Consulting a Genius: Interview with Junot Díaz

By Justin Nalos 

Junot Díaz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Díaz received a B.A. (1992) from Rutgers University and an M.F.A. (1995) from Cornell University. In 2012, he was awarded the MacArthur Genius Fellowship, a $500,000 grant awarded to individuals who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Currently, Díaz serves on the board of Freedom University in Georgia, a program that provides a post-secondary education for undocumented immigrants. 

Díaz is best known for his debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), which featured the overweight, lovable ghetto nerd Oscar de Leon, and the not-safe-for-work narration of Yunior de las Casas. After garnering rave reviews from publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, Díaz went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008. 

This Is How You Lose Her (2012) is Díaz’s follow-up collection of short stories, and marks the return of Yunior and his philandering ways. Yunior was first introduced in Díaz’s first collection of short stories titled Drown (1996), and was revealed to be an omniscient narrator in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This Is How You Lose Her is a case study in intimacy and infidelity as readers follow Yunior’s various attempts to find his own humanity inside and outside the bedroom. 


It has been almost a year since This Is How You Lose Her was released to critical acclaim. How does do feel about the critical acclaim your work has received? 

DÍAZ: It’s nice to receive positive notice but what would be nicer would be to see more people of color being reviewed more often and more seriously in leading publications.  I’m often not reviewed very seriously—a lot of the major New York publications assigned people to review my books who have no training or expertise in the Caribbean or in immigration issues or even in people of color literature—but at least I’m reviewed and far too many of our writers cannot claim that.  


In his review of This Is How You Lose Her, critic Hector Tobar of the Los Angeles Times considered you to be a “leading voice of American fiction.” As a Dominican-born writer, how do you see the American literary landscape changing with your success and the success of other writers of color? 

DÍAZ: First off, Tobar is a giant and knows the field well so to get any positive word from him is a gift.  But I’m not nearly as positive as you are—I’m not sure the American literary landscape is changing in any drastic way.  Or better said: as fast as it should be.  Sure a few of us writers of color are being touted but the majority of us are pretty much marginalized.  And many of us are flat-out ignored.  Over 90 percent of the people on the New York Times Bestseller List on any given week are white.  That’s not exactly what I call promising.  We need to push harder on all fronts for the change you’re talking about to happen.  

Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This Is How You Lose Her all explore the immigrant experience in some capacity. Emigrating from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey as a child, would you describe this experience as pivotal to your own career as a writer? 

DÍAZ: Without a question.  It was absolutely pivotal my life and therefore pivotal to my art.  To be an immigrant is to experience a level of confusion and fear that really has no parallel anywhere else.  Stretch out your first day of school to a duration of ten years and you begin to get a sense of what we’re talking about.  But there’s also something good too—the visitation of new worlds and what you learn about yourself and the world in the process.  Immigration is the crucible of my writing, where I begin as a person. 

This Is How You Lose Her marked the return of Yunior de las Casas, who was first introduced in your first collection of short stories, Drown, and also considered to be your alter ego by some critics. The last short story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” felt like an elegiac farewell to Yunior. Will this be the last time we see Yunior? 

DÍAZ: We will have to wait and see.  I hope not. 

In a previous interview, you described yourself as a “slow writer.” But I believe all your readers, like me, appreciate the time and effort you put into your work. What future projects do you have in the works?

DÍAZ: Trying to write a book about the end of the world.  I’m not having too much luck.   

This past March, you were on The Colbert Report discussing your work with Freedom University in Georgia. Can you please describe the mission of Freedom University and your role within the organization?

DÍAZ: Georgia has passed punitive legislation to criminalize undocumented students and prevent them from attending Georgia’s top universities.  We’re trying to overturn those laws and in the meantime provide the students in question an alternative education.  Necessary work against a cruel political class. 

As a writer and a professor, what do you think is the value of studying the liberal arts, and literature in particular, at the college level? What long-term values are served by study in the liberal arts?

DÍAZ: We live in a time where everything is monetized. Where every student at university is told that they should be practical—that they should only study that which will lead directly to a job. This instrumentalization of colleges is endemic and under such a system areas such as the liberal arts and the arts are considered non-starters, a waste of time and space.  Universities were traditionally all about educating people into their own respective humanities. These days universities have been deranged by the logic of the cash nexus, by the corporate ethos which seeks to extract profit from everything.  Such a climate, which produces in so many young people fear and insecurity, does not lead to good learning.  It certainly doesn’t humanize anyone.  For me if you want to learn about your human self—liberal arts will help you.  In the liberal arts we’re trying to humanize people in a culture that does everything to turn them into cogs.  I can’t imagine a more valuable practice or study than that.  Hey, everybody loves money but being a full human being ain’t a bad thing either.  

Justin Nalos is a senior at Howard University majoring in English. Howard University is home to the Gamma of the District of Columbia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

Photo courtesy of MIT.