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A Brief History of Junot Díaz
  • August 15, 2013 : 00:08
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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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read more: entertainment, books, interview, issue september 2013


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    wow - tao lin is the only commenter . . .