Author Junot Díaz, unflinching and unprecedented with his craft, is known for illuminating the U.S. Latinx immigrant experience. A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, short story writer, teacher, essayist, and activist, his writing has made storytelling accessible to communities that did not previously see themselves in literature—as readers, writers, and people.
Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of Drown; The Brief and 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 is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, PEN/O. Henry Award, and the Ella Baker Award from the Hurston/Wright Foundation. A graduate of Rutgers College, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Díaz is this year’s visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa’s Frank N. Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing. Preceding his arrival, Díaz answered a few questions for The Iowa Review about his commitment to writing, or lack thereof, and how he has been facing fear lately, among other things. He will give a public reading in Iowa City on February 14, 2017 at 7 p.m. in Room 100 Phillips Hall. Díaz will also participate in a public question and answer discussion on February 15 at 10:30 a.m. at the Dey House.
Melissa Mogollon: Given the recent executive actions taken by the new administration, what is the most productive way we (as writers and citizens) can teach people of the difficulties immigrants face and help our readers become more empathetic to our struggles?
Junot Díaz: How do you teach fairness and democratic principles? How do you teach compassion, moderation, and fair dealing? As any parent will tell you, this is hard work, and it’s made harder when our leadership in Washington models none of this behavior. Since our society has turned heartless as fuck, we all have to pick up the slack as members of this society. We have to organize, we have to unite, we have to resist—the old strategies—but we also have to attempt always to strive for truly democratic lifeways and for a healthy skepticism of elite narratives that divide. So much work we have to do, but do it we must.
MM: How are you confronting fear lately?
JD: Growing up in a poor, violent, immigrant family, fear was always with me. I’m not sure that made me any better at confronting it than the next person. But I try my best. I push myself to look at what I’d rather not look at. I push myself to say what I’d rather not say. I push myself to remember what I’ve tried to forget. I push myself not to let fear drain me of hope, energy, compassion, horizons. And when I fail, as I often do, I rebuild myself as well as I can and try again.
MM: At what moment did you commit to writing?
JD: In all honesty, I still haven't fully committed, which is strange for someone at my stage of the game. I wrote each of my books despite myself, and each time I finish a book, I hope that this is the end of writing. Most writers LOVE being writers, but me, I’m a deeply ambivalent about the whole thing. I feel like I spend more time trying to quit being a writer than I spend actually writing. But what I’m discovering is that you can't just shake off a calling—it gets at you no matter what. I’ve spent the last four years writing absolutely nothing, but now I feel the words pulling at me again, which means back into the darkness.
MM: If you weren’t a writer what else would you be?
JD: A librarian or a history teacher. Something the society doesn’t respect or pay enough that would allow me to advocate for books and learning. I guess another calling, in a way.
Melissa Mogollon is studying Fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She graduated from the George Washington University with a B.A. in Political Communication. Born in Cartagena, Colombia, and raised in South Florida, she misses ceviche and paella and loud people.