Stephanie Karlik

Category: Interviews

Junot on Reading, Reconstructing, Reconstituting

“How do we get anyone to read in a culture where there is no space for contemplation? If full-grown adults can’t muster the time to sit still for two hours, how are the greatest market sectors of these corporations going to be able to resist the urge to check their Twitter every five minutes, to scroll down Tumblr all day long? The thing is is that there are trillions of dollars trying to capture young people’s imaginary and move them away from any contemplative life, from any life of deliberation, from any human rhythm. And books, novels, poetry, essays, sculpture, dance, this is from a much more human rhythm. And it’s a literacy that you have to fight to preserve because the whole country’s trying to disrupt that literacy. The whole culture’s trying to say that there’s no time, that you’re living in a sped up world. So just even beyond the fact that one comes from a Latino background, we’re already at a baseline that doesn’t encourage people to sit still and read, to just take time, to deliberate and to contemplate. I think that we need time to deliberate and contemplate to feel human. I don’t think you can reconstruct and reconstitute yourself after every day without that time. Part of the reason most of our souls feel so heavy and so frantic is because we don’t get the deliberation and the contemplation that would allow us to reconstitute ourselves after a day of living in a society that only encourages you to compete, create hierarchies and accumulate. “

180

An interview between writers:

D1: What’s your greatest strength?

D2: Probably my empathy. It has given me the opportunity to explore and experience more of the human condition.

D1: Wonderful. And your greatest weakness?

D2: I can be neurotic, quite neurotic actually, but I manage it with meditation and exercise.

D1: Excellent, because I typically don’t like people I work with to be on and off meds. I’ve found it to be disturbing.

D2: Agreed. No meds here.

D1: Great.

D2: Great.

Interview between businesspeople:

B1: What’s your greatest strength?

B2: I’m a perfectionist. I like to see projects through from start to finish with no room for error. I take projects by the reins and turn uncertainty into certainty.

B1: What’s your greatest weakness?

B2: I can be too nice. The task at hand doesn’t require a nice person. It requires a bold leader.

B1: (Assertive nod.)

B2: (Assertive nod.)

Ahh, the business world, where neurosis can be spun as perfectionism and empathy is labeled “too nice.”

Junot Diaz

Transcription of last two questions:

White Woman: You describe this depravation you grew up with and these, forgive me, crazy role models, which forgive me if you can for being White, but that is a universal experience in many ways. But in any event, how do you explain the fact that you succeeded so beautifully and didn’t succumb to all the other things that could’ve happened to you and didn’t follow all these dysfunctional paths?

Junot: But who says it hasn’t?

White Woman: Oh, come on.

Junot: But wait a second. No, no, no, but wait a second. I’m not just being tendentious. I just think that this is the mythography of America, that we just love to think that… the American mythography is progressive, this idea that everything moves upward, and people are always on this journey to improvement… and “how did you make it?” Listen, guys, this is very important to understand. I don’t speak the language of “make it” because you well know that our instance, our moment in late capital has no problems, through its contradictions, occasionally granting someone ridiculous moments of privilege, but that’s not what matters. In other words, we can elect Obama, but what does that say about the fate of the African-American community? We have no problems in America awarding individuals of color momentarily as a way never to address the structural, cannibalistic inequalities that are faced by the communities these people come out of. And the record ain’t done yet. Last time I checked… Has anybody tabulated my full account of cruelties towards people? No, like, I just mean it. I don’t think we can safely say just because someone has some sort of visible markers of success that in any way, they have avoided any of the dysfunctions. That is the kind of Chaucerian, weird physiognomy as moral status. I just think that, in fact, none of us, we don’t know anything about anybody. Certainly, I think that yes, I’ve made a certain level of status as an artist and as a writer, but what I’m reminded of most acutely is not of my quote un-quote “awesomeness” or some sort of will to power that has led me through the jungle of a maze. What I’m aware of being here is that I am representative of a structural exclusion, that room is made for “ones” so that room does not have to be made for the “manies.” That’s what I’m really aware of.

Hilton: Plus, who’s to say we’re not crazy?

Junot: I know I’m fuckin’ nuts.

La Dominicana: I’m sure you felt some sort of displacement within society and especially your own culture. How did you overcome that?

Junot: Again, I don’t think these things are… these are not… I think we accept too much at face value these ideologies of transcendence, that one overcomes their… I guess, my first thing was I noticed nobody was at home. This idea that some of us are less at home than others, that’s a big fuckin’ laugh. I think some of us have better operational masquerades than others. But last time I noticed, you know, America isn’t epically addicted to cocaine, especially White upper-class America because it feels at home, because it feels comfortable in its own fuckin’ skin, because it feel like in its place. I just think that, it’s just that, some of our displacements are pathologized in ways that other people’s displacements aren’t. So that we try to explain everything, it’s because we’re immigrants and we’re of color. Because that’s the way the society explains everything. If I tomorrow blow up a building, it’ll be like, “Ah, fuckin’, an immigrant.” Right? Because that’s the easy go-to myth. I just think that for me, I quickly realized that from everything that I saw, that there is no transcending the human experience, that there is just, you’ve got to fucking realize, that most of us, and I’m just saying this to leave room for some super humans out there… Most of us feel permanently displaced. Most of us feel savagely undone. Most of us try everything we can to try to manage our fears and our insecurities. Most of us are profoundly inhuman to ourselves and other people. And that makes us no more valuable, no more worthy of attention and love. And my thing is that I didn’t transcend all this stuff, I’m just like, you gotta live with them, man. I think that there’s nothing like trying to run away from all that stuff to guarantee their supremacy. My idea is to try to change at least the percentage of the vote. These voices are always going to get a vote, but do they always have to have the majority of the vote?

Hilton: They don’t get to win all the time.

Junot: Yeah, man. So you try to distribute who you are in different proportions. But the transcendence myth, I think will just do you in, in the long run.

Hilton: Did you ever see that extraordinary moment on Oprah and Toni Morrison’s son had just died, and Oprah says, “I’m very sorry to hear about your son, but now you have closure.”

Junot: Oh, Oprah.

Hilton: And the camera mistakenly went to Toni’s face, and she said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll be sad for the rest of my life.” And this idea of the arrival myth, is what you’re speaking of, that once we arrive… but one of the amazing things about America and Americans is that they never do.

Junot: No. And tomorrow, listen guys, my first reading was at Boston attended by one person, my best friend Shuya Ohno. That was my first reading, and that was about my first twenty readings. Today, all these fine faces here, and I really appreciate the support for me and Hilton, but tomorrow, you’re back to one person. America is not like Latin America that tends to be much more committed to its artists, that you could be thirty years in the game and not publish one book and people are still like, “Yo, you matter.” Guys, we are a fickle fickle nation. Today’s arrival is tomorrow’s “See, I told you. What a fraud.” And somebody will come along, and that’s the reality of it. This is not… I love you guys, and I appreciate you being here, but if this is why you’re doing your art, you’re in for a lot of pain, a lot of pain. Guys, I see you. I’m trying to be here 100% for you because you made your night out, you know, like really be present, but at the same time I know that I’m back to reading to my boy Shuya, always in my heart, because that’s the place where most of us end up as artists and you gotta be comfortable there, man, no matter what your fantasies of supremacy and of success are because tomorrow that’s where you’ll be at. And it’s ok. I forgive you the way I forgive myself for being human and not producing what will keep you famous and rich. It’s like none of us can equal that, and it’s absolutely ok. The best part about art is that as long as the civilization survives, somebody out there will keep one copy of your text, perhaps, and perhaps, that will give comfort, inspiration, and more importantly, a space for an individual to be in touch with their humanity, to be temporarily in touch with their best selves which is fragile, flawed, weak, scared, and that’s all we can ask for in art. And I think that’s what’s worth working for. It’s worth preserving. And I think that’s the moment why most of us go this very long, shadowed path into producing this art because we fundamentally believe that what we do is the best of what we call human, the best of us, even if at times we don’t like to recognize it.