Podcast #95: Junot Diaz on the Game of Fiction and Intimacy

By Tracy O'Neill, Social Media Curator
January 19, 2016

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With the publication of Drown in 1996, Junot Diaz became one of the most urgent voices in American fiction. A MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner, Diaz has published one novel and two collections of short stories, all which prominently feature voice-driven narrative and characters of Dominican descent negotiating life in America. For this week's New York Public Library Podcast, we are proud to present Junot Diaz discussing the game of fiction, writing audiences, and the important images of intimacy between people of color in the work of Sandra Cisneros.

Junot Diaz LIVE from the NYPL

Junot Diaz LIVE from the NYPL

In response to a question about how a reader might experience his work, Diaz advanced a metaphor about the book as a game:

"There's that idea that every book teaches its reader how to read it and that you've got to have faith that there will be some people that will be willing to stay in the game that you create. For me, there's a game in every one of the books I've written. There's a game that I kind of want participation from my reader not only to help assemble the book at a line by line level but at a larger textual and characterological level, so I guess part of what's going on with me is I just kind of assume that I have this great trust that people will have as much tolerance for unintelligibility as I do. I've always been aware — I love to read as much as I love anything and any given page I don't know what the hell is going on — and I figure most people are going to enjoy a book and still have some unintelligibility."

He continued the discussion of the relationship between writer and reading, noting the way in which writers have become increasingly entrenched in writing communities which do not necessarily include readers:

"One of the things that I think has happened in contemporary time is that writing and reading have disentangled. I find that most writers I know spend more time with writers than they do with readers and that a lot of writers I know because they've come up in a workshop environment are far more writing with an ethos that they're being read by other writers than they're being read by readers. Therefore what I've discovered is that I'm sort of of the generation that belonged to the time when writers were more securely embedded in readers and hadn't been isolated into a professional cadre with each other. These days most of my writing students just want to spend time with other writers, which for me is anathema. I mean when I was at my MFA, AWP, the big writers association meeting, had I think four hundred people and nobody in my entire MFA ever went. I did not know a single person who went to AWP. Now, AWP has 11,000 people, and most MFA programs empty out. I think that there's very much a different relationship because I do detect it as an editor at the Boston Review how many writers I sense are writing for other writers, and how is this ethos observable? Because when you're writing for other readers, readers bring to the experience of reading, when they like your book, a tremendous generosity. Readers when they like your book are always making excuses for your book. They are. They are. It's profoundly different than when you're writing for other writers because when you're writing for other writers, you're basically writing for people who often feel competitive toward you and who are not making any excuses."

Diaz spoke about the epigraphs in his books. One of the most moving is an excerpt of the poem "One Last Poem for Richard" by Sandra Cisneros in This is How You Lose HerDiscussing Cisneros' influence, Diaz spoke about the revolutionary character of literature portraying intimacy between people of color:

"There was something really revolutionary about Sandra Cisneros's fictions when I encountered them as a young artist... There's a part of me that just recognized that in a history like ours, in a country like ours which does everything to convince people of color that they're ugly and not valuable, to convince people of color that there's another body that is more aesthetically beautiful that you should desire more, I always felt like that poem for me that for two people of color to actually like each other in a country that tells you that you are a despised body is a fucking revolution. It's like a revolution, man, and I felt that that was very important because I grew up in that regime. I grew up in a world where all things white were more beautiful than all things black. I grew up in a world where you were being taught that there was a sexual economy where you weren't on the winning side, and I read that poem and I felt that that was important. For many of us in what we would call a post-colonial situation, intimacy has been a profoundly difficult challenge when you live in a world that tells you to think of yourself as somehow out of order already always."