As I mentioned in my last post, Junot Diaz was the darling of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Having been a huge fan, student, and proselytizer of his for the past 10 years, even since studying with him at VONA, it felt akin to the first time I saw people really grooving out to hip hop in India–meaning there was some kind of cultural translation that happened when Junot spoke about America that I somehow can’t convey. Anyway, Junot said a lot of important things about the practice of writing, the struggle of being an artist, communities of color in America and more, so I thought I’d geek out and share some of his words with you.

When pushed to talk about how his experience was extraordinary when taking into account his background, i.e., being from a disadvantaged community of color, Junot said:

Well, of course, but we’re talking about collectives, we’re talking about large groups of people. Look, the way the United States society is organized, you don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that the United States is not interested in the success of communities, it is interested in the success of individuals, it is interested in the success of individuals – and that’s what matters most. For me, I’m different, I’m interested in the success of communities. Don’t come to me and tell me, ‘Well,  shit is great because we elected a black president.’ I’m interested in what is happening at the African American community level. We might have elected a super special individual, but we don’t do much for communities. So, I think any of us who come out of communities who have exceptional luck or exceptional success, it speaks very little about the individual and speaks more to society who like to select a winner and codemn everybody else to some messed up crap. And I think sure, we work for it, we work really hard, blah blah blah, but when I was growing up there were plenty of kids who were far smarter than me, plenty of kids far harder working than me, but there wasn’t room. There is one space in the row boat and because your mom didn’t get sick that year or because the cops didn’t pick you up or because you didn’t get sick, or because some other craziness didn’t happen to you, you were the person who scrambled onto the boat at that time. And sure, you can give yourself a lot of credit for scrambling onto the boat, or you can say: ‘Yo, it’s kind of fucked up that there is only one seat up in here.’ ”

Junot, on failure:

“Anyone who works as an artist, there will be a moment when you will be deeply tried, where you will be challenged to your core self. I always say this and I will repeat it to the end of time, You don’t discover you are a good artist because you are awesome …. You discover you are a good artist when everything goes wrong and it keeps going wrong, and you hang in there. And you hang in there, because you are driven by two things, your love of the form – I mean, how would you suffer years of “failure” other than you love the form? I love literature, … but also the knowledge of what we do as artists is the ultimate faith-based initiative. You are already assuming anything that you write, and anything that you do as an artist, will somewhere in the future will encounter someone that will need it. You are putting your hand out into the darkness, with the faith and the hope, that another hand will come back. You are already lost in the deserts of hope, you might as well hang in there. The nature of what we do is about believing beyond all possibility. I’ve come through through to the other side, and I can safely tell you, the only thing that matters that when you’re utterly lost in the desert as an artist, is that you keep going. That’s when you discover you’re strengths as an artist. To touch your strength as an artist is far more useful to an artist than success. That strength, that resilience you encounter in the desert is the one that will keep you alive as an artist forever. Success is something else. I’m not sure success breeds strength, but I certainly know reslience does. Keeping that faith alive when there is nothing to show that you should have it –that’s fundamental. And if you can develop that while you’re out there being lost – you’re good to go. You will do what we need you to do as an artist.”

When asked if he identifies as a Dominican writer or a “universal” writer, Junot said:

“This is an extension of that other debate …. There is the larger debate: the umbrella of the national question, we are always looking for ways to parse human beings out into ‘are you in or are you out,’ and we even do it to ourselves, we’ll be like: ‘That guy’s not Dominican enough, and that person is….’ The extension of that is: If one declares themselves a Dominican writer, that immediately excludes you from being just a writer.  That it’s a false choice between the two. That one must chose between the deracinated writer class that has never existed–that you can be a writer with no class, no race, just wedded to your art, which is nonsense, because you are writing in a language that most of the planet can’t read – no matter what language you are writing it in. So, you’re not just a universal writer, you’re always going be tied to language in a way. I don’t think there is anything wrong with both specificity and universality in a way. So, anytime people ask me to choose if I’m a Dominican writer or a larger universal writer, I say that’s nonsense. Why can’t I be those two things, and another five million things and leave two empty spaces in case I come up with any other shit to fill in?”

Junot, on the failure of realism to be able to capture the horror of slavery:

“I like to read in various genres, science fiction, fantasy and horror. Realism isn’t the primary modality, in some ways their fantastic metaphorical lenses are attempting to describe what I would call “extreme realism”. For example, realism as a tactic is very poor at describing what it means to have been enslaved for 500 years. What does it mean to have been the product of a work-breeding experiment for 500 years? Now, to capture, realism is great, there is probably someone out there who could possibly capture it, but I have not read realistic novels that approach the nightmare of the chattel slavery of the New World, that extreme reality of what it means to have been bred for generation after generation and the people who were “weak” were worked to death and the people who were “strong” survived to create another generation of slaves. I find that horror far more aptly approached in science fiction and fantasy novels than I’ve ever seen it approached in realistic novels.”