Junot Diaz is the author of the bestselling novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the collections Drown and This is How You Lose Her. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker many times, and also in Story and Glimmer Train. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and was recently named the recipient of one of the prestigious 2012 MacArthur Fellowships (a/k/a the MacArthur Genius Grant). He is also an editor at The Boston Review, and is a professor at MIT.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
You were recently featured in The New Yorker’s first-ever science fiction issue. Why do you think they chose this moment to do a science fiction issue?
That’s a great question. I think it speaks to a shift in how everyone is viewing genre. I would also say that a lot of these shifts are linked to economic considerations. It used to be a respectability thing that science fiction wasn’t going to be allowed, except for certain kinds of practitioners. Ray Bradbury would perhaps be allowed in the door. Ursula K. Le Guin would be in the door, but the very concept of a science fiction issue would have been anathema in previous New Yorker administrations. But I think that there is a large generation shift in how we think about it. Still, there are also a lot of problems.
So what sort of response did the issue get, and what sort of impact do you think it might have?
Is it safe to say “zero” and “zero”? I mean, really, like The New Yorker is going to somehow have an enormous impact on science fiction, which has the kind of fan review and critical community that very few genres have ever had? It was more of a curiosity than anything, in my mind.
So tell us about your story, “Monstro.” What was that about?
It’s actually part of a novel I’m working on. I’ve been working on this insane novel about a strange invader virus-type thing that takes root in the poorest, hottest places in the world in the near future, and of course one of those places is going to be Haiti. I write most specifically about the Dominican Republic and that island. So I had this crazy idea to write a near-future story where these virused-up 40-foot monstrosities are going around eating people, and taking it from there. I’m only at the first part of the novel, so I haven’t really gotten down to the eating, and I’ve got to eat a couple cities before I think the thing will really get going.
The story is a combination of the type of doomed relationship story you’ve written a lot of plus these post-apocalyptic aspects. What are some of the challenges of combining those two elements?
I just loved the idea of these over-privileged doofuses pursuing what we would call a “mainstream” or “literary fiction” narrative, while in the background, just out of their range—though they could see it if they wished to see it—there’s a much more extreme, horrifying narrative unfolding. And I think that there’s a part of me that feels this way sometimes, where I’m in the Dominican Republic and I’ll go to the border of Haiti, and then I’ll fly and I’m back in New York City, and there’s a part of me that thinks, wow, people are living these “mainstream” lives, and they’re arguing about why the cafe is closed or that their pizza didn’t have enough anchovies, and then there’s this other, almost “generic” world where frightening things are happening, not far away.
I heard you say that one of the things that drew you to science fiction when you were younger was that you had this experience with dictatorship, and you only saw dictators in fantasy and science fiction books, and not in literary fiction.
Well, when you look at a lot of science fiction novels they’re asking questions about power. There are questions about what it means to have power and what are the long-term consequences of power. When you think about the Dune novels—the original Dune novels start out as this Machiavellian fix-up—the battle between these houses—but they turn out to be a very troubling meditation on what it means to take over an entire civilization and set it on a certain path.
But there were other books that just were supremely important to me, where I was like, damn. Stuff was happening in these science fiction books that I wasn’t seeing anywhere. Whether it was the Dorsai series or Harry Harrison or the Death World novels, where they’re imprisoned in this nightmare world where it’s sort of like a Doom videogame on crack. There was all of this extreme stuff happening that resonated with a lot of the ideas and experiences and the historical shadows that have been cast from the Dominican Republic. I didn’t see mainstream, literary, realistic fiction talking about power, talking about dictatorship, talking about the consequences of breeding people, which of course is something that in the Caribbean is never far away.
Monstro isn’t the first science fiction novel that you’ve tried to write. You also had one called Dark America?
Oh my god, that book sucked, man! I tried to write this—before the whole young adult dystopian craze—this pseudo-Akira, pseudo-post-dirty-war novel about a young woman in a rebuilt city that had been blown up by some sort of strange perhaps-terrorist-psychic, perhaps not, and she was part of this whole historical recovery project. The book was a disaster.
What was it about Akira that made you want to do your own take on it, even if it didn’t succeed?
I grew up in a time—I’m forty-three now and I grew up only fourteen miles from New York City—I grew up in a time where nearly every day on television they would show us these maps of New York City, and show us the destruction zones from the coming nuclear war. There would be this wonderful map and these concentric circles of doom, and my neighborhood was squarely in the black of destruction. I was part of that group of kids growing up in the ’80s under the Reagan regime, what I used to call “living in the shadow of Dr. Manhattan,” where we would have dreams all the time that New York City was being destroyed, and that that wall of light and destruction was rolling out and would just devour our neighborhood. And I’d always wanted to do something with that image. I mean, if you’re haunted by an image for so long, there’s a part of you that thinks, perhaps if I turn it into art, I can at least get a two cents return on this five million dollars of trepidation.
There’s been a lot of controversy lately over them casting mostly white actors in the Akira live-action movie. Were you following that at all?
Oh yeah, that was the biggest joke of all. I think that there is a general pattern of “white-ifying” everything. Just because they make Heimdall black in the Thor movies doesn’t really make a counterargument. In fact, the amount of what they call “racebending” that goes on in Hollywood is extraordinary. I mean, I have sat down with agents who will tell me straight up, “Listen, you write about Dominicans in New Jersey. We can make an indie film about this, but nobody in Hollywood wants to see anything but white leads.” And so when I heard that they wanted to cast all white characters in Akira, it just really shows you how little the dream factory of our popular culture has caught up with the diverse reality of our present. I mean, the nation in which we live—and the world in which we live—is so extraordinarily more like a future than the futures that we’re being sold on the screen and on television.
You recently wrote an appreciation of Ray Bradbury in which you described the impact that his story “All Summer in a Day” had on you. Could you talk about that a bit?
I was one of these kids who was an inveterate reader. There was Asimov, Bradbury, Bova, Clarke, and then you would go out to Heinlein and Zelazny, and these were the first vocabulary that I had as a young reader. Bradbury was extremely important, and I’ll never forget that he was also one of the few writers who I was reading in my spare time that the teachers would actually bring in as work for us. I recall the same year that I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”—the teacher presented that story, which is one of the most wonderful parable/critiques of our capitalist moment—that same year our teacher brought in the Bradbury story.
I was this immigrant kid who was going through the pain, the dislocation, the sorrow, the confusion of being an immigrant. I think that immigration is still one of those experiences where our understanding of it is profoundly bowdlerized and profoundly distorted, especially the immigration of young people. And I’ll never forget reading that Bradbury story. It came at a really great moment for me, because my command of the English language, and my understanding of American society, and my maturation as an immigrant had reached a point where this story could come in and give me a lens through which to understand all the things that were happening to me as an immigrant, how all the difficulties that were occurring to me were not simply something that happened just to me, that there is a whole culture of childhood persecution that, I think, for many of us who are caught in that moment, we often think it’s just us, we don’t see that there is a larger context. We don’t see that we’re not entirely alone.
And I remember reading Bradbury at that time and reading this story and suddenly becoming aware that even if this was fiction, that I felt a bond to the poor kid being locked up in the closet, that I felt that there was someone else in the universe that understood my difficulties, my hardship, my suffering, my own moment of exclusion and being ostracized. And not only could I connect to this character, but that there was a writer somewhere out there who was also saying, “I understand this, and not only do I understand this, but here it is being presented to you in a way that will help you understand it, and not just so that you’re lost in it, but so that you can have some context. That you can have some distance from it and that you could see it.” Because a lot of times, bearing witness to what’s happening is perhaps the most important step for us to overcoming it, and Bradbury gave me a way of bearing witness to my own experience as an immigrant going through a lot of the nonsense young immigrants put up with when we’re in a very hostile society, in a very hostile climate, and I never forgot that, and I never forgot him.
American culture has certainly been hostile to young geeks, but you’ve talked about how it was particularly hard in the Dominican Republic where you grew up. In recent years in the U.S., geek culture has kind of gone mainstream. Is that happening outside the U.S.? Is anything like that happening—or do you think will happen—in the Dominican Republic?
I guess my sense of this thing about geek culture being mainstream is that I would be very, very cautious about thinking that simply because capitalism has decided that this is a really great area to strip-mine so that it can make its big tent-pole movies, and so that it can pad its bottom line, to think that the average “geek” is in any way more respected or less marginalized. Even though we now have all sorts of wild conventions and you can go to Comic-Con, and they send the New York Times reporter to Comic-Con, they send the Economist reporter to Comic-Con, and there’s a huge videogame industry that makes billions of dollars, and there’s all these superstar comic book writers and superstar genre writers who are even more wildly rock stars than any of the traditional figures from the genre. I mean, China Miéville is a rock star in a way that Heinlein could probably never have imagined. Even though this is all happening, we’re still talking about a minority.
This is a country that still creates hierarchies. This is a country that still has a very clear pecking order in how it likes to dole out privilege. I guess what I’m saying is that the day I see someone who’s writing the Hulk comic up for the Guggenheim, or the kid who’s writing strictly military science fiction being inducted into the American Academy of Arts, then I’ll be like, “Damn, yeah. This whole social economy of who is in and who is out vis-à-vis geeks has altered.” I think that there are a lot of economic interests at stake that have encouraged folks to let geeks sit at certain tables, but we’re certainly far below the salt, and the average geek who is not making a ton of money for Marvel, who is not connected to some huge videogame enterprise, or who is not one of these great, hotshot young writers, and who doesn’t find their way to a convention, and isn’t in a convention among his or her own tribe, I still think that there’s a lot of marginalization, and I wouldn’t be quick to say we’ve entered some sort of utopian paradise, because I work in the public school system, and I’m telling you that while it is certainly far easier for somebody to say, “I’m a comic book person,” than it was growing up in the ’80s, I wouldn’t underestimate the amount of marginalization that is still present today.
And how about the situation in the Dominican Republic?
Again, we’re talking about a very small set of people who are interested in these things, and the larger culture just scratches its head. I was in Japan recently, about a year ago, doing an event with a whole bunch of literary people, and my translator was somebody who was himself sort of a golden boy in the literary circle, this person who had translated all these hotshot American and British opinion writers, and I’ll never forget that I started talking about [Space Battleship] Yamato, what we used to call Star Blazers when it appeared in the United States, how it had this interesting effect on me, and even in Japan, a country that people tend to think goes hand-in-hand with nerd-ery—that Japan’s otaku-ness is so widespread—even in Japan, when I was in this literary circle, I started talking about Star Blazers and people were like, “Are you insane?” My interpreter was like, “Yeah. People are saying that this is just children’s stuff and why are you bringing this up in a place where we’re having a serious discussion.” When I think of that moment in Japan, it reminds me of the situation in the Dominican Republic where in “serious circles” these pursuits of comic books, of videogames, of science fiction and fantasy—these things are considered children’s pursuits. Now, by everyone? No. But in serious circles? Yeah, I still think that there’s that kind of generalization, that unhelpful, distorted generalization.
Your new book, This is How You Lose Her, chronicles the troubled relationships of a geeky protagonist. Do you think there are dating pitfalls that are particular to geeks?
Well, that would probably be a mischaracterization. Yunior is a kid who knows everything about science fiction, everything about role-playing games, knows a ton about videogames, and yet who does not go out of his way to fly his nerd flag at all. So therefore he’s a different character than, say, the poor Oscar character in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, who was dripping with his geekness, who was nerd into the seventh dimension. I think that you do have a lot of people like Yunior who love this stuff and yet feel a little bit ashamed of it. Not all of us are as proud of reading comic books and loving China Miéville or playing videogames as others. I think it’s fascinating the way his identity unfolds and the way that a reader, for example, is often much more aware of how nerdy Yunior is than perhaps any of the women in his life.
One thing I think about a lot is, how many of the social problems that geeks have are because they just don’t fit in—that they would be fine if other people were more like them, but they’re not—and how much actually is a matter of just objectively poor social skills? I mean, obviously I love geeks, I am a geek, but I just wonder sometimes if there is any dark side to the power fantasies and maybe over-romanticization that goes with the geek mindset?
Uh, yeah. I mean, have you ever been to a Comic-Con and seen the way that some of the comic fans go after these creators, who are often just work-for-hire people who are getting mandates down from corporate telling them what to do? I’ve been to horror conventions, and seen some of the crazy behavior that goes on. I’m not just saying “crazy” behavior that’s fun, but crazy behavior that’s a little bit antisocial and certainly fundamentally sexist. You know, you go to a convention where it’s overwhelmingly male and not exactly a safe space for women. Have you ever read the talkbacks whenever race comes up in geek culture? You know, we don’t want to tar all nerds and all geeks with the same brush, because that’s not the reality of it, but I do think that we’re not a special category, we’re not “fans are slans.” We are human, and we have a lot of weird stuff afoot.
Certainly folks who are marginalized can be as oppressive as anyone else. There’s always this saying in Santo Domingo that “there’s nobody more oppressive than the oppressed.” Certainly few of us would want to be female characters in, say, most military science fiction. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be. The average science fiction writer who writes pseudo-futuristic, pseudo-Blade Runner type work—I mean, Jesus Christ, how often are the women characters either raped, prostitutes, or have some kind of weird sexual abuse thing going on? You only have to talk to people of color who are working in these fields, you only have to talk to women who are working in these fields, and you hear some of the challenges that they have, about some of the stuff that gets tolerated among our circles that wouldn’t be tolerated at all in the mainstream because there are already these mechanisms in place.
I mean, the recent harassment that happened at Readercon was deeply, deeply disturbing. Now it’s sort of shaken things up a bit, it’s started the right conversations we need to have, but I’m not shocked that there was this kind of flagrant case of sexual harassment at a place like Readercon. I mean, I’ve been to Readercon, I love Readercon. Most of Readercon is this fantastic, brilliant convention, but there’s also a lot of weird stuff when you get a lot of guys together—even if they’re geeks, whether they’re geeks or not—a lot of guys together in one room and no mechanism to handle this stuff, well, you’re going to have serious, serious problems.
I think that this is why creators like Alan Moore, like Hideaki Anno in anime, are so important to us. They’re people who look at the culture in which they operate, the geek culture in which they operate, they look square into its shadowed heart, and see not only what’s good about it and what’s exhilarating about it, the promise of it, but what’s incredibly dangerous about it, what is retrograde about it, what in some ways is toxic about it.
We’re something that I find beautiful, that I find interesting, but that I myself think is plagued by a lot of shortcomings. And shortcomings we can fix, shortcomings that I think a lot of us are really interested in fixing and addressing. And it’s generational too. There are more women, people of color, queer folks, with each generation—certainly now, in what we would call the nerd or geek arena, than there were when I was a kid. And I think each generation brings us more promise of diversity, and brings us more promise of a better climate for all nerds/geeks.
Speaking of writers of color, I saw you say that one of your ambitions was to be a Dominican Samuel R. Delany or Octavia E. Butler.
Did I actually say that? That’s so deranged! I think that was one of my younger ambitions. Sort of like when you used to have a dream about going to a Shaolin Temple. Me trying to be Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany really is like the forty-year-old guy wistfully thinking about how if only he had run away when he was fourteen and gone on a tramp steamer off to Hong Kong, and from there slipped across the border into the new territories and gone up to the Shaolin Temple and practiced his wushu, my god, if only I’d done that I’d already be the absolute master killer. Let me tell you something, that tramp steamer has sailed and gone, my friend. I’ll be lucky if I can write another two books before I’m in the grave.
These writers are absolutely remarkable and important. The depth of their metaphors—you know, when you think about what science fiction does best, whether we’re talking about Suvin’s idea of the novum, or all the different ways that people approach the central force of science fiction, these metaphors that allow us to address sectors or areas of our reality that aren’t being addressed, that aren’t being openly discussed, that are cloaked in silence or taboo. I look at both of them and I think that they have done wonderful jobs of exploring our realities, and exploring our anxieties, and dreaming of futures in a way that allow us to better see our present. They’re absolutely indispensable, and they’ve certainly given me a vocabulary of ways to think about my present and my future as a person of African diasporic descent, and just as a person living in the U.S. I said that I’m working on a book right now that’s an apocalyptic, giant-monster, zombie-virus invasion story that might not ever come together, but if there’s anything that’s useful and good about that, I certainly would love to put that at the feet of these two writers.
Are you familiar with authors like Nalo Hopkinson and Tobias Buckell, who write fantasy and science fiction using Caribbean themes and characters?
Of course. I mean, Nalo is my girl. I saw Nalo just a couple days ago. She is somebody that I’ve been reading since she first won that Warner Aspect First Novel Contest back in the day for Brown Girl in the Ring. And of course, Buckell. I mean, Buckell is someone that I started reading immediately because of the stuff he was doing and the way that he was weaving in the Antillean reality into his work. I mean, really, really great stuff. Listen, you can’t go wrong with somebody who has a group of characters called the Mongoose Men. I’m in. I mean, compared to where we were twenty years ago, it’s really, really, really promising. And then we have N. K. Jemisin, who’s fantastic. I think each generation brings more to the table, and hopefully this trend will continue.
Back in episode 55 we interviewed Michael Chabon, and he mentioned how in college he wanted to write science fiction, but his professors forbid it. Did you have experiences like that in school?
I was very fortunate. As an undergraduate I had a brilliant professor who was what we would call a “mainstream science fiction writer”—though of course now they just cast him as mainstream—a brilliant genre writer named T. E. Holt, who published a collection of genre short stories called In the Valley of the Kings. We start off with a spaceship on its way to Jupiter that has lost all power and is going to go crash, and then moves on to a story about a meteor that’s going to smash into the Earth and these are the last months before the inevitable doom. Really, really remarkable stories, and he was very, very encouraging about my genre tastes and my genre interests.
When I sold my first book, Drown, I actually had a dual contract. I sold my book Drown and I sold a three-part science fiction and fantasy series that was intended to be a more “popular” version of the Gene Wolfe Shadow of the Torturer books. It was going to be this Dying Earth-type setting, and Drown was supposed to have come out and then a few months later the first book of this trilogy was supposed to come out. I still have the contract, it is still in force. The problem was I never could rewrite the damn first book.
I realized that the first book, which was hilariously, predictably, and stealing-ly enough named Shadow of the Adept—I could never get around to re-writing it, it was so bad, the draft was so terrible, and yet they still gave me a contract for it, because they were like, “You know what, this is actually pretty promising, if you could only take out all the bad stuff and rewrite it in a thorough way, we might have something tolerable.” I always had this dream that I was going to be this switch-hitter, that I was going to be one year writing a book like Drown and the next year writing Shadow of the Adept, and it never came to be, I moved so slow. And then of course what ends up happening is that what I’m known for is always my mainstream work, because unfortunately I’m pretty bad and seem to be very slow at my genre work.
You currently teach at MIT, which I would imagine would expose you to a lot of science fiction fans. Is that true?
Yeah, but I wouldn’t overplay it, though. You’d be amazed how many of my students are what we would consider mainstream. For example, I’ll have a creative writing class, and I will say, “Okay, we’re going to do a science fiction assignment,” and two-thirds of my students will be like, “I don’t want to do it. I’m not interested in science fiction.” I used to dream that I would go into an MIT class and I would say, “We’re going to do a science fiction assignment,” and the kids would put on bubble helmets and whip out their tin ray guns, but nope. It’s amazing. Even at a place like MIT, there has been so much of a transformation of MIT from a boutique nerd school to a more mainstream select college, but on average are there more sci-fi nerds than there were when I was teaching at NYU a year ago? Hell yes. Are there as many as I wanted? No. I really did think I would be able to literally form a sub-club for “Fans of Dune,” and we would have like 500 members, but that wasn’t to be. Or the “Samuel R. Delany-ists,” but that didn’t happen.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been over there to the science fiction book club library that they have. They have one of the most extraordinary collections of science fiction that you have ever seen, assembled by student fans over the last three or four decades, it’s extraordinary. Everything that you could ever want is there and it’s upstairs in the student center. People are downstairs in the student center playing pinball and buying slightly out-of-date milk, and upstairs there’s every damn book you could ever want. If we ever get a plague apocalypse, I am going to set myself up as the king of that library.
Speaking of the apocalypse, I saw that you teach a class on post-apocalyptic literature. How did that come about and what sort of books do you use in your class?
Well, as I said earlier, I grew up during the ’80s, which was a time ripe with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narrative. I was in the theaters when Terminator came out. I was in the theaters when Blade Runner came out. I was in the theater when Red Dawn came out. I grew up with Alas, Babylon. I grew up with Warday. I grew up with Earth Abides. You know, all the John Christopher novels—he was one of these great apocalyptic writers. I grew up with John Wyndham—another one of the Brit doom boys. I grew up with his The Kraken Wakes. I grew up with The Chrysalids. I grew up with The Midwich Cuckoos, which became Village of the Damned.
So I grew up surrounded by this culture, and therefore it’s no surprise that when given an opportunity, I turn around and teach that class at MIT, and it actually went really, really well. I never realized there were so many young people that were equally possessed by this dread and fascinated by it too.
What are some of the most obscure geek references in your work, and have there been any that you worried were just too nerdy or obscure?
There’s a reference in the novel to M. A. R. Barker, who is a role-playing game designer, a kind of Middle-Eastern Tolkien, and a novelist. He created the empire of Tékumel, the Tékumel world. There were two novels that were published by DAW—The Man of Gold, and the second one was Flamesong. It was like a Middle-Eastern-meets-Urdu-meets-Mesoamerican future world where a human empire had spread to an alien world and colonized it, and then the human empire collapsed, and the humans were stranded in this very, very hostile world, and they rebuilt their civilization to an almost pseudo-medieval level, but of course the culture is entirely South-Asian/Middle-Eastern, and he has these remarkable mythologies and a remarkable world. And he created this series of languages à la Tolkien—Tsolyáni and Mogul lohani.
They were science fiction in the vein of Gene Wolfe, where the science is so advanced and the culture where it resides is so collapsed that they view it in mystical terms. In his world there were two sets of extra-dimensional beings that humans worshiped as gods, and they were called the Gods of Change and the Gods of Stability. And there’s a reference in Oscar Wao to the change and the stability. And I think only one person has ever written me and told me, “Hey, I love those M. A. R. Barker novels, too.”