There are few voices in American letters who write more beautifully and more humanely than Junot Díaz.
Díaz, who won a Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2012, writes about everything from love and fidelity to America’s legacy of colonialism to nerd culture. His voice is magnetic, one the New York Times describes as "limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully eclectic, capable of conjuring for the reader everything from the sorrows of Dominican history to the banalities of life in New Jersey." In addition to his work as a novelist and essayist, Díaz is a professor of writing at MIT.
Díaz recently spoke at the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 50th anniversary conference, Human/Ties. Before the conference, I spoke with him on the phone about his work, the role of the humanities today, the ongoing importance of science fiction, and the campus trigger warning debate. Excerpts from our conversation below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On the role of the humanities today
So we’re both about to be at the Human/Ties conference, which is all about celebrating the importance of the humanities today. Could you talk a little bit about what that role is, and what it should be?
It’s an ongoing question and it’s an ongoing dialogue. Our society should be grappling with it. With that said, with the recognition of how dynamic and contingent our world is, the larger conversation of the place of the humanities in our society should be understood by contextualizing first where we’re at. And where we’re at, in my point of view, is in this toxically neoliberal moment that is incredibly hostile toward anything that has a logic outside of the market.
We’re in a period of rabid privatization, and a period where it seems that people believe all specific and social functions, and all specific and social spaces and institutes, should be run like corporations, and that there are no such things as common goods; everything is a site of profit extraction. Given that context, for me, that’s where we’ve got to begin these questions: by sketching out the forces — political, economic, and social — which are distorting our ability to have a reasonable conversation.
In a universe where everything is governed by the logic of market, that’s not a conversation about the importance of the humanities. It’s already so prejudiced that you can’t even have a fair hearing. That’s primarily what’s happening when we attempt to think in a future-looking way about the humanities, is that the idiom of the culture is so prejudiced against life-specific values, like social and common good. And without those, the appeal that we make about the humanities — it’s not that they don’t even land; there’s no space, in a society that’s entirely market-driven, to have a reasonable creative discussion about where the humanities are.
That’s my general understanding of the context. I clearly am critical of that kind of worldview. I am profoundly committed to and believe that it is impossible to operate a democracy, and the specific society that I assume that we all value, without a very strong commitment to the humanities and to the values of the humanistic enterprises.
Being a university professor at an institution where young people are asking, "What is the value? Why the humanities?" I’ve always made the argument — and it’s an argument that I feel deeply — that the humanities provide the education that we desperately need, an education that, at its best, when it’s working well, when the students are not going into enormous debt, provides the kinds of tutelage that is very rare, which is a tutelage for what it means to be human.
If you’re more metaphysical, you could say that the humanities is an education for the soul. I think it’s absolutely indispensable. You can’t put a value on that. It’s these values, and this way of critical thinking, and these reflections that the humanities invite, and that they partake in, that are absolutely essential.
On science fiction and colonialism
You’ve talked before about using science fiction as a way of talking about colonialism. Can you tell me a little about why those categories work so well together?
The default strategy for science fiction and for fantasy is the strategy of estrangement: taking something that we are actually very familiar with, spinning it in a different way, and allowing us to approach it without all of our defenses, without all of our prejudices, without all of our preconceptions. So genre allows us to reflect and deliberate on matters that we might not otherwise, if they weren’t slightly disguised.
And science fiction and fantasy, given their generic history, their generic preoccupations, have at their heart discussions about power, discussions about empire, discussions about alterity. For anyone who’s interested in questions of coloniality, questions of the postcolonial, I think they’ll see a lot of value there.
What we would call realistic literature has a lot of trouble attempting to grab or encompass or come to terms with some of the more extreme history of our reality, whether it’s genocide or slavery. These are extreme human realities that realistic fiction doesn’t handle very well.
On the other hand, for my two cents, science fiction and fantasy have been strongly involved with these questions for a long time, and done a lot of work in getting folks who are interested in these issues to think about these deeply troubled histories.
On the backlash to political art in science fiction and fantasy, and where it comes from
I think you’re absolutely right about that, which is why it’s sort of surprising to see this backlash in science fiction and the geek community against political art — like the the Hugos and the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies and all of that. Can you talk a little about where that backlash comes from?
You mean besides white supremacy?
There’s a deep tendency in our society to view mainstream status quo literature as having no politics, which is completely untrue. It has a very strong political value; it just happens to be conservative. Part of what happens is that if you’re a woman, if you’re a woman of color, if you’re a person of color, our politics are not viewed as naturalized. They’re usually viewed as disruptive and transgressive, the same way that our bodies and our presence in what has been historically white places are viewed.
I think that what you’re seeing is, unsurprisingly, a conservative reaction to what happens when the demographics begin to change in some of these cultural practices, and how threatened people get with actual diversity. It’s really kind of wild.
If we’re talking about Marvel Comics, and the backlash that happens every time there’s a character whose skin color changes — it’s really fascinating the ways that the imaginers of these cultural objects can imagine anything: They can imagine mutants or other planets, they can imagine all sorts of science fiction devices, but they can’t actually imagine people of color, women of color, and women being active fellow participants in these practices.
It just shows you that folks can read books by people of African descent all day long but will go out of their way to guarantee that actual bodies of African descent are nowhere near them.
Before, a lot of the status quo politics were not contested, and now they’re being contested. That is what hypocrisy looks like; that’s a malign manifestation. It’s really troubling that the very presence of women of color, of people of color, of women, has been such a shock to certain communities.
And it really speaks to the toxic political mainstream in many of these areas. The political mainstream of comics or video games can’t even tolerate the voice of one or two women; my god! What is that really about?
On who gets counted as a science fiction writer and who gets counted as a literary writer
Relatedly, I wondered if you could talk a little about who gets counted as a "real" science fiction writer and who gets counted as a literary writer.
For me, the issue, when we’re talking about these kinds of categories — that are partially consumer categories; they’re also categories of cultural valorization — I think that we’ve got to talk about them through the framework of privilege.
Certainly if a well-known literary writer writes a zombie novel, they’ll be treated very differently than a science fiction writer who writes a zombie novel. I mean, how many zombie novels were written in the last X amount of years, but which are the zombie novels that are getting talked about in the New York Times, or are getting talked about in the Awl?
These categories aren’t just these things that other people impose upon us and that we wish we could be free of them. There’s real serious questions here about privilege. Someone like me, if I decided to write what would be considered a traditional science fiction novel, is in a very different place than, say, someone who has been working in the genre steadily, deeply, for 20 years. I can avail myself of all sorts of privileges. A literary writer can write a zombie novel and get a MacArthur. It’s a privilege, you know?
There’s a lot of work being done where people are writing between genres and people are writing in what we call slipstream or interstitial ways, and that’s really important, but that’s nothing new. People act like it’s some crazy new thing, and it’s not new at all.
It’s only the force field of privilege that tells us to take this kind of writer seriously and this kind of writer not so seriously.
On the campus trigger warning and safe space debate
You teach writing at MIT. Could you tell me a little about the controversy over trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses, and whether that’s something you’re seeing?
All of these stories about students and their demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, it’s fascinating that it makes it seem that students are the overbearing tyrants with all of this power, when these institutions have so much power over their students. These institutions have less compassion for their students than they’ve ever had. And yet these narratives would have us believe the opposite.
We get into these crazy conversations so we don’t have the real conversations about: Why are these universities that are supposed to be educational being run as profit-extracting institutions?
This whole debate is a ruse. The problem isn’t that students are demanding safe spaces and trigger warnings. The problem is that these students have very little power, and these institutions would rather argue about why they make so many demands than why they feel so unsafe.
On creating Yunior, the character who appears across multiple books
Finally, I’d love to know a little about Yunior, who’s a character who recurs across a few of your books. Could you tell me a little about developing that persona and why you return to him so often?
He’s a project. The progress of his life, the process of his coming to terms with his space and the society he inhabits, it’s just a longitudinal project that interests me and that I’ve been involved with for the last couple of decades. There’s something about the simultaneous that is the truth-telling parts of Yunior and the obsessive deceptiveness together that intrigues me about his character. But most of what matters to him, what has deeply altered him, is not something he is capable of narrativizing, is something he has to narrate around.
He’s a narrative vehicle for discussing: How does a Caribbean-Latino immigrant from a poor family with serious intellect and educational training, how does he come to terms with the super-oppressive, fucked-up world he lives in? How does a person like Yunior create art in spaces where no one expects and a lot of times doesn’t want art?
He intrigues me on multiple levels. I created him as a narrative shorthand when I started working; I wanted a character who could casually talk about what it meant to be the kind of Dominican New Jersey immigrant male that I was interested in, but at the same time would also embody what was problematic and messed up about those identity positions. He’s a character who bears brutal witness to the sexual violence of his community but is himself part of the system that creates the problem.
For more from Junot Díaz on the politics of art, language, and the world of elite universities, check out our coverage of his-depth Q&A at the Human/Ties conference.