Below is an excerpt from a Q&A session with Mr. Diaz at Kepler's on March 21, which had roughly 250 attendees, according to Jean Forstner, executive director of the literary foundation. Mr. Diaz answered questions from both children and adults in the audience. Responses have been edited for length.
Q: Did you ever think about being a writer when you were young?
A: Do you know what I really wanted to do when I was young? I wanted to own a library. For real. I was so into books, and my family was so scary and didn't like to read, it was like a perfect match. They would never look for me in a library. So I thought I could own a library. And then I found out if you're a writer, it's kinda like the same thing.
Q: If you could do something, knowing that you'd succeed at it, what would it be?
A: If I could do something and I knew that I'd be really good at it, I don't think I'd want to do it. And I'm not just being a pain. But part of every endeavor is that we're not certain where it's going to take us. ... Knowing something, knowing a journey to its end for me neutralizes what's fascinating about the journey. It becomes instead of a mysterious labyrinth of experience, it becomes this determinative, already de-enchanted, weird paradigm. Who knows if you're going to be good at a marriage? Remember, most of what we're talking about can only be discovered in its praxis. And that's what's really difficult.
You could be like, "Yo, I'm the best boyfriend in the world," — wah wah — you discover you're not. So I guess I've always — this probably reveals a lot about how screwed up I am — I tend to throw myself away from my strengths. I always found it very easy to move away from the things I was good at. And I guess part of me likes — this seems ridiculous — but part of me never got away from the experience of learning English. My natural state is being bad at speaking the language. I enjoy being bad at whatever I'm doing. It's a weird thing. But it has been very generative for me.
Q: Do you plan to go back to speaking as a Dominican man, rather than as a Dominican woman, which you used in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"?
A: So I don't feel like I've ever written from a woman's voice. I feel like I've written from what a character like Yunior would like to think about a woman's voice. ...
The reality is I'm not the Bible. I am not a universal construct. My text is by its nature limited. I don't want all of you as readers. Not because I don't like you, but because that's the nature of literature. There's a reason we have so many damn books. Because we all need books. And we can't all have the same taste. ...
We don't need a Dark Lord because we have approval. And we're so desperate for approval, the high school regime, the high school paragon — we've mapped it over everything.
I don't want approval. I'm from an ex-dictatorship. You know what I want, which is far more interesting? I want a relationship. And a relationship has nothing to do with whether you like a person or not. That is simplistic. Most of us have profound relationships with people we are ambivalent with. Sometimes we're mad at them, sometimes we like them, sometimes there's other things going on. If we are judging everything, because it's likable, or we're likable, we lose all of the complexity of what holds us to anything.
And one of the tricks that I learned in this country is that is a trap. Everyone is so desperate to be liked. I mean, shoot, who doesn't want to be popular? Who doesn't want smoochies? Who doesn't want when you walk in for people to clap? But I grew up in a country where everybody liked a genocidal lunatic. And I'm not certain that being liked is something that is a good idea at any level. None of us, I think, are good enough for us not to deploy that in malign ways. Who is so responsible that you can hold somebody's like of you without using that? I don't feel that responsible.
Q: What was it like for you getting to know and understand Afro-Latino and incorporating that into your writing?
A: In the United States it's so easy to disavow the nightmare foundation of a nation. We live in a country where people are like "Oh, slavery, that happened a long time ago, why are you people still thinking about it?"or "Oh, the genocide of indigenous people, eh, that was old history." In a place like the Dominican Republic, it is almost impossible for you not to be surrounded by all the markers of what occurred. I live in a nation that is completely haunted by all the obliterated indigenous presence. ... We're in a haunted house, and then we can't get away from the fact of our blackness. And not only that, the agony of what it meant to be a person of African descent on islands that were nothing more and nothing less than plantation sites. Ultimately when it came down to it, they were work death camps. ...
I ended up growing up near a plantation. My grandfather cut sugar cane. My grandfather was a man of African descent. Before I left for the United States, my grandfather ... grabbed me and said, "You're the descendant of slaves. You used to have to cut this (until) you died. Never forget that."
And of course I promptly forgot. Because we come to countries like this one that insist that we forget everything but whiteness, and that we have no relationship over our love of whiteness. And that we should never identify with anyone but our white perpetrators. It took me a long time to remember that. To remember what my grandfather said. ... It doesn't matter that I don't satisfy anybody's fantasy of what blackness is. I don't care. I might not look black enough for y'all. Guess what? You're not the judge.
Q: What has been the reception of your work among family members, and how has it affected your relationships?
A: Nobody in my family understands me as a writer. I was Junior long before I was a writer. And I was him for so long that that's the pattern. ... I have a completely different life outside of being an artist and I really like that life. And I like my friends. And I don't want to turn my art into shop talk. One of the reasons I spend so little time around writers is because writers are so tedious. ... How in the world can we pay attention to the world, which is what we're supposed to be doing as artists, when we're surrounded by this constant professional crap we throw up?
Q: I feel like in your work, you're unpacking (family) trauma. How do you deal with separating your family from your writing?
A: For many of us, we're dealing with intergenerational transfer. We're dealing with a lot of not only trauma but a lot of confusion, pain, nostalgia — weird stuff that ends up happening. And it's been with us for a very long time. And figuring out, how do we metabolize things we have not begun to put names on, is not the easiest thing to do. ...
I do think all the basic stuff is what works the best. And what's the basic stuff? You know the deal. You need solidarities, which means you need people that can be in a community with you to help you process and confront, but also when you're bearing witness to your pain. Bearing witness doesn't mean you say what happened. Bearing witness doesn't mean that you write it down. Bearing witness means that you tell somebody who's sympathetic to what you're going through and they hold it and resonate. ...
The best way to metabolize pain is to size it correctly. If you are hurt, or I'm hurt, chances are, it is the wrong size in us. It grabs hold of us and it seems to have more weight than ever. ... What you forget most when you're in pain is that you have agency. How do you remember that you have agency as you're processing pain?
You do that by helping other people. You want to size your pain correctly? I come from a really broken, messed-up family. I have the burden of deep poverty, and I'm thinking, "Wow, all these things are on top of me." I'm being encouraged just to suffer and not to remember the complexity of disenfranchisement and of agency. And even more importantly, of privilege. Because when we're processing our pain, our privilege disappears. When I help other people, I find somebody more disenfranchised with less privilege than me. Two things happen psychologically when you're helping other people: It helps you contextualize your pain. You're like, "Wow, my parents, my ancestry suffered a lot. But I'm at Stanford. Or I'm at Rutgers. And this person doesn't speak English and has a family of three, and is trying to get the proper medical care for their child and doesn't have a car, and lives with abusive relatives who threaten to throw them out."
Wow, suddenly my pain doesn't disappear, but it becomes the correct size, and what you start to remember is that you have agency.
And then even more important, you remember you have privilege. That's been the biggest problem about suffering pain. Your privilege disappears. And if you can maintain your privilege, maintain your sense of agency, size it correctly, (and) help other people, you can process these things at a way better rate, way more healthfully, and understand that all those fractures we carry in our heart are what connects us to everyone else.
I don't want to be on the team with Harry Potter.
I know you like Harry Potter. I want to be on the team with all the people who did not make it to Hogwarts. We're the reality, we're the real deal. Everything that's broken about us ties us to every other human that's broken.
This story has been shortened for publication in print. Go to almanacnews.com to access more online.
This story contains 1817 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.