Wondrous Pulitzer Prize–winning author
Wed Sep 24 2008
Who are your favorite New Yorkers?
Junot Díaz: [Laughs] That’s a big old range. Okay, I guess, like living or dead, or are we thinking just about living?
Let’s stick with the living.
Junot Díaz: I would say [Dhalgren author] Samuel R. Delany. He is a lifelong New Yorker, and an artist, a critic, a genius and probably has done more for African Diaspora, and for Queer Letters [than anyone else]. He’s someone who has dedicated his life thinking, writing and living in New York, he’s just an extraordinary individual man. He’s also the coolest, funniest motherfucker in the world. [Laughs]
What’s the best thing that’s happened in this city in the past 13 years?
Junot Díaz: We got rid of Giuliani.
What’s your favorite place or thing in New York?
Junot Díaz: Washington Heights. Thing? I would say the George Washington Bridge. I mean, you know, José Martí described—José Martí is my favorite New Yorker dead, and he was in exile all those years in New York—he described the Brooklyn Bridge as “that glorious hyphen,” and I always wished he would have lived to see the George Washington Bridge.
What’s your personal favorite moment in New York? Where were you and what was happening?
Junot Díaz: My personal favorite moment of New York was during the blackout, up in Washington Heights, when Con Ed decided to target Washington Heights and parts of the Bronx—[it’s] the blackout that they talk about in that play In the Heights. You saw the Dominican community and the Washington Heights community come together. You basically had the power out, and people stuck, you had elderly folks stuck in eight-, nine-, ten-story buildings. You had people, groups of community activists, groups of volunteers, you know, civic-minded Dominican folk and African-American folk and Puerto Rican folk, walking up to those buildings and carrying these people down by hand so that they wouldn’t die in the heat. It was just one of the most honestly humane, really inspiring moments and it just made me realize, that at that moment, New York became the city that it always talked about being.
What’s the future of New York? What are your hopes, and what needs to happen?
Junot Díaz: Well, the future of New York is probably completely disconnected from my hopes. I mean, I was born in the Dominican Republic, immigrated to New Jersey and have been a New Yorker for the past 14 years. And what I can tell you from this special insight, is that unfortunately New York is being transformed by forces outside of most of our range of vision or of understanding. The impact of global capital on New York City over the last 30 or 40 years has been stupendous.
The joke [among] all of us who are old Jersey-heads who live in New York, is that New York City is becoming the Jersey that we fled from. I came to New York because I was fleeing from the double-wide baby stroller, from the culture of respectability of the bourgeois suburban middle class. And my dream is that the elements of New York that are vital—the elements that are artistic, that are alternative, that resist capital, that are humane—not only endure but thrive, and maybe they do some sort of aikido reversal. They take [diversity-killing trends] and fucking slam them on their heads.
Just out of curiosity, are there any other cities in the U.S. that you like, where you can find some of the ideals, the energy, that drew you to New York in the first place?
Junot Díaz: That’s the funny thing. New York has become so expensive that a lot of young people, what I would call the freak brigade, who normally would’ve come to New York, now it’s just become so expensive that a lot of young folks with an enormous amount of talent, with an enormous amount of creativity, are settling closer to home. I mean, you’ve got rich-ass Russians and people from London making things bigger, and [then you’ve got some gay kid who’s coming from the countryside in Oregon, who’s like, yo, fuck that, I’m just going to settle in Portland.
What does Time Out mean to you?
Junot Díaz: You know, the thing with Time Out —and this is what’s sort of important, there’s a lot of different opinions of how things work—but Time Out was one of the first attempts to give us a living index of what’s going on in this impossible-to-contain city.
Complete this sentence: New York is…
Junot Díaz: Uh, hmm… [Laughs, then addresses his goddaughters in the background] Girls, any suggestions? My older goddaughter says New York is the shit. [Laughs] That’s useful, I mean that’s a very useful comment. For me, New York is that city where the world is forced to meet itself.
Do you think that New York could be a haven for serious nerds like your character Oscar Wao [from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao] these days?
Junot Díaz: Well, the thing with Oscar is he never made it to New York. He was a Jersey kid, he was that kind of a kid who, even in a place like New York, is marginalized. It’s human nature, man; even the freaks create hierarchies, and I think that in the New York that I moved into—as well as in this New Jersey–fied New York that I live now—I don’t think a person like Oscar would’ve been comfortable. Because no one makes more brutal and repressive hierarchies than the people on the fringe and the cool.
I was really happy when I heard that you won the Pulitzer, but how do you feel about winning? Has it changed your idea of yourself as a writer?
Junot Díaz: No. I mean, I guess my thing is that I’m too grumpy to be impressed by any applause, even globally recognized applause like the Pulitzer. My problem is the problem of most fucked-up artist types, [it’s] that I’m so convinced that the next project will kill me, that the next project will reveal me for the fraud I am, that I don’t spend any time basking in the things I’ve done.
You have this great line in [Oscar Wao] about Dominican history where you say “what’s more sci-fi than that?” And I think at that point you’re talking about the brutality in absurd terms of the Trujillo dictatorship, but I’m wondering, do you think there are sci-fi qualities to New York, too?
Junot Díaz: Any huge fucking city will always end up suffering the Blade Runner comparison. An enormous global city, where people are living in third-world conditions, side by side with people who are the wealthiest, most elite, most privileged in the world.
I mean, that’s the most Star Trek shit, people living up in the city in the clouds, and the troglodytes mining down below. There is no way to describe those disparities except with extreme narratives like science-fiction narratives.
If you could have a drink with anyone else on this Top 40 list, who would it be?
Junot Díaz: I think it’s sort of a three-way tie. As a lifetime hip-hop addict, I would love to go have a drink with Jay-Z, except that I would be utterly irrelevant to the poor guy. [Laughs] Same thing, I would love to spend a half hour with Derek Jeter, just because that is the illest playboy in existence.
When it comes down to it, the person who would not just spend their entire time on their BlackBerry talking to their assistant would be [Stephen] Colbert. That motherfucker, when all is said and done, the dude is an activist. He would be human enough to actually be interested in what you have to say.
Next: Gavin Brown >
The New York 40:
Kiki & Herb
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Upright Citizens Brigade