Interview: Pulitzer-prize winning author Junot Díaz talks immigration, civic responsibility ahead of visit

Junot Díaz

100 Phillips Hall — Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m.

Illustration by Cheryl Graham
Illustration by Cheryl Graham

Dominican-born, New Jersey-raised author and activist Junot Díaz has had a career as successful as one could dream, with a vulnerability and honesty that one rarely expects. His writing ranges from short story collections Drown (1996) and This is How You Lose Her (2012) to his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, to landmark articles for The New Yorker, Boston Review and GQ. Díaz’s experience as an American immigrant manifests in his characters, who carry the fervor of diaspora, the internalized rage of marginalization but the eloquence and swagger of his luminous experiences with language and identity. Carving out a space in the modern literary canon, Díaz has given a voice, a written folklore to millions who share his experience while also illuminating those realities for white Americans, just as works like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight have done.

A co-founder (in 1999) of the Voices Workshop for Writers of Color at the University of Miami, Díaz was one of the authors who signed LitHub’s massive and galvanizing petition “An Open Letter to the American People” against the election and rhetoric of Donald Trump. The current political and social climate is grim at best, with years of progress toward equality for women, immigrants, people of color and LGBTQ being set back in the blink of an eye. Oscar Wao states, “It’s never the changes we want that change everything,” and “if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.” Díaz’s narrative speaks truth beyond the book binding. And if this year’s movements like the Women’s March have taught us anything, it is this wisdom from This is How You Lose Her: “This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever.”


The University of Iowa Frank N. Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing, in partnership with the UI Latin American Studies Program and Latina/o Studies Program, is set to host Díaz Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. in 100 Phillips Hall (16 N Clinton St.) as the spring Visiting Writer-in-Residence. Díaz answered questions for Little Village via email ahead of his visit to Iowa City.

You’re a man wearing many hats presently: Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, professor at MIT, fiction editor at the Boston Review, guest columnist for various publications and that is just the start. How do you see these paths informing each other?

And I co-founded and help run the Voices Workshop for Writers of Color. Which sounds like a lot, right? It would be if I was working on all these things full-blast but the truth is I’m pretty lazy and don’t do nearly as much as I should. But if these various pursuits are held together by anything it’s my love of reading and my desire to create more space for more people in our literary culture.

Many of your novels deal with culture clash, in particular the role different languages have in constructing one’s life. Having moved from the Dominican Republic at age six, what was your experience of becoming bilingual during such formative years? Today, do you and your family have a preferred language, or do you maintain a type of hybrid “language of intimacy,” as Amy Tan refers to it?

My family speaks Spanish at home and in the world. I speak English and Spanish among my friends. One of the benefits of living in the urban Northeast is that Spanish tends to be ubiquitous and so I use both my languages all the time and [in] nearly all settings. Quite a change from when I was young. When I was growing up in New Jersey every immigrant I knew was under enormous pressure to jettison all connections to their former homes and become as American as possible stat. The fact that I held onto any Spanish at all was a miracle given how much hostility was directed at all things “Spanish.” By the time I was an adult I had lost so much of my Spanish that I had to re-learn it. Talk about irony.

As we enter a political era where communication is so vital but there is such widespread xenophobia and a resistance to “political correctness,” has dialogue and language taken on new significance for you?

If anything has come into focus these last years is the importance of solidarity, community and resistance.

Whether through your own experiences as a student and professional or through your fictional characters, your works often focus on the experiences of “otherness.” What is the responsibility of writers in a climate like our present one? Do you see creative forces as having a different, possibly even more accessible, influence in shaping people’s cultural mindset?

Writers and their responsibilities — I don’t know if I can speak to that. That’s not a natural category of identity for me. But I do believe that every person owes their society a debt — I believe that everyone has a civic responsibility that they need to discharge. In dark times like these we need folks more than ever to engage their civic muscles, to engage their civic imaginaries — to try to leave the time/place they find themselves in slightly better for the generation that is to come.

I know that literature can shape the world but it does that by itself. No way we can influence what the future needs from books. All I can do is work on making the present better and that’s where I tend to focus my energies.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop brings about the discussion of MFA programs pretty regularly, from undergraduate classes to almost any social center about town. Back in 2014, you wrote a piece for The New Yorker, “MFA v. POC,” in which you discuss MFA programs as a challengingly white space. Do you see this as an ongoing problem or have steps been made to try to curb this? Is there room for MFA programs to be salvaged, or should writers pursue other strategies to improve their writing?

What I was decrying in my essay was not MFA programs per se but the white supremacy that saturates all aspects of our society. MFAs have no monopoly on white supremacy, on hostility towards people of color and women of color. My point wasn’t that MFA programs are evil but that like all predominantly white institutions, they seriously need to review their unexamined, ideological bullshit. The problem is larger than MFA programs. The question is can this sick racist society be salvaged? I believe it can but it must first be willing to admit something’s wrong, which is something that too many people would rather not acknowledge.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers trying to decide their next move?

Do aspiring writers need any more advice? Alright, you asked so I should answer. Here’s all I got: read more than you write, live more than you read.

I can’t be the only one dying to know: What is next in the pipeline for you? A new novel? Collection of short stories or essays? Heck, a screenplay even?

I wish I had a good answer for you. I’m pretty much the laziest writer I know. I haven’t written a word of fiction in four years. And don’t know if the drought will end any time soon. Maybe one day soon the engine will turn on but right now I’m finding myself crazy dry. Which is maddening but sometimes shit just don’t turn your way.

Kelli Ebensberger is an English and French-speaking, Xicana-German woman who is constantly lost. Literature and food are among the few things that help. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 214.