If the verbal visionaries of Cornell’s nearly 105-year history of writing stood on each other’s shoulders; Nabokov as a base, cursing in Russian, Vonnegut next to him, muttering to himself about the absurdity of it, Pynchon above them, with a foot on each deltoid, shakily supporting Morrison, and so on — you’d have a ladder of literary giants to rival the clock tower. Even then, despite this towering tradition, the adrenaline-and-laughter inducing irreverence and innovation of Junot Díaz, MFA ’95, displayed to the delight of many in the Cornell community last week, would be enough, sure as Ithaca is cold, to make Uncle Ezra roll over in his grave and call for a pen. The Dominican-born author returned to campus Feb. 19-20th for the first time after receiving the 2008 Pulitzer for fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to kick off the “Centennial-Plus Five Celebration” of creative writing (emphasis on the kick). In an empty classroom, The Sun sat and he chose to stand, in a heavy black winter coat and jeans, eyes and mouth on the edge of amused behind his square glasses and goatee, as the Schwartz Auditorium in Rockefeller filled to hear him read:
The Sun: Describe to me Junot Diaz as an MFA student here, close to 15 years ago. What were you like, what was the atmosphere like here?
Junot Diaz: I was like most students — most grad students — I shouldn’t say like most undergrads, [it’s] different world, you know, you’re fuckin’ crazy, you don’t know what you’re doin’, you don’t know how you fit in … as an undergraduate it’s easy. You roll in, do a lot of work, you fuck around a lot, you have a good time and there’s not much confusion. But as a grad student you’re like a part of tiny little group. There’s a ton of pressure, so I think for a good part of it you’re probably not your best self. So I remember being like … drinking too much. You know, stuff probably wasn’t too productive, fucking around too much. I spent a lot of time going home. I really didn’t like Ithaca.
Sun: Where’s home for you?
JD: Well, N.J., but by then I was livin in NYC … It wasn’t until my second year that I started getting my rhythm, and I don’t know why, but the cold and the darkness of it kind of fucking depressed me man, made me real irritable.
Sun: Common sentiment here.
JD: Yeah, no, but … when you’re an undergraduate, you don’t notice the world as much, you’re so busy runnin’ with your peers …
Sun: Coming back here after all your recent success, has your perspective changed?
JD: I haven’t had a second to look around. The school looks uglier. They’ve built like a lot uglier buildings. That’s one thing. It sucks. Cause this is an incredibly beautiful school.
It’s like I said, you get older. You don’t think so much about the shit that was wrong or the shit that bothered you or the people you wanted to smack around or how lonely you felt or the cold. What you end up remembering is the friends that you had that you don’t see as much. It’s weird, it’s almost like you get real nostalgic without even wanting to.
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Sun: You’re MFA-educated here and you’re an academy-trained writer who teaches at a university. What do you think was your best classroom – here at Cornell or outside of this bubble?
JD: It’s hard to say. Do you know what I mean? How you draw the line between your education and your life? It’s kind of hard. I know I learned a tremendous amount while I was here, but I learned a tremendous amount while I was out, you know, in the world. I just think … that because it’s not like … you can’t subdivide yourself so easily. The only thing I know is that they were both in some ways essential … I think that had I not had any kind of intellectual grounding, or institutional apparatus, I probably would’ve been a very different writer.
Sun: How do you teach writing?
JD: I teach only undergraduates who don’t want to be writers … I just wanted to say that cause it’s a different energy … the kids … they’re more fun.
Writing is for me more of an excuse to make the students critical-minded. You know … There’s really no magic. Half of it is exposure. You expose them to the forms, the grammar of whatever convention you’re talking about, whether it’s the short story or the novel … you have the students practice it. The third component is that you really have to have a tremendous amount of compassion. You have to teach the students how to be gentle with themselves, not to be so critical, not to be so incredibly self-eviscerating. The only way you can model that is that if you actually have compassion. I think all three are the components that you tend to end up bringing to the class.
Sun: At your panel, you said in your nightmares you were at a desk, but in your dreams you are at a library or a bookstore. So, I was curious: Why do you write?
JD: It is, for lack of a less absurd term … my calling. It is the thing that I am called to do and that I do with a certain amount of skill. I don’t understand why I’m called to do this. I would be more naturally called to be like just a full time reader … look, there’s a million ways you can avoid what you’re called to do, and I think many of us spend our lives ducking it. I think sometimes I do that, sometimes I don’t. At least I know what it is, I know the name of it; it’s called writing.
Sun: Do you think this love of reading is a diminishing presence in education today? Do you think it’s lost in contemporary society?
JD: It’s never been a big presence. Literacy has never been a part of global cultural practice, so it’s easy to get nostalgic about something, but if we’re to get kind of gloomy Jeremiah-esque, [it’s] something I don’t know has always been a huge presence … I think for me when you do something you of course want other people to participate in it, to value it, to enjoy it. I mean, sure, it’s not most people’s cup of tea, I don’t know that it’s ever been. But at least I don’t do musicals, I don’t do opera, or anything like that. It all depends on who the hell you are. I don’t know of any traditional art that finds itself in a very stable, you know, happy moment.
Sun: How do you feel about being placed into a certain category, [maybe instead] as a Latino writer, as a political writer? How do you feel about being categorized in certain ways?
JD: You grew up in this country, you know the deal … it’s a race, you know? Everyone is trying as fast a s possible to stuff you into a box, and you are trying to as vigorously and as imaginatively as possible to escape from those boxes and defining yourself … I think that it’s nothing new. Some categories are useful. My idea of it is, as long as a category doesn’t exclude other categories, some of them I don’t mind. I know I’m a Dominican writer, I know I’m a writer from New Jersey. I don’t think these are either of them bad. But if I can only be allowed to be a writer from New Jersey, if I’m only allowed to be a Dominican writer, or an immigrant writer, then I don’t want the categories. You know, my idea is: You want to be able to be as many as you think apply to you, not to be in a category to simplify things.
Sun: As Helena Viramontes said yesterday when she was introducing your panel, when she thinks about writing, she thinks about politics. How would you view that interaction in your works?
JD: You know all art, all writing is political … you just got to remember — and I think this is very important — is that all of it, every artist has some sort of political valence. The difference is that there are some politics which are status quo, so they’re utterly transparent, we don’t even notice it’s a political act. And others are a little … more transgressive, they’re a little bit more radical. But there’s no difference … Both of them are political acts, it’s just one bothers us. The other one we’ve sort of given … a free pass to.
I’m as much a part of it as anyone else … what complicates things, is that the novel is a form unlike other types of short stories, explicitly too complicated to follow one political throughway … some of the most conservative writers have incredibly radical elements to their work and some of the most so called radical writers have deeply conservative ideologies. The novel is so big that interaction means you have to introduce all sorts of disparity, often contradictory elements, so the piece of work itself … the novel as an artistic object, is often difficult to abstract into any one ideology which adds another layer to what the hell we’re talking about. I don’t think of myself as a radical writer or as a writer involved in politics, the novel undercuts any attempt that I have to reduce it down to a political program.
Sun: A lot of your books are being translated into Spanish right now. With your [original] works being written in English, obviously with frequent interjections of Spanish, I was wondering how you felt about that translation?
JD: The only way I can make sense of it is that I have never known a world where you don’t translate … I guess that question is a question that I am probably the worst person to answer … someone who’s a monolinguist would have more interesting insights. For me, I always assume that the natural state of language is translation. I don’t think of translation as some aberration some mutation or some dysfunction of language, I think purity of language to me seems more the dysfunction, the mutation.
Sun: Horace Engdahl, who is part of the academy for the Nobel prize for literature, said last year that “the United States is too insular to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world.” Would you agree or disagree with that statement?
JD: Look, it’s an absurd statement; it’s absurd for many different reasons. Horace doesn’t know American literature. Does anyone really know American literature? Can you find someone who has read enough of it who can say, “I can do a pretty good gloss of what it is”? He’s not aware of what’s happening in this country … that kind of generalization just shows how kind of dumb you are.
That said, what I think is very important, what he lost, is an opportunity to make a good criticism about how little writing in translation is read in the U.S., how few books from across the world are translated into English, how few of those books are actually being consumed or purchased by Americans. I think that he’s simultaneously a dumbass, and I think he’s simultaneously correct. I think American writers are incredibly narrowed and our sense of the world is shaped and limited, pre-determined by our vast privilege and our sort of you know solopcistic sense of self. But his claim as stated is utterly absurd. Because I think you can make a critique but you can’t generalize the entire county. To say that Europeans are less solopcisitic than Americans is such a joke I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Sun: What is the next step for you, are you currently working on anything?
JD: I don’t know.
Sun: Wherever the wind takes you?
JD: No, it’s not like that. I will no longer be doing readings, interviews or anything starting May 1st, besides a few scattered ones here or there. Everything ends … so I can finally get sometime to think.