Last year, I gave a lecture on ‘Success!!!’ and how to cope with it. I quoted Junot Díaz extensively, and approvingly. (I also used some words from him as the epigraph of my non-fiction book, Wrestliana: ‘You wrestle with your family your entire life.’)
In the midst of the dismaying, appalling accusations against him, I wanted to go back and see exactly what I’d said – to see what I’d assumed about him. (The whole lecture is here, if you want to check it out. I haven’t changed it.) But what sticks out most from is not what I said about him, but what he said about himself, in his interview with Hilton Als. (Video is here.)
I don’t think this sentence of Díaz has been picked out in the coverage:
Has anybody tabulated my full account of cruelties towards people?
In retrospect, it reads as if Junot Díaz knew what was coming. He was guessing there would be a fall from grace, that would put his literary reputation either in question or in the trash. I said he was speaking ‘self-disgracingly’; I also said he was wise and funny.
It’s notable that he says ‘full acount of cruelties towards people‘ not ‘full acount of cruelties towards women‘. Perhaps he swerves again at the end of his answer, saying ‘a structural exclusion’ rather than something else:
What I am aware of, being here, is that I am representative of a structural exclusion.
He has now become representative of something else entirely. And an account of his cruelties – full or not – is being rapidly assembled.
The lecture ran like this:
Essentially, my advice to you is to maintain your headspace; at some level, you need always to be thinking of your writing.
You will need to become very good at being interrupted, at being an interrupted being.
Here is Díaz speaking to Hilton Als wisely, self-disgracingly, about success.
Q: You describe this childhood of deprivation, and this experience of growing up with crazy role models. How do you explain the fact that you succeeded so beautifully, and didn’t succumb to all the other terrible things that could have happened to you and follow these dysfunctional paths?
JD: But who says I haven’t? I’m not just being tendentious. This is the mythography of America, progressive, where you have this idea that everything moves upward, and people are always on this journey to improvement. So, “How did you make it?” Listen, this is very important to understand, I don’t speak the language of “make it.” Our moment, in late capital, has no problem, through its contradictions, occasionally granting someone ridiculous moments of privilege, but that’s not what matters. In other words, we can elect Obama, but what does that say about the fate of the African-American community? We have no problem in this country rewarding individuals of color momentarily as a way never to address structural cannibalistic inequalities that are faced by the communities these people come out of.
And the record ain’t done yet. Has anybody tabulated my full account of cruelties towards people? I just mean . . . I don’t think we can safely say just because someone has some sort of visible markers of success that in any way they have avoided any of the dysfunctions. That is the kind of Chaucerian, weird physiognomy-as-moral-status. We don’t know anything about anybody. Yes, I have made a certain level of status as an artist and as a writer, but what I am reminded of most acutely is not of my “awesomeness,” or some sort of will to power that has led me through the jungle. What I am aware of, being here, is that I am representative of a structural exclusion.
I think this is the best way – to think beyond success, beneath success, to think the less of oneself, to think the less of success.
But the crucial words are in the last sentence. ‘I am representative.’
If you read the first reviews Junot Díaz received for Drown, you will see him being appointed as representative – as representative of Dominican Americans. To say Junot Díaz is extremely conflicted about this role is to understate; to say he is extremely funny about it is true.
Here is a sentence from the second story in Drown, ‘Fiesta, 1980’ –
‘Tío said, Wait a minute, I want to show you the apartment. I was glad Tía said Hold on, because from what I’d seen so far, the place had been furnished in Contemporary Dominican Tacky. The less I saw, the better. I mean, I liked plastic sofa covers but damn, Tío and Tía had taken it to another level. They had a disco ball hanging in the living room and the type of stucco ceilings that looked like stalactite heaven. The sofas all had golden tassels hanging from their edges.
[Drown, pg 24-25]
Imagine if I’d written that paragraph but had made some funny observations about ‘Contemporary Ghanaian Tacky’ or ‘Contemporary Pakistani Tacky’.
A representative is able to say stuff about those they are representing that from anyone else would be offensive or even racist, because they have that cultural authority. But pressure is also put upon them to cast those they are representing in as good a light as possible. Otherwise they’re harming the community that produced them, the family that nurtured them, etcetera…
When Junot Díaz published Drown, he was welcomed, hailed, feted as a new voice who could bring readers exactly the right kind of new news. He was someone marginal who could, it seemed, easily be centralized. He wasn’t entirely Other; he was writing mostly in English. To read him you needed a glossary but not a translator.
Junot Díaz knew all this might happen – if he was lucky, or unlucky: the appointment as representative, the cultural assimilation. To ward off the evil eye, he chose as an epigraph these words of Gustavo Pérez Firmat – the writer and scholar, born in Cuba, raised in Florida:
‘The fact that I
am writing to you
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else.’
To read Junot Díaz’s Drown, as a white, middle-class American, was an act of cultural graciousness. It was to show one was paying attention to what some of one’s fellow citizens, less fortunate, less literate, were getting up to. Curiosity was answered, because Díaz had secret knowledge. He wrote and spoke with cultural authority about a culture and the way it related both to the dominant culture and a handful of subcultures. To read Drown was, for white, middle-class Americans, to slum it pleasurably in Contemporary Dominican Tacky. It was to sit on the plastic sofa covers, and accept them.
How can Junot Díaz reasonably cope with this – all this cultural situatedness – other than by disregarding it?
Well, I think he could do what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has done. She has turned around on those who have appointed her as representative, and she has addressed them and the wider world, she has taken on the role of moral spokesperson reluctantly and absolutely – just as Arundati Roy did, or James Baldwin. She has written polemically, and to do this she has set aside the fiction she would rather be writing, because she’s decided it’s more important to represent than to disregard. It’s a brave thing to do, and she’s doing it well. Junot Díaz answers the questions when they’re asked of him, and brings up the subject when it’s being avoided, but he has yet to write a polemic – and I doubt he will.
I would be interested to hear what you think of this.