Mil Máscaras: An Interview with Pulitzer-Winner Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)

Listen to audio version of this interview

Author Junot Diaz

Walk into a big-box bookstore anywhere in the Western world. What, maybe a hundred thousand books--bargain volumes, self-help editions, plus all those pulpy, fat little New York Times-approved tomes--line the shelves, but how many are really worth reading? And how many have been written by dynamic, compassionate thinkers whose scribblings encourage their readers to be: smarter, lighter in spirit, and ultimately more humane? Here's one, Mr. Junot Díaz. He's the best writer under 40 in either lowercase or uppercase America, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is available in paperback beginning September 2. Avoid it, and be forever damned to literary hell. (Seriously, yo.)

Matt Okie: Mark Twain scholar and Stanford University professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin has argued that the character Huckleberry Finn was, in part, inspired by Twain’s encounters with a ten-year-old African-American servant. If true, what does it mean for American Literature that under its seemingly white male guise, is really a black consciousness?

Junot Diaz: [laughs] That’s the first question?

MO: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. I figured I’d start off with a bang, man. If you want, we can go in a different order. I have a number of questions about your recent work as well.

JD: I don’t know. I mean, I guess there are a number of ways to approach that. There’s basically the Toni Morrison approach from her one critical book, in which she basically argues exactly what the implicature in that question is: that at the core of the whitest of white American letters is the infrastructure of the African diasporic experience.

You know, I guess that this is nothing new. I guess I just don’t know--beyond that this seems to be a given fact--I don’t know what more can be said. I mean, the erasure and marginalization of all people of what we call the canon is well-documented. It really doesn’t come as any surprise. I guess that that’s always been the tension. As a writer--as an artist--in the Americas, I work in a culture that simultaneously marginalizes the traditions and the people from which I come, while plundering all their physical, intellectual, representational, and cultural works. There just is nothing new to that. I don’t what else could be said. After so long, it’s something that we know. It’s the pivot along which the culture swings. We do our work; we point it out a million times.

Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens [co-opting black culture]--that just strikes me as an incredibly safe point to argue. Who besides scholars are going to really get hyper-incensed about this? I mean, what about the fact that the supposedly liberal and open-minded National Book Award jury nominated no people of color last year? That to me is, like, the height of what I call: The Unthinking White Reflex. Which is, you know, a couple of months after this all-white jury nominates a slate of all-white books, we get the demographic report that--sooner than we thought--the majority of folks in this country are not going to be white.

I just think that this junction is really telling and also in some ways really tragic, how disconnected even the cultural workers are in the white community, how blind they are to their privileges, but also how, in some ways, stupendously damaging their blind spots are. Jesus, last year, [the National Book Award jury] couldn’t find--with all the tremendous books written by people of color--one person worth nominating.

Again, it goes to the question: there’s always been a reflex in the United States of celebrating the new and the strange and the other, but there’s also been a tendency of making sure that while the celebration is going on: white privilege is not in any way undermined. I think it’s not so simplistic that it’s like, “Oh, this is a white-only country.” You know? It’s by having both strategies that you’re able to obscure how the prerogative of white privilege has been maintained, despite what appears to be on the surface, an opening and a multi-culturalization of what we call our society.

MO: Now, bear in mind, that I am in awe of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao [pronounced “wow”]--I think it’s a monumental work; one that, no doubt, hurtles you into the upper strata of the canon--but when I first reached the end of the novel, I must admit that I was staggered by the bold simplicity of Oscar’s tale. I mean, on some level, you’ve written and won a Pulitzer for a Penthouse Letter about an obese Dominican-American fanboy’s quest to get laid. (Which is, of course, fuckin’ brilliant!) Even in a number of the Drown stories, sex seems to play a central role. Why do you think that carnality plays such an integral role in the fiction of Junot Díaz?

JD: Really? I’m not so sure. Again, I always question how much folks are bringing to the page. I mean, how many pages of actual sex are there in the book?

MO: No, no, no. I meant that in a hyperbolic way. I don’t mean that there are actual graphic descriptions of sex in Oscar Wao.

JD: a kid I knew the [Penthouse Letters] genre extremely well. I wish I could say that as an adult that I had the time to brush up on the genre, but I do not.

Look, I think the difference is that this is a book that follows the quintessential american (in lowercase) narrative, which is the quest for home. Oscar is deluded or just simply doesn’t realize that he’s looking for a version of home, which is intimacy. But he thinks that intimacy is sex. In his mind, he thinks that getting laid is where he will find home. And what’s fascinating is that each of the family members...and all the characters involved in this--from Yunior on to Abelard--are all on the exact same quest. How do people in the Americas who are historically displaced [and] historically have a very problematic relationship to lands that they’ve either helped colonize, colonized, or suffered colonization on--how do we make a home? How do we make a home given all those experiences and all those ruptures...? Because for many of us a home isn’t just a shelter. I mean, how do we find intimacy? How do we find real love, you know? I only wish that Penthouse Letters were about people who spent five hundred years being bred and...legally prevented from finding home.

But what I do think is very present in the book is the root of the word “carnality,” which is carne. Bodies are extremely present in this book. Because there is no Caribbean-African diasporic experience that doesn’t in some ways revolve around the question of these bodies--these bodies that guaranteed us for a certain period of time that we were going to be slaves, that we were going to bred. And the problematics around those bodies, how those bodies work. Given the history of the Caribbean and the Americas, if you’re a person of African descent, that kind of discussion of what role the body plays not only in organizing identity, but in organizing a quest for home--it just couldn’t be avoided. It felt too rich.

MO: One of my favorite sections in Oscar Wao is the chapter narrated by Yunior (who also appears in the short-story collection Drown), in which the oversexed Yunior agrees to let fanboy Oscar become his roomie as a favor to Oscar’s sister, Lola. I think part of the reason that their relationship comes across so powerfully is because both Yunior and Oscar represent dysfunctional modes of masculinity. Yunior: jockish, hypersexual, and largely anti-intellectual; Oscar: fat, effete, bookish, and geeky. What were you attempting to say by placing these characters together in the same apartment?

JD: Well...what would be a functional masculinity?

MO: I don’t know, maybe by splitting the difference between Yunior and Oscar somehow? Some character that exists in the space between Yunior and Oscar.

JD: It’s only by simplifying the characters that they seem diametrically opposed. I mean, Yunior might--on the surface--perform a typical American anti-intellectualism, but Yunior’s clearly, like, hyper-intellectual. His knowledge of multiple areas is terrifying to me, and I had to write this motherfucker. He’s a lot smarter than I am, and I’ve always considered myself a bright kid.

What for me is at stake with these characters is how masculinity gets performed, and what is the disconnect between the masculinity that you seem to perform--your discourse-around-masculinity versus your practice [of masculinity] versus what-lies-beneath-the-masks.

And I think that a character like Oscar is fascinating because he doesn’t he seem to have any masks. In some ways, the person that he performs is the person who lies beneath the masks. There’s a much more direct relationship between the Oscar that we see and the Oscar who lives inside.

Whereas in Yunior, it’s very, very different. I mean, the challenge of Yunior is: there’s Yunior as character, Yunior as person narrating the Rutgers chapters, Yunior as the narrative persona of the novel (as The Watcher), and then there’s Yunior as Yunior in the narrative persona where he breaks out and speaks almost, like, autobiographically about what’s happening. He takes off the narrative mask to make some straightforward, honest comments. And I think that what makes Yunior fascinating is that he’s this remarkable Caribbean shape shifter. It’s very hard to pin down what he is and where he’s at...what’s so problematic with Yunior is that he doesn’t seem to have any life besides masks. Yunior’s at his most honest when he’s not being himself, and why in some ways the tragedy of Yunior--why he suffers, why he falls, why he fails--is because he’s unable to be himself. You can’t find intimacy--you can’t find home--when you’re always hiding behind masks. Intimacy requires a certain level of vulnerability. It requires a certain level of you exposing your fragmented, contradictory self to someone else. You running the risk of having your core self rejected and hurt and misunderstood. And, you know, the whole thing with Yunior is: that’s not going to happen. Yunior doesn’t present his core self to anyone; he presents just various masks. Oscar, on the other hand, seems incapable of wearing masks...of performing another male self...even for the reward that he desires the most--a girlfriend. I just found that dialectic fascinating and in some ways, fruitful on a level of meaning and a level of signification. I just thought that’s, like, brilliant. A guy who desperately wants intimacy and can’t put on a mask to get it, and a guy who gets nothing but opportunities for intimacy, but is too terrified to actually confront it.

I just thought that said a lot on the...incredibly performative nature of masculinity. I was really excited about putting [Yunior and Oscar] in the same place. Again, I don’t find them--at their core--very different. I find that what is really painful to Yunior after Oscar’s death is how much they had in common and how much Yunior refused to reveal their similarities because he didn’t want to be tarred with the nerdery-ness and unpopularity that is Oscar.

Junor Diaz

MO: American writer John Fante populated much of his fiction with the character Arturo Bandini--a literary creation that numerous critics considered Fante’s alter-ego. Similarly, the character Yunior--on the surface anyway--appears to bear a marked resemblance to one Junot Díaz. Do you consider Yunior your alter-ego? And is the Yunior who crops up in Oscar Wao the same Yunior readers experience in such Drown stories as “Fiesta 1980”?

JD: Yeah, they’re exactly the same character, and I consider Yunior my alter-ego. But for me an alter-ego is less about pursuing my autobiographical details than it is just having a conversation about how in this age, we’re very hungry for autobiographical details in an area, fiction, where we should not be looking for them. Yunior has some things in common with me, but he certainly is not just a glossed [me]. I mean, he’s very different than me in many ways. Again, we share certain things--he’s coming out of me, so there’s clearly going to be a lot of connections. I think Yunior’s sort of protein particularities are what’s most compelling to me. Because, you know, he can be very different from situation to situation. And for a writer, that’s a wonderful character. My joke around [Yunior] is that there’s this great Mexican wrestler called Thousand Masks, Mil Máscaras. And I always felt that that [Mil Máscaras] in some ways is Yunior’s, like, totem. If Yunior has an alter-ego it’s this Thousand Masks, and I think the reason why I make Yunior my alter-ego is because he is good at representing how many sides we have to us. I’ve always liked that.

MO: Is Yunior someone you plan to explore again in future works, or is he “on the shelf,” so to speak?

JD: You know what: I have no idea. You never know until something gets written. I mean, that’s the real thing. Who knows? You wonder, and then something comes up.

MO: Throughout Oscar Wao, and particularly in the stories of characters such as Dr. Abelard Luis Cabral who is confronted directly by Trujillo’s terror, you seem to be mixing liberally of both fact and fiction. In this era where fiction reigns (see: the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Pat Tillman’s death, Fox News, oil prices, the Olympics, prescription drug ads, the Russian invasion of Georgia, etc.), and truth is in increasingly short supply, what role should so-called facts and/or historical truths play in novels and short stories?

JD: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I actually have no idea, because it’s such a large question, and I’m no expert. We have arguments about how it might work in one very specific, narrow, particular framework. But beyond that, it’s hard to say.

MO: I guess my question is this: when so much of our social discourse and interaction is fictional, does fiction then have to become something other than mere fiction in order to continue to have meaning?

JD: I just think that what we’re talking about--maybe this is what we’re talking about, I don’t know--but it strikes me that we’re talking about a civilization where people prefer their myths to a semblance of reality, or a semblance of complexity. And that there’s so much disconnection from any kind of historicity, any sense of historical understanding. Most people...have no historical knowledge, which...means at any moment they can be sold anything because they have nothing to compare it to. If you had some historical awareness that the government had been selling fake invasions for the last hundred years, you might think, Hmm, maybe [our government’s] lying about the need for an Iraqi invasion.

Senator Rockefeller proved without a shadow of doubt that the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965...headed by President Lyndon B. Johnson was illegal, was a farce. It was totally trumped up. There were hearings about this, and in the end, no one cared. No one [even] remembers. And, therefore, we’re being sold the same cow every year. In some ways, we have a dedicated amnesia. It’s possible to sell the same cow every time. Again, what’s hilarious is that this willingness to be sold the same collection of rags and be convinced that it’s a kingly robe goes hand in hand with a fetishization of truth.

Think about the way that people are obsessed with memoir writers and whether they’re telling the truth. I mean, what a displacement. I’m just like, “Wow!” You don’t understand--or maybe you do--how many times [interviewers say to me]: “Sir, your field is, uh, organized lying. This is what you do. Despite this, I’m going to ask you how much of this book is real.” Now who would ask someone who works in the field of organized lying [cracks up, laughing] how much of their work is true? You’ve basically just given me an opening to lie some more. But I do think that because we’re sort of “living in the Matrix,” we have this hunger for truth and fact because we know these things are important--and we’ve abdicated truth and fact in the larger society--so we’re just projecting our need for them onto other areas. I just think that fiction, like many other areas, is being asked to carry the burden for a society that no longer wants to confront itself.

MO: In an age dominated by picture-driven media (i.e., film, television, YouTube, etc.), what significance, if any, does the novel still hold in the lives of average middle-class folks?

JD: That’s too big of a question; I don’t know. I mean, what role does art have? The average person is much more likely to walk into a bookstore than a museum. So does that mean that because the novel is a minority interest--in other words, only a small group of people sees it--it’s on the edge of extinction? I’m not so certain.

I don’t think that the centrality of art in the development of a true human subjectivity has anything to do with its popularity, or has anything to do with how underappreciated it is in a society. I think that if the best way--and certainly the most beautiful and elegant way--to develop a true human subjectivity is to expose yourself to art in all its varieties. The fact that most of humanity is brutalized and inhuman isn’t entirely linked to the fact that [laughs] we don’t have enough contact with art. I wouldn’t say that. I mean, history and economic and social and political forces have a lot to do with this, too. A lack of artistic contact isn’t helping. I think that the novel--until it is no longer relevant--will continue to have an enormous impact on the people who want it or encounter it.

I mean, again, as a writer, if I help two people in my lifetime on their journey to, like, a better sense of the human within themselves, that’s well worth it. That’s more than anybody who runs a company can say. I mean, of course, look: I don’t have four-hundred trillion dollars of ad money to convince people that art is good. Late-modern capitalism has trillions of dollars to convince human beings that disconnecting from their true selves and becoming consumers is good. I mean, I can’t compete with that. But, then again, I’m not trying to compete with that. I’m trying to reach into, like, one person at the most--that’s what you pray for. And the impact that an artist has on a person and what that impact has on a collective cannot be measured. It’s a mystery. You know, capital can measure its impact. They can tell you how many tickets they sold; they can tell you how many people came to their baseball game; they can tell you how many people wore their designer, bulletproof socks. But what’s tremendous about the arts is that we don’t understand how it works, and so trying to apply a sort of logical criteria on its value, its importance, and its impact obscures the fact that we don’t really understand how a book read two hundred years by one person only has impacted all of us.

MO: There’s a near-legendary Junot Díaz story that circulates the halls of the Texas State University MFA Program in Creative Writing. Apparently, while you were on tour in support of Oscar Wao, you gave a reading-slash-talk at the BookPeople bookstore in Austin, during which you argued against the gatekeepers of agenting and publishing and said, more or less, that everybody should be published. Cut to the end of the reading: a twentysomething Texas State M.F.A. student named Matt Stuart approaches you and inquires as to whether you’d be willing to read his pages. Six months or so later, you publish his story in the Boston Review. Why go out of your way to help a young writer whom you barely know? Also, what obligation, if any, do established, big-time writers have in helping to secure literature’s future?

JD: Those are multiple questions. It all depends on what your values are. I don’t think my worldview should be everybody’s. I’m not arguing for universalization of my values. So I think we have to be very, very specific here. I have a worldview where I do not think literature and art is a zero-sum game. I don’t believe that having young writers in the game is bad for anybody; I don’t think having five hundred people who do what you do is bad. Nobody is reading anybody anyway, so what the fuck are we fighting for? I’m just like, you know: yeah, there are maybe a hundred people who are living off their writing. I’m sure there are more, but let me just say that the people I know--the people I have a sense of--it’s maybe a hundred people. So OK if we’re all starving and some people want to come in and starve with us, what’s the big deal? My thing is, like, for fuck’s sake, the only thing that privilege is good for is to try to help other people.

The second part of your question is: what should established writers do? It’s really up to them. I have my view of what they should be doing, but we’re sort of sidestepping the real issue. It’s not writers, but what are people’s obligations to the human project. We have a society and an economic system that argues that people--for the most part--have no obligations, and that the selling of humans is not only forgivable, but that it’s actually desirable. And, again, I don’t think that even though that might be the core message of capitalism, I don’t think that the majority of people adhere to its core message. I think everyone has a degree of acceptance...of that core message. My sense of what a human being is, is that you’re in a collective and that you’re supposed to help people and that you’re supposed to do your best to bring more love and complexity into the world than you’ve taken out of it. And so, you know, I guess there’s not much else to say about that.

Other writers have a different sense; there are many writers who believe that it’s all about them. I’ve got to do for me, and why am I fucking going to spend time on people who ain’t ever going to do anything for me? And, you know, there’s something to that. Look, you’d be amazed at how many young people you can help out, and then when they have a chance to help you out, they won’t. Most of us because of our family lives are trained to be very unidirectional when it comes to collectives. We’re fine with taking, but when it comes our turn to give, we certainly find it much more difficult. But I don’t hold that against people; I don’t help people because people tend not to be grateful; I help people because I think it’s good for my humanity. If you’re not grateful and you’re not into reciprocity, well, that’s on you, that’s got nothing to do with me. And it certainly doesn’t make me any more bitter.

MO: Handicap, if you will, Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama’s chances of winning in November?

JD: Like a novel, it’s a great mystery. Nothing makes you look stupider than prognostication...but the thing is: if you strip it all down, this is a battle between the American dumbness that has destroyed our economy and shackled our future youth to meaningless and ridiculous fucking wars--yeah?--versus what is often best in us as Americans. Now, I don’t want to sound too Stephen King-ish/The Stand, but I do feel that unlike maybe the last six elections, nothing has made more explicit the two most salient strands of the American character [than this current presidential campaign]. One of them is: dumb, militaristic, blind. You know? And the other one seems--on face value anyway--slightly more hopeful. Instead of using wars and economic violence to confuse people, he’s trying to get people to participate in their own lives.

And it all depends. It’s like when we wake up that Election Day, who in our hearts do we really want to be? And that’s who we vote for, and we have consistently voted against our best selves. Always. But I’m an optimistic motherfucker. I’m hoping on that day, people wake up, and they decide to vote for their better selves, instead of voting out of their worst selves--their fearful selves--their militant selves--their let’s-bomb-some-fucking-A-rab-selves. I mean, I have great faith that Obama is going to take it. I also know that with that faith comes the recognition of the human character, which is we’re really messed up. Americans more than anybody.

Junot Diaz Photos Courtesy of Lily Oei

Scroll to Top