Junot Díaz (Tiye)Tiye Sheppard standing with Junot Díaz at Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, CA.

Identity, Dictators, and Apocalypse: An Interview with Junot Díaz

Written by Tiye Sheppard

In September, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview him during his visit to the Bay Area. Díaz is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Drown,” Pulitzer Prize winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and recent release “This is How You Lose Her.” He is also the recipient of the 2012 MacArthur ‘Genius Grant.’ Though I originally planned to ask him about his latest book, our conversation took a historical journey. We discussed everything from his fascination with Apocalypse to the documentary “Black in Latin America.”

Please enjoy the transcript below. It will leave you feeling more knowledgeable, just as I did after our interview.

TS: Your books include many aspects unique to Dominican culture. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, his family is cursed by the ‘fukú,’ which Oscar dismisses as Dominican folklore. Do you think fukú is real?

JD: Fukú is an argument about history. It’s not actually an argument about destiny. Which is to say that if it was an argument about destiny then Oscar would have been doomed. But the thing is Oscar gets a second chance. He gets beat up in the sugar can field and he goes back. So I think fukú in a sense from my mind — I’m less interested in the supernatural damnation of it, as more than I am as an argument for history. The history, even if we don’t know it, works on us.

TS: So, clearly of course being Dominican influences your work, do you ever feel that because your books are so successful, you are also responsible for constantly representing Dominicans?

JD: Not at all. I’m a Dominican nerd from New Jersey who grew up in a very particular family and I write from a point of view that is one dot in the universe. People always want to generalize and assume that somehow you can learn something about a whole culture based on one person, and I think it’s not all that useful. Now if Dominican readers want to say, ‘hey this book is a mirror, and this book allows me to see me,’ that’s on them. And that’s great and I enjoy that but that’s not what I’m up to.

TS: Have you heard that Drown is banned in Arizona?

JD: Of course I have. I do as much work as possible around the whole Arizona thing.

TS: So, at USF actually we’re holding a solidarity reading of Drown. What was your personal reaction about the banning?

JD: My personal reaction had nothing to do with, ‘oh, my book was banned,’ it was because this is a larger sort of attack. This is part of the conservative attempt to marginalize, demonize, and victimize the Latino community, but also more broadly the institutions and programs that used to provide the critical lens for the kind of social struggles we need to resist these sorts of attacks. And so this is about attacking ethnic studies at the same time about attacking Latinos, and trying to make their lives untenable. It’s almost satanic, and it shows a lot about how deeply seeded anti-latinoness is in this country.

TS: How do you see your personal beliefs and your own life experiences reflected in your books? 

JD: I mean I don’t know. I think the issue is -- I think that what’s at stake for me is that I know that my books are an attempt for me to get at what matters to me. As a Dominican, as a person from New Jersey, a person of African descent, as a nerd, as someone who grew up very poor, as someone who grew up exactly in the family I grew up with: Virtud is my mother, Rafael is my father, Rafael is my brother, Marisabel is my sister, Maritza is my sister, and Pauly is my little brother. And this is incredibly particular but at the same time I’m not sure that I can explain something that is as mysterious as writing. I think that everything I do in my books is a struggle to understand what happened to me in my life. Whether as an immigrant, whether as a Dominican, whether it’s a person in my family, and I don’t always try to understand it in a literal way that like I’m going to write a family drama to get at my family. Sometimes what you do is you create metaphors. The Trujillato*, the dictatorship, is as much about the relationship with my father as it is anything but that’s not clearly apparent. 

*Trujillato refers to the violent regime of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo who controlled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.

TS: How do you feel about, particularly Dominican Americans, not identifying with a lot of African Americans, or just even identifying as African descendants?

JD: Well -- but I think these are generalizations that are not helpful. They can be useful but I think generally Latinos -- Dominicans get a very bad rap. If you saw “Black in Latin America,” he (Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.) makes it seem that Dominicans are pathologically anti-black, which is absolutely absurd. Everybody in the African diaspora community has self-hatred. And I think that what’s really interesting about a place like Dominican Republic, and which he ignored in his attempt to create this strange dichotomy between the valiant, pro-black Haitians and the self-hating, evasive Dominicans, is that he avoids the fact that for example Dominicans in the United States are the Latinos that most highly identify as black in all of the demographics. So when you look at the 2010 census, Puerto Ricans identify as black at 12%, Cubans at like 2%, Dominicans at 70%. And so I don’t understand why, and for example in the Dominican Republic we have a black millenarian movement that resisted the US invasion in 1916, 17, and 18, and that’s Liborio. And so there is sort of the pervasive survival of all sorts of African forms and African belief systems, and African languages. And I just think that his was an incredibly unhelpful calumnious mischaracterization, and among black scholars there tends to be this simplification of the Dominican Republic as this sort of self-hating polity and in this way it allows them to escape how profoundly pervasive self-hatred is within the African diaspora community. If we are representative of anything, it’s how all of us suffer from the same patterns we find in the Dominican Republic. Perhaps what they’re troubled by is that perhaps we’re more explicit and honest about things that are embedded or because we suffered a genocide based on our blackness, that we’re traumatized, therefore this thing is attenuated. But I think for them to say, anyone to say we are somehow a special case in the diaspora without understanding sort of the historical conditions that created a community traumatized for blackness, I think that that is the most unhelpful scholarship I’ve ever encountered and I would argue to skip Gates’ documentary which is part of that whole black legend of Dominican anti-blackness, [which] is at best a delusion and at worst is a kind of slander.

TS: That’s really powerful because USF held a discussion about that segment of the documentary and had the opposite response.

JD: Absurd.

TS: It was a complete misrepresentation.

JD: Sure, misrepresented and attacked. I mean this is what we call imperial blackness. Now what’s hilarious about this is that he is reproducing without even knowing it the journey of Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass goes to the Dominican Republic in the 1860’s under Ulysses Grant to do a survey of the Dominican Republic to see if they’re ‘too black’ to be integrated into the United States. And he goes down to DR and sees if they’re ‘black enough’ and it’s the same thing that happens in Santo Domingo with the genocide where there’s a test, are you too black or are you not black enough. And I see this linked history as how desperate people are to a community like ours which is very mixed, very very different than other people, and they’re always trying to get us to pass their ‘litmus test’ Are you black enough? Are you not black enough? There’s these ‘Perejil Men,’ the men who want us to say perejil* and they afflict us and I believe that Henry Louis Gates is a perfectly new example of this. And we’ll always have these people on top of us. And we always have to resist them.

*Perejil refers to la Masacre de Perejil (Parsley Massacre) of 1937 in which dictator Trujillo ordered the slaughtering of all Haitians living within Dominican border towns. Approximately 20,000 Haitians were killed during five days. The word ‘perejil’ was used to test whether a person spoke Spanish or Haitian Creole. Those who could not pronounce ‘perejil’ in perfect Spanish were killed.

TS: We’ll thank you for answering that for me. So back to the questions I actually wrote down. I was reading Monstro in the New Yorker and I just want to know what is your fascination with the end of the world?

JD: Well I grew up in a country that the world has ended multiple times. I mean first of all the indigenous people were all killed. I mean think about that, the ground zero, the extermination of indigenous people in the world, begins in Santo Domingo. One world, done. Millions of Africans were enslaved and imported and worked to death. World two, ended. The Spanish empire abandoned Santo Domingo to focus on Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Columbia. World three, ended. It goes on, and on, and on. It’s a country that has apocalypse written in its very bones. And then it’s not -- my preoccupation is not helped by growing up during the height of the Cold War, where at every minute of the day we were reminded in the news that we were one slip away from atomic annihilation. And therefore not only do I see my life through a Dominican apocalyptic lens but through a New Jersey apocalyptic lens, and I guess the way my psychology fell out I became super interested in this thing-- in this area.

TS: Wow, well I really look forward to seeing how the story unfolds. Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this interview. I really appreciate it.