always cheating on my mom. He was real, real, just difficult, difficult man. And as a kid, I grew up terrified of the guy, and also, you know, you always dream of better fathers.
DIAZAnd the thing with my old man is that he always wanted everything done immediately. It didn't matter if it was -- if it cost you your entire soul. You had to get things done on his schedule. And for me, my art is a place where I feel like I'm outside of my dad's rhythm. I'm outside of the work rhythm. I'm outside of the expectations of the culture. If it takes me a long time, at least I know that it's a free process. And I like that given where I came from.
NNAMDIThere's one story in your book written from a woman's perspective "Otravida Otravez." Why did you include that story?
DIAZOh, then -- it's part of a larger project. You know, you get to the end of this book, and you realize that the entire book has been written by Yunior. You realize that he's been writing the whole book, and you realize that he has written this book to the story, too, about this woman. And what the story's about -- it's actually about the woman who is father runs off with at the beginning of their life.
DIAZAnd so part of it is that I wanted to kind of remind people that even a character like Yunior, who has his real limited view of women, is also capable of trying a much more ample vision of women, yeah, at the same time simultaneously.
DIAZAnd also I just think for a guy who grew up in a family like mine, a family where there was a lot of infidelity, the hardest woman for me to be sympathetic to was the other woman, the woman who was messing around with my old man. And so for me, a personal project, it was good for me to exercise the humanity of that character that for so long was maligned in my family's history.
NNAMDIThe tone of that story is a sad one, and it's kind of -- deals a lot with exhaustion, people being tired, they're working. What are you trying to get across to the reader there?
DIAZMan, you know the deal, man. You can't be a poor immigrant in this country and not be just worked to the bone.
NNAMDITwo jobs, man.
DIAZYeah, if you're lucky, two jobs. That means you're doing well. And I grew up in this universe, man. I used to watch my mother throw herself on the world the way like a World War II Vet would throw themself on a landmine to protect their buddies. And my mom would do that every day. And her exhaustion just was a character in our life. It was like an extra family member. And part of me, I think, is describing that extra family member, the work my mom had to do and work that doesn't get acknowledged, work no one recognizes.
NNAMDIBack to men. Here is Jenny in Bethesda, Md. Jenny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. I mean, Jenny has a question about men.
JENNYYes. Thank you so much for taking my call. Junot, I heard you actually in September when your book came out. You were talking to Steve Inskeep, and he asked you a question. He asked you if the book is specifically about Hispanic men and the Hispanic culture. And I think your response was something about it was just about men in general and how men can be and can act. And you shied away from saying that it was specifically about the Hispanic culture.
JENNYAs a Hispanic Latina reading the book, I just constantly -- just faces came up, you know, my brother, my dad, the guys I know and a lot of similarities, the vocabulary. It was just so focused and so centered on the Hispanic culture that your response to that question just kind of left me wondering what exactly you meant by that.
DIAZThank you. No. I'm glad to have a chance to sound less dumb. I think that it wasn't that this is exclusively about Dominican men and the men I grew up with it. I'm using the men I grew up with as a way to point at the larger question of masculinity. It's not as if me and you are the only people who have dealt with these kinds of masculinities. It's that certainly they appear in a certain format in our culture, but they're general.
DIAZAnd I guess my thing is that, yes, yes, yes, there's no question, I was trying to get at the particular Dominican masculinity that I grew up with. But I was using that to point at the larger question of masculinity. In other words, this isn't solely our problem and that if other people think that this allows them to sidestep the question of masculinity by saying, all Dominicans or all Latin guys or all guys from the Caribbean are like this, that's a lame way to confront the issue.
DIAZIt's just for me, and I guess, you know, it's sort of like -- you know, it's a way of using what we would call the particular to get more at the general.
NNAMDIIndeed, I was thinking that that's one of the characteristics of great literature. It focuses on the particular, but what it addresses is in many ways the universal.
DIAZYeah, I mean, you wouldn't say about Jane Eyre, like, wow, you know, 1800 white women in England sure have a hard time finding their way in the world. You would say, wow, this is a very local book that applies to all of us, that could apply to across the board. And I guess I didn't want to seem evasive with the question. I just didn't want the question to become specifically only connected to Latinos. Because it's not as if sexism, masculinity, patriarchy isn't a problem everywhere we look.
NNAMDIJenny, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Kelly in Dumfries, Va. Kelly, your turn.
KELLYHi, good morning. I just wanted to let Junot know that I've enjoyed listening to "This is How You Lose Her" multiple times in my truck as I'm driving up and down I-95.
NNAMDIThe audio book.
KELLYAnd I've learned a new vocabulary word, which I looked up and put to use almost immediately. I let somebody know that he and his brother were sucios. And he said why...
DIAZI was hoping it was pelagic.
KELLY...what is this? I said, because of your behavior with women. And what did he say? He said, this is normal. So I just cut the conversation short. I told him it was not normal in my mundo. But I appreciate your work.
DIAZWell, thank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd this is the point you were making earlier, Junot Diaz. We don't expect to understand everything we read, but even the stuff that we don't understand when we, well, look it up and we finally understand it, it can become a useful part of our -- not only our vocabulary but our lives, our world view, if you will.
DIAZYeah, because the vocabulary -- listen, the vocabulary of this book, even the sort of the way this book addresses the problem of boys, comes out of women. In other words, I didn't know that boys behave the way they did until I listened to the women in my life and listened to the women I grew up with. And suddenly you have a totally different world view. If you look at the world from the point of view of a boy, the world looks wonderful. If you look at the point of view of the world from, say, a woman, suddenly you begin to see that the world is far more problematic, difficult and often very dangerous.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kelly. We move on now to Lino in Washington, D.C. Lino, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINOHi, Kojo. How are you today?
LINOI wanted to talk a little bit about, like, the Dominican Republic, and here I had this blog that I was talking on with Leon Alexander. And they were talking about Sammy Sosa and how he's not black enough for African Americans in America. And I brought up a point that I've dated Dominicans. I had a Dominican girlfriend for a while. Based on the fact the Dominican Sammy Sosa, when he's in Dominican Republic, he's Dominican. They don't consider him as black or white. He has his own culture, his own way.
LINOAnd that's something that Americans don't seem to understand. But, you know, we're all human beings. It doesn't matter what race you are in some ways or from -- and such. We're all one, and in other countries they're looked at, their people -- Cubans the same way, Panamanians and such look at their culture different. They don't characterize them by the color. And it's something I think that Americans need to learn from in some ways, so we can grow with that.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up because it raises an interesting distinction for me, Junot Diaz, because Sammy Sosa, while playing baseball professionally in the United States maintains his home in the Dominican and, I guess, sees himself in that way, whereas you, on the other hand, were raised in the United States in New Jersey. Is there a difference in perception of color?
DIAZI think that there's a couple of issues here about this, and I feel we should approach it now -- not to disagree with my interlocutor. I just -- as someone who knows Santo Domingo pretty well -- I mean, I do -- who goes to Santo Domingo a lot, who was born there, who spent my childhood there, I can safely tell you that Dominicans have absolutely no problems distinguishing people across race. And, in fact, Sammy Sosa is seen as a black Dominican.
DIAZIn fact, some of Sammy Sosa's early experiences as a Dominican ball player before he became famous in the Dominican Republic often are characterized by the racial component where Sammy, along with other black ball players, are not allowed into certain clubs. They just walk up, and people are like, no you can't come into this club. It is a private party. Code four. Your ass is way too black. And so I don't want anyone to get it twisted that the Dominican Republic nor Panama nor any of these other places are racial paradises and the United States is a racial inferno.
DIAZI think people use different language and different behavior to code the kind of racial economy, the racial hierarchies. Now, as far as your question, I think that it's not only where one spends most of the time, but also how one gets politicized. Because I know Dominicans who have lived in Santo Domingo their whole life and have a very different political world view that allows them to understand the way race works in a place like Santo Domingo.
DIAZAnd I know people who lived their whole lives in New Jersey and think that racism doesn't exist, that we're all one people. And I think that it's important for us to understand that the world is a complicated thing, but that forces like racism and like sexism really are pervasive. They're stronger than we give them credit for. And even in places we don't think they exist, if you scratch a little bit, if you dig underneath, you begin to see their cold hard calculus operating there underneath our vision.
NNAMDIWhen you say cold hard calculus, does that calculus -- does that calculation include wealth? Is Sammy Sosa therefore viewed differently in the Dominican today now that he is a wealthy man than he was when he was young and poor?
DIAZNo question. No question. I mean, Sammy Sosa, the, you know, multimillionaire, is certainly having people call the clubs before he arrives and making sure they know he's coming.
NNAMDIThe same clubs he couldn't get into.
DIAZYes, so they can let him in. I mean, wealth has a wonderful way across the board of altering people's perceptions of you. Now, this doesn't change the fact that this calculus continues to operate. Because if I take Sammy Sosa's wealth away from him, just throw him on the street, he's still not getting into that club.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is Maria in Bethesda, Md. Maria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARIAHi, yes. I'm a huge fan of Mr. Diaz, and my question is the following: I think that he's a genius in how he uses Spanglish -- or I don't know if that's what it's called. I think that Mr. Diaz is just like the anti-melting pot of language. And I wonder how he keeps his use and jump from Spanish to English so fresh. He always has, like, the right word in Spanish to just to color the whole...
NNAMDIIt's 'cause he agonizes over it. But go ahead, please.
MARIAYeah, and I was just wondering what -- how does he keep himself current? Does he just have to go back all the time to Dominican Republic to just put an ear on the ground and see, you know, what's new and then incorporate it into his writing? Or does he -- is it just from what he remembers and what his parents and friends talk like? I mean, I'm just wondering.
DIAZThank you. You know, it's -- I'm like most of us, especially -- like, if you're a Dominican, you have your passport. You've got a little bit of lump money. If you're like me, you go back home a lot. I go back to Santo Domingo about three times a year, yeah? And so I run around the D.R., and, you know, I hang out with my friends.
DIAZAnd so, of course, you pick up an enormous language being home, but also, if you're like me and you're active and living in a Dominican community in the United States, you have a lot of Dominicans who just arrived. And they're bringing all their words. They're bringing all the songs. They're bringing all the...
NNAMDIAll the new slang.
DIAZEverything. And so I feel like I'm in both places. In the United States, I'm picking up a ton of stuff, and in Santo Domingo, I'm picking up a ton of stuff. You know, like, a friend of mine always says, they're like Junot, if you're in a car and it crashes, it's always you plus two other Dominicans. That's the way it always seems to be. So, yeah, I spend a lot of time with us.
NNAMDIA New York Times writer -- maybe this can help. A New York Times writer described you as, quoting here, "radically inclusive." You collect everything and distill it into your writing. Is that a conscious part of your craft?
DIAZWell, I think it's something -- I think it's something about the way I -- there's a democracy which I'm trying to approach with my art. Yeah? I mean, I grew up in an area of New Jersey where no one was dominant, you know, where there were African-Americans, where there were Puerto Ricans, where there were south Asians, where there were Dominicans, where there were Cubans, there were Columbians, there were mixed kids, there were Asians. I grew up around Koreans.
DIAZI grew up around Pinoy Filipinos. And I think when you're attempting to get at that world, you have to, with each attempt to create art, try to make your language and your art more and more democratic to try to widen the embrace because I'm still trying to embrace that universe I grew up with. And I haven't been able to. It's just too immense.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. The number is 800-433-8850. What do you think of how the relationship between men and women is represented in Junot Diaz's fiction? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Junot Diaz. His latest is a collection of short stories called "This is How You Lose Her." He's the recipient of this year's MacArthur Genius Grant, a finalist for the National Book Award. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Junot Diaz teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You're something of a tough critic of your own work. How do you know when a story or chapter is, well, good enough?
DIAZThat's a great -- Kojo, that's a great question. Part of it is you read as much as I do, the work that you've read tells you when it's done. All those little books just speak up. They sing. They're, like, done. But it's also like if you know dance -- like, you know, when you're a good dancer, if you know bachata, if you know salsa, you know when you've made a good turn, whether you have a mirror in front of you or not.
DIAZAnd I think that you get enough practice, eventually the very practice of it, your familiarity, your craft, tells you, you are done, and that's what I depend on because if I depend on my other part, that critical brain, nothing gets done.
NNAMDI'Cause you do a lot of reading outside of, obviously, your own craft of writing. You read at least one book a week or so. What does that reading tell you about your own work and when it's completed?
DIAZEverything. Everything. I'm telling you, it's like practicing a language. Every time I read a book, it's like a week of practicing a language called writing. And the more you practice, the more likely you are to just speak well.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Nadine in Washington. Nadine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NADINEOh, yes, hi. My name is Nadine. I'm originally from Haiti. I live in D.C., and I'm married to an African-American man. And I found that -- we've been reading your books together. Every time a book comes out, my husband reads it, and I read it. And it's given us way for us to understand at least for -- on his part to understand the immigrant experiences.
NADINEI've experienced it, and I think what's interesting is for the machismo that the Dominican men or at the same time the Haitian men have, they've managed to push and push and push their daughters in a lot of ways to achieve just about anything. And I have found that to be the case in my family. My dad has four daughters, and we've all gone to graduate school.
DIAZI love your dad, man. And you guys are rocking, too, man.
NADINEAnd I think, now that I'm married to somebody outside of the culture, it's given him a window into what my experience was like. When you're -- when you come into a city like Dorchester, Mass., it's a lot of it is you see what the African-American experience is, and you know you have a different experience. And there's a lot of choices that have to be made as to do you become, in a way, African-American, or do you retain sort of what makes you different?
NADINEAnd it's -- you don't always see yourself in terms of color, versus my husband, who's African-American, has always seen himself as black. And now that we have two boys, and we try to tell them they're Haitian-American and just projecting forward as to how they'll access your writing which one day we'll share with them.
DIAZYeah. No. I mean, I think there's not much to be added to that, to elaborate to that. It was a wonderful, wonderful intervention, and, you know, I share the same -- I think I share the same sort of -- the same perception of that contradiction because I look -- there's a character in "This is How You Lose Her."
DIAZShe grows up in the same kind of insanely patriarchal masculine world, and she ends up going to college. You look at Lola, the female protagonist in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," she grows up with this crazy patriarchal mother. And she ends up not only going to, you know, undergraduate, but going to grad school. And I think that this trend is not simply an accident.
NNAMDIHey, thank you very much for your call, Nadine. Do you have any trusted readers who give you feedback on your work to help you overcome your inner critic?
DIAZYeah. No. I do. I do. I think that for me the -- it's important for me to have people looking at my work. And, again, I'm one of those people who holds onto the work until it's nearly done before I show, so I don't access them a lot. Probably, like, once a year, maybe, my friends -- a group, a small group, will look at it, and what I love about them is that they're like me. They're real honest, and, you know, honesty with love is the best kind of honesty.
DIAZI don't like that honesty that comes from a random stranger or that honesty that comes from a frenemy, those people who tell you, you know, I'm honest, and you run from them. Run from them because that's just code for I'm aggressive. But my friends are honest without aggression, and that helps me with my work.
NNAMDIYou collect things, old photographs, newspaper clippings, notes to yourself. What do these mementos do for you and for your writing?
DIAZYou know, as an artist, we have to have more than just books. Well, at least I have to have more than books. I think newspapers, actual material things -- I've been doing that since I was a kid. I used to do a paper route. In fact, typical immigrant kid, I had all the paper routes morning and afternoon for my complex. And so I, you know, did two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon, and one of the things I did was I used to have extra papers. And I would cut out from the extra papers all the articles that I found interesting.
DIAZAnd it was the book of my life, and I was really politically interested as a kid. I was really interested in Argentina, South Africa, and Northern Ireland, these three -- three -- three -- three, like, hotspots in the '80s. And I used to collect all the articles about them. I think I just was like a -- kind of a little nerd, and to this day I still am a nerd. I need those sort of totems to activate me.
NNAMDISo when people ask you, to what extent is Yunior autobiographical, what do you say?
DIAZI'd say he's autobiographical only to a small limit. I mean, he's very, very different from me. My youthful sucio-ness (sic) was a lot different than his. The pain of my childhood, which shares some of the contours of his, is very different. I mean, Yunior is very solitary.
DIAZIf you look at him, he doesn't have a ton of friends, where me, you meet me, you hang out with me, you realize I have this really large network of friends. I'm very, very social in ways that Yunior is not. Like I said, Yunior's intelligence is, like, five times mine. I have to look stuff up to write him, where me, I don't have to look anything up. I'm sort of who I am.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is Kenneth in Annandale, Va. Hi, Kenneth.
KENNETHHello, Kojo and Mr. Diaz. It has to be kismet that I got in my car to hear this interview. I work in a book store. And, Mr. Diaz, I picked up your books quite a few years back when I was living back in California. And I remember reading it and laughing hysterically on the bus reading about your characters. I found "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" to be just this amazing book. I recommend it to quite a few people who shop in my book store. But I at least wanted to get onto the phone and say how much I admire your work.
KENNETHAnd some of the things that -- especially when you mention a lot to do with Tolkien, I had just finished reading one of Tolkien's books -- I think "The Silmarillion," and I was also into "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings," that trilogy -- and I found just how you connected the ring rates to the, I guess, hit men or death squads of Trujillo to be in some ways tragic, but in other ways incredibly humorous. But I just wanted to at least tell you how much I admired your work and thank you very much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kenneth, and I'm glad you brought up Trujillo because that's what Steve in Winchester, Va. would like to talk about. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead. Hi, Steve, are you there? Steve seems to have wandered off, just when I gave you that great lead-in, Steve, about Trujillo. Steve, are you there? Okay. I'm going to put Steve on hold, and let's talk for a minute with Erika in Fort Mead, Md. Hi, Erika.
ERIKAHi, Kojo Nnamdi. Thank you so much for taking my call.
ERIKAI have a question for your guest. I have not read your book yet. I have it on my list of books to read, but I was wondering, do you have very many fans who kind of had to live in both worlds of being Latino and white? My story is that I grew up in a very Latino home. My mother's from Nicaragua. And while -- and I was born in the States, so growing up, I kind of had to, like, interchange between two worlds. For the Hispanic community, I was too white, but for the white community, I was too Hispanic.
ERIKASo do you have very many fans, and if so, how do they -- can they kind of relate?
DIAZI mean, I -- again, I couldn't speak to how people relate to my book 'cause I can't kind of get in their heads, but I will tell you that any book, I think in my heart, maybe 'cause I'm like kind of a super generous reader, but any book that talks about how difficult it is to live in two worlds simultaneously when neither world wants to fully recognize your simultaneity should speak to this condition. Now, I've had -- believe me, I've had a number of Latinos who have been able to pass for white but haven't been able to.
DIAZAnd it always feels to me the same issue as a person like me who grew up more raced, more African descent. Again, the difficulties of trying to reconcile the complexity of who we are in a country like this one that wants people to only mark one box obsessively, is one that I think that we need to keep talking about. And hopefully you'll be able to read the book and say, wow, a lot of these issues are being talked about, but maybe not. That's my dream that it would actually connect with you.
ERIKAYeah. And I do want to kind of add that I do agree with it, and I really appreciate you kind of bringing that up 'cause for a long time I kind of felt like I had to be one thing or the other, not both...
DIAZYeah. No. Being both is the best way.
ERIKAYeah. So considering -- and with my children who are also multi-ethnic, you know, my husband being half-Asian and half-white, so it's, you know, it's really very refreshing to hear that, that it's okay to be both...
ERIKA...that you shouldn't have to be one or the other, so I really applaud you for that. And I thank you, and I'm very excited to read your book. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIErika, thank you very much for your call. Let's try Steve in Winchester, Va. again who wants to talk about Trujillo. Steve, are you there?
STEVEYes, thank you. Can you hear me?
STEVEThank you. Mr. Diaz, thank you very much. I read your work and others about the D.R. before a wonderful week there last January. My question is whether you think the Trujillo years may have affected the D.R. character in terms of gender roles and masculinity.
DIAZWell, no, of course. I mean, I don't mean to cut you off. Of course. Of course. Of course. Of course. But you also have to remember that Trujillo, the gender roles and masculinities, he simply took an old pattern and cranked it up to 11, yeah, to quote "Spinal Tap" so that sometimes it's hard to disentangle what was Trujillo and what was there before. I mean, you know, he basically took the island and turned it into a plantation and made himself the Massa.
DIAZNow, had plantation culture already been present as a historical trauma, as an historical echo? Yes. But did he kind of give it new life in the 20th century? Certainly. So sometimes it's hard to sort of, you know, put the finger on do we thank or curse the messenger? Or do we thank and curse -- it's always curse in my mind, but do we curse the message?
NNAMDIHere is Sally in Reston, Va. Sally, your turn.
SALLYI wondered if the author, Junot, has read any of Zadie Smith's books. I'm reading "NW," and I'm so glad he said, it's all right not to understand everything because I don't. But I can't stop reading it, and I'm getting the gist of it, of course. But I appreciated that comment, and I wonder if he has read her work.
DIAZI have. I have. And, listen, I love Zadie Smith, but just as far as being a reader, you know, we've got to let ourselves enjoy the experience. We've got to keep the person who grades the quiz off our shoulders while we're reading. Even if you didn't get the gist of it, the experience could be fun anyway.
NNAMDIGot an email from Simon who said, "I read in the August New Yorker -- I read the August New Yorker short story excerpted from your new collection, and I'm looking forward to reading the book in full. The story was set in Boston where I'm from. Can you talk about just how much you hate that city, whether you love it maybe a little bit, and about the relationship you have with all the cities you've lived in? What place in your heart and in your work do these cities occupy?"
DIAZYeah. Yeah. Yeah. No. Thank you so much. You know, it's funny because in the sort of -- in the last chapter of this book, I kind of take Boston on for the kind of white supremist racism that's present across the United States, but, you know, I decide to give Boston one on the nose. But, you know, I've done this for New Jersey as well. I do this for Santo Domingo, and, in fact, I thought it was kind of a funny gag in the last chapter to kind of go that route.
DIAZBut, again, I think for me, being able to be critical about a place, being able to point out a place's defects is the first step on the road to love, because if you love blindly, I don't believe that's a love at all. That's a patriotism, that's a nationalism that's really dangerous. I love Santo Domingo, love New Jersey, and I've got a lot of beautiful, wonderful friends in Boston. So I have great feelings towards it as well, positive feelings.
NNAMDIAnd I love "This is How You Lose Her," Junot Diaz's latest short story collection. He's the recipient of this year's MacArthur Genius Grant and a finalist for the National Book Award. Junot Diaz, always great to talk to you.
DIAZThank you so much, my brother.
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