Junot Diaz triggers me.
He’s uncomfortably honest and constantly curses at inappropriate times. He curses while receiving awards and curses during lectures. Most obnoxiously, he cursed throughout an interview he conducted for New York Public Library with Queen Mother Toni Morrison. Who is this man? But more importantly why is Toni laughing, relaxed, and fully engaged? A departure from her signature stoicism and fierce focus. My dormant respectability politics surfaced. But this judgment around appropriate language did nothing more than highlight the unique combination of conscious bad boy and soulful nerd that we know the talented Mr. Junot Diaz to be.
He’s a public intellectual with impeccable comedic timing; a literary B-boy, if you will, playing with codified language and New Jersey posturing in the lily-whitest of spaces.
I’ve read one book by Junot Diaz. Yes, one, his first, Drown. But if you think his brilliance is limited to short stories and novels, then you may have missed an opportunity to understand — his short stories and his novels. Junot is a person whose body of work reaches beyond Dominican Republic narrative excellence and political, creative nonfiction. He’s a public intellectual with impeccable comedic timing; a literary B-boy, if you will, playing with codified language and New Jersey posturing in the lily-whitest of spaces. He uses his platform to discuss the ways that white supremacy, and the literary canon it’s institutionalized by, demands the need for Black and Brown people, women, queer folks, and anyone else on the margins of hetero-white-maleness, to write themselves into existence and by default resist erasure.
A professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where does he find the time? James Baldwin once said that if had he not been chosen (by the universe!) to be a writer, then he would have been a full-time university professor, but that teaching as a writer took him away from his work. Junot agrees with Baldwin’s school of thought. “Teaching guarantees no writing for me which is a struggle, but one makes sacrifices. The first thing one learns when one immigrates to the US is that unless you really like suffering, you have to work your ass off. I appreciate my students and work full-out for them, but I have another life that matters deeply to me, and that’s my work as an artist. I’ve always dreamed of being in the situation where I could write full-time, but I don’t write enough for that to happen which is a consequence of my teaching, vicious circle type shit,” he says. But even with the “vicious circle type shit” he speaks to, he offers himself to multiple communities and audiences across the country.
In between speaking gigs, teaching, and writing, he copped a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. But knowing how critical and justifiably cynical Junot can be, I was curious about how he struck a balance between the feeling of joy for the awards, with the hard truth about the hyper-whiteness he exposes in MFA programs and the publishing world. I asked him about the historical exclusion of writers of color that come along with the accolades, and he admits that he’s contended with this historical exclusion his whole life.
“As a writer and a reader I came up in schools where our voices were systematically excluded. Winning a Pulitzer and having some modicum of literary “fame” don’t suddenly exempt you from white supremacy’s structural bullshit, inside literary culture or beyond. Privilege might insulate you from white supremacy, but it don’t ever exempt you. (Just ask LeBron et al.). In the face of such structural horrors, one does what one always does: fight, create spaces for others, help forge new tools, he says. “That’s what my work with VONA (a writing workshop exclusively for people of color) has always been about, opening spaces for our communities. I do my best to mobilize my privilege to help others. I’m on the Pulitzer Board and last year we had the most Black winners in the history of the organization. Our deliberations are confidential but did I play a role in that? Bueno.” Junot is a co-founder of Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) along with Elmaz Abinader, Victor Díaz, and Diem Jones. The mission of VONA is to develop emerging writers of color through programs and workshops taught by established writers of color.
I asked Diaz about his relationship to anti-blackness – wanting to know what steps he’s taken to unlearn the racialized sentiments he was born into. In previous interviews, he’s mentioned believing that white supremacy is in every single person in the system, using the example of the number of available skin lightening products in the DR and Haiti to help people who invest in the products match a white ideal. He acknowledged that, “this as a central part of our tuition, as a person of African descent, and fighting its hold on the imaginary (through self-talk, exploring and integrating the trauma, forgiveness, and resistance) is for me the key practice in developing a viable, loving (and loved) black self.” This personal and political work, and his unwillingness to sit quietly in the face of what he described as the Dominican’s “State Terror,” also cost him. In 2009, he was stripped of honor when Eduardo Selman, the Consul General of the Dominican Republic in New York, took back an Order of Merit Award, calling Junot “unpatriotic.”
Finally, we discussed Junot’s very intimate relationship with nerd culture. But how exactly does Junot define nerd, given the word’s subjective nature, and how can one measure nerdiness?
I asked him to define the term nerd, and to discuss the relationship between ‘nerding’ and his upcoming book project. For those of you anticipating a new book, he’s not writing with a particular book in mind now and says he has no idea of how nerding will play out in his literary future if there is one. Diaz says:
“Nerd-ness is something we POC been a part of forever but which has been coded so white; fortunately, we’ve been breaking the white code. We’ve lately been able to decolonize. There’s a whole world of POC like me – poor kids who grew up with education, with woke-ness, with books, movies, music, comic books, video games, anime, manga, SF, fantasy, horror, and all of its mutations. You make it to college a poor kid – you a nerd. And I know this reality better than I know some others – its contradictions, challenges, limitations, and joys.”
His self-proclaimed nerddom could easily be tied to his lifelong love affair with books. He averages about a book a week, even with that circle-shit-race-for-time he mentioned before. He shared that reading is always the most important practice of his life after community. “Shit, in fact, Junot said, I read two books last week, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals and MR Carey’s The Boy on the Bridge.”
Junot Diaz is brilliant, and I use that term sparingly, but I’m convinced that with his rigorous intellectual labor, subversive public appearances, and award-winning writing, that we have much to learn from his place on earth. He invites us to engage a complex kind of masculinity, to unlearn rigid notions of blackness, and to ask deeper questions about the political responsibility that artists have to speak truth to power—a truth that requires serious commitment as we move forward with each Trumptonian day. So yes, This is How you Lose Her, but here is where we find him.