Writing wrongs

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-4-14 9:56:52

Junot Diaz at the Bookworm. Photo: Courtesy of the Bookworm

By Hao Ying

Author Junot Diaz was drinking a glass of water, still dazed from his flight to Beijing, when a middle aged-teacher in a room full of wine drinkers asked him why he used so much profanity in his writing. "How can I explain this to my middle school students?" she asked.

Diaz had invited questions after telling the group of mostly middle-aged expats gathered at a Bookworm literary dinner he considered them part of his tribe, the tribe of readers.

But in some ways, the diners were clearly not from the same tribe. Diaz hails from the tribe of MIT professors, the tribe with lovers who traded sex for crack, the tribe of teenagers afraid dates would find out his family got food stamps. The middle school teacher was from the tribe of people who disapprove of the use of the f-word.

Diaz took the question as an opportunity to trot out the mastery of the English language he'd won in unlit squatter apartments and ivory tower offices, dropping fancy words that would take a dictionary to decipher and referencing obscure literary critics that require Wikipedia to decode.

"Here's what you tell your students," he said finally. "They can use swear words all they want as soon as they can write without making any mistakes."

As an afterthought, he added there was probably a story behind a 6-year-old Dominican kid coming to the US and grappling with a new language that he would need to survive.

But the conversation amongst the tribe of readers wandered elsewhere, with Diaz nursing his water and the rest getting their money's worth out of the free-flowing wine.

Why we write

Diaz thinks the very difficulty of expressing one's experience moves people to write. And Diaz's experience growing up was difficult.

After his family immigrated to New Jersey, he took refuge in the local library. He went to Rutgers and Cornell, where he jokes the nerdiest Dominican kids from the hood could make out like tough guys on campus.

His writing at Cornell lead to his first collection of short stories, and his terse, gritty short fiction regularly appears in The New Yorker. He teaches creative writing at MIT.

"I can safely say I've seen the US from the bottom up," he says.

He says he doesn't want to sound like a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist, but calls the description of the US as a land of opportunity shorthand for something else: "a vicious unrelenting competition" that overrides society's "most cherished racisms and prejudices" in order to turn a dollar.

He rose to national prominence in 2007 with the publication of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a sort of dysfunctional Confederacy of Dunces meets Moulin Rouge, in which a painfully shy, grossly overweight Dominican kid obsessed with science fiction falls in love with a prostitute. Although the book seethed with the terse anger that underpinned his earlier work, it also had a sense of playfulness and joy that helped it clinch the Pulitzer Prize.

American dream?

But Diaz cringes at being held up as an example of the American dream. "I may be a success story as an individual. But if you adjust the knob and just take it back one setting to the family unit, I would say my family tells a much more complicated story. It tells the story of two kids in prison. It tells the story of enormous poverty, of tremendous difficulty."

From an immigrant's point of view, the writer believes the US has a "deranged attachment to some of its myths; its myths of exceptionalism, its unwillingness to look at the immigrant situation, the callous way it exercises military power."

"Living in this country as an immigrant, I can't decide if everyone else smoked the crack or I smoked the crack. I definitely did not receive the memo, bro."

Growing up in the US, Diaz says that his friends and family were aware that many Dominican writers had been imprisoned or exiled. "We knew the writers we were reading, you know, the writers we were talking about... many of them were in exile."

During the Trujillo dictatorship [1930-1961] and the 20 years that followed, "Any writer who got too closely involved in the truth probably found themselves real dead, real quick."

At that time in the Dominican Republic, "books were passed around in samizdat form. But it was a pretty serious informational blockade. Pretty damned serious. Honestly, having the wrong book was usually good enough reason to get your ass in some serious fxxxxxx trouble."

He says that the level of organization and repression at that time in the Dominican Republic did not compare to China during the Cultural Revolution, when, "If they found you with some Chopin music you were done for a generation or two."

Diaz cites Ha Jin, Anchee Min and Yiyun Li as some of the most well known Chinese authors in the United States. All have written works set during the Cultural Revolution, which raged while the Dominican Republic was under the brutal Balaguer dictatorship.

"So many people that I grew up with went through shit that to me is unimaginable," he says.

"I think that if I had been incarcerated for 10 years in the Dominican Republic for some picayune political crime, my mind would have... snapped. But this is the life of many people."

Diaz believes that the difficulties putting these experience to work "summons the best books out of the ether."

Sexual politics

Male characters cheating on their girlfriends and wives is a regular theme in Diaz's books. When asked if he thinks if Chinese culture and Dominican culture are related in this respect, he laughs and says he didn't know about that side of China. But he believes that infidelity has nothing to do with a nation's character, and everything to do with its history.

In the US, divorces cost philandering husbands half of their net worth. "In Santo Domingo, and I'm sure as in China, can you really extract financial anything from a husband?"

Diaz now teaches many Chinese students in his undergraduate creative writing course at MIT, perhaps the best engineering school in the US. "I will have a Taiwanese kid, a Hong Kong kid, and a girl from the [Chinese] mainland in the same class, looking at each other. And let the comedy begin."

Diaz says he enjoys watching the silence in his Chinese students' work shrink as the semester goes on. "When they first get into class… there is this resistance to talking about deeper things. As they sit in the class and they watch other students talk about history, talk about politics, deal with sex openly, you suddenly begin to see the stuff open up."

Trouble arises when Diaz assigns the students to write a love story. Students from traditional cultures like China "freak out," he says. He's read a couple of humorous stories where Chinese high school kids under heavy pressure from their family to study hard have a crush on someone in a similar situation. "The fantasy is: Maybe we'll both end up at MIT together."

The Chinese students who do make it into MIT are not lining up to get into his class. Rather, they are an accident of the way the scheduling system works. "All the kids have to take a humanity."


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