Junot Díaz on the Blessings and Curses of Language

Sep 11, 2014

“As an articulate champion of the immigrant experience, unparalleled in sheer originality of language, with a keen sense of history, culture, and the way forward, Junot Díaz is a writer relevant to the people of Los Angeles at this very moment,” says City Librarian John F. Szabo. The author of the critically acclaimed Drown; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This Is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist, Díaz will receive the Los Angeles Public Library’s Literary Award this fall. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Díaz’s work has been hailed for its colloquial spin on a modern American voice—a blend of English and Spanish, slang, hip-hop, and poetry to create fiercely exquisite human portraits. The recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award, we asked Díaz what fuels his electrifying writing before he arrives in L.A. to receive his newest honor.

You immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a child—what was the role of literature in your life during that transformative time?

Díaz:I doubt I could have survived that process, that madness, without books, without reading. My public library saved my life. My letter to Hogwarts was my first library card.

You can’t imagine the confusion of immigration. We all deal with it differently. I coped by trying to understand where I was and how I got there and in order to understand I read—everything.

Very few people are actually writing today in multiple languages, yet this is how a majority of the world communicates. When do you think publishing will catch up to this reality?

Díaz:Soon, I hope. But literature like film seems especially addicted to whiteness. The day that the faces on screens and on pages correspond to the diversity of our actual lives will be a great day indeed.

Your writing has been celebrated for its beautiful elasticity—the expansive nature of multi-lingual characters, the interplay of the vernacular, song, and cross-cultural experiences. When did you first fall in love with language and think maybe you would become a writer?

Díaz: Love? I don’t think my initial relationship with language was love as much as it was survival. After all the first challenge of immigration is to master the new tongue. It turned out to be quite a challenge indeed. I learned English because I had to and I guess writing was more or less (to quote Caliban) “my profit on’t.” Said another way, even after I learned English I never stopped obsessing on language. On whether I had learned English well enough and on the fact that my Spanish was fading. Writing was a way of working through my complicated thorny relationship with something I never had an easy relationship to. Some people love writing, throw themselves into it with eagerness.  But I’ve always approached my art reluctantly. It took me a long time before I finally realized that this was something I would not be able to avoid—that this was that most dreaded of covenants—a calling.

Can you talk about your connection to public libraries?

Díaz: I used to walk to my public library, which is exactly four miles from where I lived. I would walk there, read, get books and walk back. From London Terrace to Old Bridge Public Library. On the way there I would dream about the books I was reading. And on the way back I would dream about the books I was going to read. I would do this at least once a week. And when I think about what made me a reader (which always comes before writer, at least for me) I think about those long hikes through neighborhoods and farms, down long township roads. I think about my solitude and about how even now I can remember the weight of those books.

The Los Angeles Public Library strives to foster a love for books and lifelong learning in kids.  How do you think reading enhances our society?

Díaz: The free public library—both the institution itself and the ideals, which made it possible—is the granite plinth upon which our democratic society rests.  As libraries go so goes our democracy.

–Posted by Bridgette Bates


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