A Brief History of Junot Díaz

Photography by Miller Mobley/Redux

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The writing career of Junot Díaz has followed a trajectory that would give any aspiring author a moment of pause. The first story he ever published led directly to an agent and his first book, the thoroughly lauded story collection Drown. Perfect beginning. But then time passed. Ten years. Drown had set the hook so securely into his readership that, as those years passed, we (as I am complicit) took more notice of the lack of a next book. His second book (and first novel), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was finally published in 2007. It won a Pulitzer (along with every other imaginable prize) and cooled everyone’s nerves with the assurance that Díaz was not a onetime deal. Some obstacles had just needed to be vaulted: the pressure and expectation that accompany any sophomore effort, a less than ideal teaching job on the secluded campus of Syracuse University and a spell of writer’s block on top. These all blended together in keeping the writing game, or at least the one Díaz was playing, as full of hope as it was full of the looming possibility of disappointment and failure. Although failure is too strong a word. If you write Drown, you win.

When the terms first novel and Pulitzer got together, they may have ruffled the white feathers of the literary world a bit. To present such a drooled-over prize to a youngish writer with only one prior book was proof that Díaz’s writing embodied the metaphorical “breath of fresh air” critics had so habitually described it to be. His Pulitzer nab was also proof that the literary world needed new oxygen. Díaz’s prose can go from lit class to street corner in the turn of a phrase. For whatever reason (be it racism or the ineptitude of the writer attempting it), this usually works out for next to no one. He kind of owns it now.

I spoke with literary giant Edmund White about the importance of Díaz. “Americans are ashamed of class and very afraid to write about it,” White told me over the phone. “Books about class struggle have been replaced with books about gauche, privileged Americans. Díaz doesn’t do that. He’s working from the inside, describing the immigrant experience, and he is a terribly serious person when it comes to writing.” For the young black writer Mitchell S. Jackson, author of The Residue Years, “Junot is important because, more than anyone else I can think of, he’s in the sweet spot: critically strong and wildly popular. He’s like a bridge between street soldiers and literary prima donnas, bringing people to serious literature who wouldn’t be there without him and all the while satisfying the all-powerful canonizers.” Michiko Kakutani from The New York Times, a reviewer notorious for going completely relentless bitch on many a good book, has always gushed over Díaz’s writing. Finding detractors is a formidable task.

Díaz’s third book and second collection of stories, This Is How You Lose Her (out now in paperback), was equally well received, and we had to wait only five years this time. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Díaz was awarded the 2012 MacArthur Fellowship (known as the ­genius grant) to the tune of $500,000 shortly after its publication. This Is How shifts the focus back onto the character of Yunior, narrator of Brief Wondrous Life, star of Drown and fictional version of the young Díaz. The parallels between Díaz’s life and Yunior’s are so sticky it gets you wondering how the terms fiction and nonfiction were initiated in literature (rather than, say, the past and everything else) and how long they will continue to be applied. They are also so sticky that I embarrassingly began to talk to Díaz about the death of his brother, his brother who is alive, because the two worlds had fused in my head.

“Kind of a dick” is how Díaz had once been described to me, but that description was given by someone who actually is a dick in real life, so I had already deduced that Díaz was cool. He 100 percent was. I met him in front of the Tribeca Grand in downtown Manhattan, and the moment we shook hands, my suspicions that there was nothing dick about this guy were confirmed. You know when you meet someone and you feel as if you have a good friend in common, but you don’t? It was like that. I was relieved, because he was preparing to take me in his car over to Parlin, New Jersey for a few hours, and I’d rather spend the day with someone I like.

Díaz is a thin (thin as in in-shape, not thin as in frail) Dominicano in his mid-40s whose appearance, gesticulations and language have retained much of their youth. Shaved head. Goatee. Modestly, but nicely, dressed. (He’d texted before our meeting to see if he needed to shave for photos. I assured him he did not and that I was looking a little sans home myself.) Díaz is a genuinely pleasant person to be around. He is one of the friendliest, and least writerly, writers I’ve ever met. There is not a drop of social awkwardness about him, and he doesn’t noticeably censor himself before speaking. And I, almost as a rule, like anyone who says “fuck” a lot, if only because it takes a little heat off my own trash mouth. After we got into his car (low-key, black, Bavarian) and I had turned on the recorder, I became so comfortable in his presence that I almost forgot I was doing a piece on him.

Besides the occasional short story (and a good chunk of his novel) taking place in the Dominican Republic, the rest of Díaz’s writing is set in the suburbs of New Jersey. He, his mother and his siblings had moved from the DR to Parlin when he was six to join Díaz’s father, who’d immigrated years before. Díaz was to show me around the neighborhood where he grew up, the inspiration for the hometown of Yunior. The closer we got, the more frequently he began to point things out to narrate. About a mile from our destination he described the neighboring town of Sayreville: “Bon Jovi country. Working class, old folks, starter homes. Big, big Polish immigrant community that got basically organized after World War II. You know, a lot of refugees, a lot of immigrants.” We drove down the strip of road that had been his first glimpse of America. He recalled hearing his father announce, “We’re here!” and then seeing his first great shrine to American capitalism, the golden arches of a McDonald’s.

“There used to be a porn theater right over there, but across the highway on our side was the standard movie theater, so we were always, like, super fucking proud of that,” he recalled. “In many ways that movie theater was my World Wide Web. The only access I had to the world outside this neighborhood was TV and movies.” He went to the theater every week. He started working his first job, a paper route, around the age of 11 so he could pay for his entrance to the movies. “It was my first narrative love.”

You never know what you’re going to get when someone takes you to a place of their past, because all pasts are filled with varying degrees of at least some bad shit. I don’t know if it was the perfect weather of that particular spring morning, the side effects of the pain meds Díaz was taking for recent spinal surgery or the fact that he was the day’s assigned representative of the geographical chunk that had molded him, but he beamed and appeared joyful as he looked around, pointed things out, remembered. I know his fiction well, and to be shown in the tangible what before had lived only in the space between the page and my imagination was a rare and appreciated thing. I was enjoying the tour, drinking it all in. Listening to Díaz talk is a lot like reading him. The voice you hear when you read him? That’s his real voice. That’s how it sounds. I feel most writers don’t exhibit a strong enough personality to manifest itself on the page, but I’m still surprised when I meet a writer who doesn’t match up to his work. It’s usually a case of “This person? Wrote that?” As soon as Díaz begins to speak, you become preternaturally aware that no one else could have written that.

The neighborhood was clean and without ostentation, but its lawns were well manicured. Everyone was at work or in school, and it seemed uninhabited. He slowed the car down and pulled into the parking lot of the apartment building where he and his family lived from 1974 to 1989. Two story, red-orange brick with white trim, no frills. We got out of the car, and he showed me around. I saw the window of the famous basement that appears in his fiction. The basement behind that window is where Yunior and his older brother take girls, smoke weed and watch TV, among other things. “This was us,” he said. “Until real recently we still had our little signatures carved in the concrete.” This was maybe the only time I saw a look of disappointment on his face. “They redid the concrete.”

He showed me the facade of a neighboring apartment building and told me how they used to think—because the porch had fake Georgian pillars—its residents were wealthy. “Which of course wasn’t the case. The most thuggish motherfuckers I ever knew in this town lived right there. The straight-up illest thug, Tyrone, like, to the end, to the very last day I lived in this neighborhood, was still hustling. When we were moving out he was like, ‘Yo, mind if I just, like, crash in the house and stash some shit in there for a few days once you guys are gone?’ I said, ‘Dude, we’ll be gone, yo. Do whatever the fuck you need.’?” Díaz is a guy you could trust with your stash, or at the very least he’s a guy who would let you keep your stash in his home once he was long gone and would never rat you out.

“My first girlfriend in the world lived right there in that building,” he said, pointing across the parking lot. “I still remember. I was such a kid. And I was so different from my brother, who was like this crazy playboy growing up. He was only a year older, but we could have been born on different ­planets.” By the time his brother was 10, he was already messing around with the neighborhood girls. Díaz remembers the first time a girl asked him to kiss her: “I was maybe 12, and I was so scared I almost shat myself. My brother of course derided me for not trying to fuck her. I still remember that conversation, where he’s like, ‘The fuck’s wrong with you, man?’ There was absolutely no perspective.”

On the other side of a building nearby used to live a man who claimed to be a Green Beret Vietnam veteran but who turned out to be one of those survivalist dudes who keep military-strength tear gas in the basement. Something happened, and a bunch of the canisters cracked open and flooded the entire neighborhood, including the building Díaz’s family lived in. “The worst part of it—this is the thing I never forgave this dude—is that he had locked up two of his Doberman pinschers in the basement with the gas, and they were driven insane by it. So when they came out of there they just started attacking everybody, and the cops had to shoot them.”

The neighborhood has changed since the late 1980s. It was tougher back then. Everything was viewed in relation to a massive landfill situated less than a mile from Díaz’s home. “You see all the parking lots over there?” he asked, pointing. “That was a trailer park. Just to give you a sense of the medieval organization of people’s lives, the trailer-park kids used to look down on the kids who lived here. That was the ­hierarchy. The kids who lived closer to the school were the elites, then came the ­trailer-park kids, then came us. We were at the bottom.” He remembers trying to hit on a girl from the trailer park and her looking at him “like I had a disease. She literally said, ‘No way. You smell of garbage.’ And of course we didn’t, but that was the thing that was always said. It was so hurtful. I remember lying in bed with tears in my eyes, thinking, How the fuck do I get out of here?”

We walked over to take a look at the landfill, where, he said, thousands of gulls once hovered, “shitting all over everything.” Toxic chemicals had been illegally dumped there over time, and it had never been properly sealed, thus exposing the community to the chemicals. Just a few years ago the husband of an ex-girlfriend of ­Díaz’s led a team that went in to cap it. We stood on top of the hillside that overlooks the sealed landfill. It was far below us and seemed to expand for miles. The view, of what was essentially the lid to the largest trash can in New Jersey, was not unbeautiful. A thick blue patch running up the right side looked like a stretch of flora on a Dutch postcard. “That color,” he said, “it almost looks like—what’s that shit called?” I offered lavender. “Yeah, maybe lavender,” he said. “Or maybe something else.”

Walking back to the car, Díaz told me that a friend of his who stayed in the neighborhood until two years ago said to him, “In my lifetime we went from madness to living in a retirement community.” When they were growing up, the neighborhood sounded younger, wilder. Drugs, sex, small crimes and the other beautiful parts of youth were allowed more freedom and room to flourish. The only aspect of his hometown that he seemed ashamed of was the quality of the graffiti. “We had the shittiest graffiti artists around here,” he said. The children who live in the neighborhood now are apparently more well-behaved, and things look promising. It inspires him to see his old community come up. “We were totally different,” he said. “I think I was the only kid I knew who had a mom who actually liked her kids and was pretty stable. My house was like the safe house. We had so many mattresses in our house because so many people would end up crashing there.”

We got back in the car and drove toward the local library. At first, like most kids, he wasn’t really into reading. He didn’t delve into classic literature until much later, when he was at Rutgers. A particular librarian took Díaz under her wing while he was still very young. She didn’t speak Spanish, so she had to pantomime how to use the facility. She found him a children’s illustrated version of The Sign of Four, the Sherlock Holmes novel of colonial revenge. “I learned to read on that book, and that book changed my life,” he said. “I never knew you could live in your head this way, and the idea of this guy who, through his intelligence and his powers of observation, could make sense of the world. That was like a fantasy of consolation. I was like, Damn, I wish I could make sense of my world just by paying attention.” The librarian then got him into Tom Swift books. “I was such a fucking nerd. My mom always cracked on me about this. She’d say, ‘You’re nothing to look at, but man, once you start talking, people will do shit for you.’”

He didn’t have any friends at that time who read like he did, so he had no one to bounce his thoughts off of until an Egyptian boy named Hisham moved to the neighborhood. They became fast friends and would later attend Rutgers together. “Hisham’s family had all the trappings of middle-class society that everyone else in town lacked,” Díaz said. Hisham’s mother took Díaz to the YMCA, which he hadn’t known existed, as well as signed him up for his first book club. When he told her he wanted to be a writer when he got older, she gave him his first dictionary. He was 15 at the time, and writing was something he wanted to do, but his dream was to be a history professor. I, along with many other readers, learned about Trujillo and the history of the Dominican Republic from Brief Wondrous Life, so that dream has been fulfilled, if only partially. Díaz remembers suffering from a sense of despair when he read because there was hardly any sign of who he was, or who he had been, inside the books he was reading. He loved Stephen King, but there were no mentions of anyone representing the community he knew. Dick Hallorann, the black hotel chef in The Shining, was a big deal for him.

We drove past a pizzeria that was involved in the Pizza Connection mob scandal of the 1980s. “The owner was moving weight out of there, and he got chopped up. Some ill competitor, some beef. When you’re a kid and there’s stuff like this happening, you’re like, Wait a minute; there’s this whole other world. It goes to show you how naive I was. I always thought all our drug shit was kids, and I don’t know why I didn’t think there would be adults involved in this, but this shit was coming from somewhere. As a kid, when you don’t fully understand everything, it takes little leaps like that, man.”

We parked the car in front of the library and walked inside. Díaz excused himself to use the bathroom. When he came back out, he picked up a book on display, Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang, and complimented it. Aside from the librarians, no one else was there. I asked if people still went to libraries, and he assured me they did, just not now, apparently, and that it was a perfect place to let your rugrats, if you had any, run around. He doesn’t have any himself. We were surrounded by books in a place he’d already told me about, a place where talking (the point of our meeting) was the opposite of what you are supposed to do in there. The flow of our conversation was being stifled, so we left.

We had lunch at a Latino diner in Perth Amboy, a neighboring town to Parlin. They didn’t serve beer, but I’d brought a bottle of homemade wine in my bag, which they kindly let me open, and handed us cups. The pain meds kept Díaz from joining me in a glass (which is odd, because I think those two go so well together), but he had a sip. We ate meat, plantains, rice and beans, and talked. At a certain point he was the one asking all the questions and I was talking to him about myself, telling him stories from my past. I was volunteering some pretty personal shit. I was divulging secrets. His mom had been right. Once he starts talking, people do shit for him. It felt as though I was cramming in too much information, telling my best stories too quickly. I might have felt I was in some way repaying him for talking to me. I was a little starstruck and trying too hard to please. He’d just met me a few hours earlier, but I had known and liked him (or at least some fictional, tweaked-gene version of him that I’d seen in Yunior) ever since I’d first read Drown.

Díaz currently splits his time between New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he teaches creative writing and comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been employed there for 10 years. Díaz has never been married but currently has a girlfriend. A book of science fiction, something that has been on the back burner for a long time, is what we’re told to expect next. A portion of it appeared in The New Yorker’s science fiction issue under the title “Monstro.” Díaz has had a lifelong affair with science fiction. He is a fanatic for (and also a friend of) Samuel R. Delaney. He has attempted to write sci-fi in the past but says it never completely worked out. He worked on this book after the publication of Drown while simultaneously writing Brief Wondrous Life. As he went back and forth between the two manuscripts, the page count of the latter began to stack up at a faster rate and won his undivided attention until it was complete. He has also mentioned a desire to write six or seven books focusing on the character Yunior that together would work as one long piece. His intentions to publish a work of science fiction have always seemingly been thwarted by Yunior. So whether the sci-fi work is what we see next or not, Yunior seems bound to reappear at some point. As to when the next book will be published, I wouldn’t wait in line outside the bookstore yet. He puts the time in.

You know that cliché about the literary world being stuffy and boring and how all the books are written by privileged white males? That’s one of those clichés that’s fucking true. Some will argue that it’s not (or that it’s rapidly changing), but it is (and it can change faster). The disproportionately small number of books written by women and minorities is an issue.

I asked him about the question of variety in relationships. He said a friend of his who has been married for 17 years told him the greatest challenge of marriage was “the same old ass, man.” I think this can be­applied to certain periods in the history of American literature. When things get tired and you don’t like any of the books coming out, it feels like the same old ass you’ve grown tired of fucking/reading. For many, Díaz and the caliber of his writing renewed an old vow to American fiction.

A recurring theme in This Is How You Lose Her is men’s infidelity to women. “I think a lot of this is him,” Díaz said, referring to his father. “The source of the art is how intimacy does work and how it does not work.” When Díaz was a child, his father would take him along to wait in the car while he went inside for extramarital visits. Díaz wanted his father’s love and thought the price of being a good son was to keep his father’s secrets, even though he was simultaneously keeping them from his mother and the rest of his family. “I mean, look at me and my siblings. We’re five, and none of us has been in a normal marriage. None. Five kids.” We were standing outside the restaurant, having a cigarette before he drove me back to the city, when he said, “This life takes a lot more courage than I ever gave it credit for. When I was growing up around here I was always fantasizing heroic shit without realizing that what was shaping up was going to be the greatest heroic adventure of them all: trying to live and be a decent human being. That shit takes more courage than I ever had.”


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