‘An immigrant is always a traitor’

Author Junot Diaz talks about immigrant selves and the shrinking room for contemplative art.

Written by Sudeep Paul | New Delhi | Published:January 30, 2011 1:03 pm

Author Junot Diaz talks about immigrant selves and the shrinking room for contemplative art.

Junot Diaz,42,is a Dominican-American writer and academic. His The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao received the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. His collection of short stories,Drown,was published in 1996. Diaz’s work has received high critical acclamation.

The New Yorker,where his short fiction has often been published,cites him among the top 20 writers of the 21st century. Born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic,Diaz was raised in New Jersey,where his novel is set. The title refers to Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and deals with the predicament of the Dominican Republic under dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo.

Diaz teaches creative writing at MIT. He is claimed to be at the forefront of the generation of American writers that will succeed the generation of Philip Roth. Sudeep Paul caught up with him on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Excerpts:

You arrived in the United States as a six-year-old from Santo Domingo. Yet you’ve been in close contact with the Dominican Republic (DR). What do you think of Mario Vargas Llosa’s “dictator novel”,The Feast of the Goat? As an outsider,how close do you think he came to capturing Dominican history,the tensions that survived the Trujillo era?
One person’s opinion can never hope to capture what a novel does. With that qualification,Vargas Llosa’s Feast of the Goat is actually one of his strong novels. It shows why he was given the Nobel. It’s an incredibly good novel about the cost of a dictatorship. But a very poor novel about the Trujillato,the actual Trujillo dictatorship.

I think it’s more of a novel about the Latin American experience — the Peruvian,the Brazilian — than about that of the DR. Because what’s fascinating about the Dominican case —unlike say a Peru,a Brazil,or an India — is that it’s an isolated half-island with very,very little by way of narrative resources that permit various kinds of survival.

We’re looking at a people overwhelmingly isolated,with no access to any kind of external narrative,whether radio,TV,magazines,newspapers,or books. And the DR was basically an atomised,amnesiac state. Go anywhere in the 1800s in India and folks had a sense of continuity with history,someone could talk of an ancestor,to whom they could reach back.

Whereas,in the DR,because of its history of slavery,people couldn’t talk to you about more than 30 years in the past. So Santo Domingo was extraordinarily vulnerable to a dictator. We could think of roadways cut off,a landowner mapping over the country.

How do Dominicans see you,now that you are an American writer? Do you face the accusations levelled at,say,Milan Kundera,that once you leave the country you don’t know it anymore?
This is a question that will never stop bedevilling an immigrant. It’s a powerful charge,but it’s also a consolation. It’s the way the home country consoles itself for not being wealthy enough,not being healthy enough,to have provided for its people.

My sense is that an immigrant,whether he leaves at 50 or at six,is always a traitor. Because it’s always easier to blame the immigrant,than to think about the conditions that made an immigrant necessary. As for me,I’m a weird character. I left at six,I grew up in a very closed Dominican family which spoke only Spanish.

I constantly hear this joke from Indians here about Indians in the US — that they know all the dances,they have all the instruments,that they take their Indianness so seriously. Young people here keep saying to me,“I wish they didn’t try so hard!”

The accusation that they live in a time-warp,not knowing or forgetting that the country of origin has changed?
Well,I’m one of the children of the time-warp. But the difference for someone like me was that once I got my passport status regularised,I was going back to Santo Domingo about three times a year.

Now,it doesn’t do anything to rebut the accusations. But,when it comes to Dominican society,because I return so often,because I’ve family there,because I’ve language and a certain amount of cultural knowledge,I get a very… I wouldn’t say special,but get a much closer perspective.

I am not nailed to my class,geography,language. So when I wrote my novel ,various,different people from various,different groups,which normally don’t communicate at all,kept saying,“How did you know this about us? You weren’t from here. You are not of our social class,you were not a member of the wealthy league.” I joke that I was able to cross back and forth. It’s great for a writer. But I still spend every day of my life,[with the feeling of Bleak House,of being on the dock,the accusation that I’m a traitor to my nation. And nothing I would ever do could get me off that dock. That’s what it feels to be an immigrant who is still connected with his people. People are not happy with us. We can do nothing to make them happy. (Laughs)

Is there any sense of the double alienation that’s characterised so much of immigrant fiction in the US,for instance the double alienation that made Jewish-American fiction possible?
How can there be a double alienation when there was never “Home”? My permanent home is these two places.

Do you universalise the spot you’re occupying at the moment?
I didn’t know anything but two worlds. People like to think that they’re divided,they’re hyphenated. But really,you are two. Both people argue that two isn’t double but incomplete.

With Drown,how do you respond to the critical accusation that much of fiction is autobiographical,especially when it tells “marginal”experience?
It’s one of those strange accusations. The lives of people of colour in the US get fetishised. It’s either under an enormous amount of scrutiny or it’s completely ignored,depending on the strategy.

I don’t think writers of colour write any more autobiographically than white writers. When a group of white kids sits together,nobody notices. But when there’s a group of black kids sitting together,there’s immediately the accusation of self-segregation: Why do you always stick to your own people? We’re being falsely accused of something that we all do. That’s mean because it’s a way to diminish the literary talent of the person writing,by focussing simply on the broadest biographical lines.

What do you think of the doomsdayers’ forecast for the future of the novel?
The question really comes down to what magicians call “misdirection” — getting you to look at my right hand because I’m doing something with my left hand. This pervasive pessimism about the novel is actually misdirection. What’s really at stake in our hyper-capitalist world is whether there is room for contemplative art. Will there be a place for you to sit or go out every day without having to be connected? The novel is just the most vulnerable or the lushest example of contemplative art. The thing that really demands you to drop out. If you go to see a play,you’ve already paid to drop out. But a novel actually depends on you,building a playhouse wherever you are.

How does the Latin American novel continue to influence you?
I’m a reader and I know one of the languages (Spanish). In one part,it’s just simple love. Like you love to eat. I’m allowed to eat into this extra area. The other is beyond sheer pleasure. There are parts of me that exist in Latin America. In parts of the world where the electricity doesn’t always go on,where —like the streets we look on here — human life is not a constant privilege,where class and caste and regional differences (I’m talking about the DR,which is a medieval

Spanish society) are much starker,much cooler and in some ways more sinister. Latin American novels allow me to confront what it is to be engaged in conversation with those realities in ways that the American novel can never make me. I need both sets of literature to cover my experience.

Without both,I feel incomplete.

What purpose does an extravaganza like the Jaipur fest serve?
The advantage for us [international writers is that we get exposed to new writers. It comes to two things — new writers and new readers. But from what I have seen,we’re the excuse for a subcontinental party,a celebration.

While India has been a mind-blowing experience,I’m seeing it from both sides. There are writers who write only for the Indian market who are picking up books and contacts. Okay (laughs),it’s a kind of a weird double bill. We’re supposedly the big draw,but the real action is happening with the Indian writers.

I think Indian writers in regional languages should be on a panel with Jay McInerney,with Candace Bushnell. But this awkwardness of translation shows that we’re headed in the right direction.

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