Islands Apart: JUNOT DÍAZ (Unabridged)
Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)
JUNOT DIAZ in New York City, 2008 / Photograph by MICHAEL GREENBERG
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
The following piece originally appeared in the third-annual 20 Interviews issue. Here we present the full unabridged interview. Click here for more on 20 Interviews
ISLANDS APART: JUNOT DÍAZ
By Sam Sweet
No doubt about it: Junot Díaz is the first Jersey flag-wavin’, gangsta rap-lovin’, Dungeons and Dragons-playin’, comic book-collectin’, still-strugglin’ writer to ever win a Pulitzer. His debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was released in September 2007 to critical acclaim, and when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following April, Díaz was besieged by a second wave of attention.
The novel introduces us to the title character, an obese, nerdy and painfully shy Dominican-American adolescent who lives with his warring mother and sister. Oscar’s household is weighted with anger and unhappiness, but Díaz refuses to rest on the hardships of the immigrant experience in the United States. Over the course of the book he unravels a personal history for each of his principal characters, revealing a web of intergenerational suffering. The author’s point is that pain has its own genealogy, and for Dominicans, the roots lead directly to the 31-year reign of Rafael Trujillo, whose dictatorship Oscar Wao describes with devastating clarity.
Epic in scope and crushing in its emotional pitch, Oscar Wao is nonetheless more personal than it is historical. Awash in references to Dominican folklore, science fiction serials, Eighties goth rock, and dorm life at Rutgers University, Oscar Wao assimilates the many facets of its author’s life. Díaz identifies as a reader before he does as a writer, and more than anything else, Oscar Wao is the testimony of a mind consumed by bibliophilia and delighted by the fathomless feed of American popular culture.
These days, Díaz balances his role as an associate professor of writing and humanistic studies at MIT with his newfound responsibilities as a globally celebrated fiction writer. A New Jersey homeboy at heart, he will spark a conversation about the latest rap radio singles then suddenly launch into a lecture on postcolonial identity theory. Of course to Díaz there is no difference between the two. Like Oscar Wao, he is the proud personification of contradiction.
Stop Smiling: Alan Moore recently said that he’s come to believe that nothing good can come of almost any adaptation and the vast majority of them are pointless. Do you share that viewpoint?
Junot Díaz: I don’t know. The thing is, Alan Moore is brilliant and he’s closer to it than I am. I’ve never had anything adapted. So I’d be talking out my ass to be talking about that. I think it’s an incredibly complicated process. I think it’s probably best for people who’ve actually had their shit adapted to comment on that.
SS: What about the impending adaptation of Oscar Wao?
JD: Well, there’s nothing impending about it. They just gave me a little check and they haven’t done anything with it. So no worries yet.
SS: Is there anything they could do with the film version that would really upset you?
JD: Think about it. I’m the kind of person who believes in the philosophy of Hemingway and Faulkner, that once you sign on the dotted line, that shit ain’t yours. My expectations are not that high.
SS: Is it that easy to detach? As a movie fan — and the book is packed with film references — is there a part of you that would like to help guide a screen version of Oscar Wao?
JD: No. It sounds fucked up but some people, when they do a project in their mind, will see both a book and a movie, and therefore they’re really invested in the idea of seeing it in different mediums. Oscar for me was always a book. In your mind, you always think, maybe a movie would be nice, but you don’t feel the same personal engagement. There are other projects that I have in mind that I want to write, that I will write, and that I see myself being far more involved in than any screen adaptation.
SS: Like comic books, for instance, and graphic novels?
JD: Well, with the next novel I write I think one of the stipulations will be that I would be allowed to be involved with it if anyone is interested in adapting it as a film. But for Oscar, not so much. I’ll be honest, Oscar for me was always a labor of literary love.
SS: Can you envision a cinematic translation of the book?
JD: I can envision it, but I’m not so committed that I want to give up six months to three years of my work. That’s the whole thing, you have to really believe in the project in this new medium to take that further step. The next thing that’s really exciting me is another novel. Of course I can think of plenty of things that would be great onscreen, but I don’t think they are so great that they could pull me away from my next novel.