On September 16, Junot Díaz spoke at the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 50th anniversary conference, Human/Ties. The conference featured academics, writers, cooks, and Hamilton stars, all celebrating the enormous value and purpose of the humanities today.
Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and he received a MacArthur genius grant in 2012. His first book, Drown, is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary.
At the conference, Díaz joined his editor, Rebecca Saletan, for a conversation titled "United States of Contradiction: Writing About America." Their talk ran the gamut from political writing to the value of humanities to surviving the university system as a person of color.
(I also spoke with Díaz on the phone shortly before the conference to discuss his work, the ongoing importance of science fiction, and the campus trigger warning debate. Check out our conversation for more.)
Below are highlights from Díaz’s conversation with Saletan, lightly edited for length and clarity.
On creating political art
The first path is understanding what triggers our definition of the political. Because we all know absolutely every artistic intervention is political. There’s none that is not. The difference is that some artistic interventions get flagged at the airport, and others in their tremendous privilege get waved on through.
They’re so naturalized because they’re part of the status quo. They’re men, they’re straight, they’re white, they’re bourgeois. There’s all sorts of areas where you could make a kind of political intervention that aligns with the status quo, and no one would think of politics. But it is as deeply political as anything that some wild radical experimental outlier could do. It’s just that we’ve been trained not to think of the status quo as being political. That which disrupts the status quo, we’ve been trained to think of that as political.
It’s sort of a foregone conclusion, especially if you are a body of African descent who does not have solidarity with white supremacy. (It’s very easy to be a person of African descent and have solidarity with white supremacy. That’s actually as common as white folks having solidarity with white supremacy.
By white supremacy, we don’t mean people with hoods. We mean the ideological hegemonic system that operates transnationally, globally, etc., etc. Immediately, you’re a figure that is going to signal for people inside the status quo world that you’re a political entity, you’re a political configuration, because you’re just automatically not status quo.
On our current political moment
Today, it always seems that we’re in a perpetual moment of crisis. The great gift of the neoliberal order is that we are perpetually in a state of emergency. The state of emergency is the default. And that’s incredibly helpful for our utterly corrupt and debauched elites. It’s wonderful that we’re always thinking apocalyptically and thinking as if time and spaces of deliberation are against us.
Because it’s far easier to jump into a pattern of feeling than it is any kind of deeper relationship with what is happening that would require contemplation, that would require deliberation, that would require collaboration. It’s far easier to be like, "Holy shit, it’s fucking tight, we’ve gotta fucking kill them." Ain’t nothing new.
Given that as a second context, we’re seeing incredible things happening in the country that just a decade ago folks would have thought of as utopian. I can still remember, not even eight years ago, friends of mine saying, "Ohhh, these fucking athletes, they ain’t about shit!" Well, now we have athletes — I’m not saying it’s some vast new movement, but it’s unlike anything I have ever seen in my entire life of following sports; I’m 48 — we see athletes who are actually acting in alignment with radical critical formations. And that’s unheard of!
At the same time, we have a media and political and economic elite trying to normalize some of the most fucked-up sense of politics and screwed-up frames, and disfigure what would be considered normal discourse in a way that allows in all sorts of toxic, racist, diabolical rhetorics. And this is supposedly an acceptable part of our conversation.
For me, it’s been a very complicated — it always would be — frustrating, but ultimately very, very hopeful moment.
Why we need slow lenses in our writing
One of the great things about the young people we have working in solidarity with us older folks is that things in one section of the country are really beginning to change. In other sections of the country, it’s almost like we’re in some sort of degenerative time machine.
The thing about writing is that writing, if you’re not a journalist, it’s a slow boat. This is not overnight mail. Often by the time you’re done bearing witness to the moment you’re bearing witness to, 10 or 15 years have passed. But we require slow lenses as much as we require immediate mirrors. Because without the ability to reflect profoundly on phenomena that is in the rearview, it is very difficult to draw a bead on what’s happening in the present.
I believe deeply that part of my project, and many of the writers that I feel solidarity with, above and beyond everything, is bearing witness to a moment that slips away from us at the speed of light — but that lingers with exquisite, exquisite immediacy in our work. I believe in this, and I think it’s very important, and I think it’s very necessary.
All of us who like books and like poetry and like essays, those of us who love literary culture, know that we gain much courage and much wisdom from books that are 20, 30, 50, 70, 100 years old. What is wrought in that refraction and in that witness tends to bear the test of time. These slow lenses are incredibly practical.
How things have changed in the 20 years since Drown’s publication
You never want to get into this static or cyclical sense of history. There’s been some real serious pressing changes — beyond the fact that we’re always taught to panic — that might be real cause for panic, that aren’t being endorsed by Budweiser, that are being endorsed by planetary conditions. Corporate-sponsored panic is very different from a planetary-wide panic.
As we eat deeper into our planet, and as neoliberalism twists everything about our societies into obsessive economy-minded abominations — when societies gut their safety nets, when they gut their educational system, when they evacuate cities of common spaces, when they make ridiculous the ideas of civic responsibility and common goods — what ends up happening is that folks begin to wonder, "Well, why don’t we have any schools? And why don’t we have parks? And why are the jobs so terrible?"
One of the things I think is getting cranked up is that neoliberalism needs to hide its depredations: It is targeting vulnerable groups in ways I would not have imagined when Drown first came out. When Drown first came out, immigrants were a periodic bugbear, a periodic hobgoblin. But the way this nation is beginning to understand and use the figure of the immigrant as this contaminating horror that is the problem we have, and not simply the political-economic system that’s ravishing us all — I think that’s a significant change.
I think lots of folks are getting addicted to this narrative, that immigrants are a serious problem, in ways that are really useful to our elites. And that’s hardened. I know so many folks who on the surface would seem really politically conscious and just, "Young people, stay woke!" you know? But their solidarity toward immigrants is nonexistent. I have friends of mine who are dique [supposed] radicals who are like, "Yeah, I’m gonna vote for Trump because Bernie lost." And I’m just like, "Well, that’s because you don’t got solidarity for all the people who are gonna be deported. Because your ass has got a fucking American passport."
I love how people draw the lines of ideals on the backs of immigrants. And in this way, many people on the left are aligned with people on the right. Where the right has drawn a line across their values — a distinct line that the right has drawn on the backs of immigrants — many folks on the left are doing the same old bullshit. And they’re like, "Oh, I have to stand on my principles." I notice how your principles help in furthering this ideology of fucking up immigrant communities.
That’s something that’s changed quite a bit. We were a part-time hobgoblin in 1996, and we’re now the full-time Sauron. We are the menace to the realm. And a lot of people are falling for this shit. A lot of people on the left and the right, and even super-positive people, are like, "Yo, my practices are gonna guarantee your deportation, but I gotta deal with my principles." Thanks for the help!
Why writers are not at the forefront of political movements
This is probably fucked up, but I’m not sure that writers are some sort of vanguard. I find writers to be incredibly conservative, incredibly corporate, super involved in their reputations and in their market, even though they don’t put that in that language. You would never actually get that language; you would just need some sort of Star Trek tricorder that would interpret all the bullshit that they’re saying and then be like, "Wow, you sound just like the assholes that I meet at MIT who are coming from the Pentagon. Just slip the words MFA, New Yorker, and contract in there, and this shit sounds alike!"
I’m not completely convinced that just because one is an artist somehow one is some sort of radical possibility. If there’s anything being an immigrant and living in the United States has taught me, it’s that cooning is a problem everywhere. The coon abounds.
Here comes some prognostication, which is guaranteed to be wrong. But my sense of this is that what we’re going to need is what we’ve always needed: surprising, heterogeneous solidarity. And those things don’t reside in professional categories. They don’t reside in generational categories. They don’t reside in necessarily localized geographic categories. The change might originate, perhaps, in these places. But overall, any time society’s changed — the ones I’ve studied — it often requires a lot of magnificent coordination between sectors who seem to have absolutely nothing in common.
Every now and then, folks’ moral and ethical principles, and their profound desire for justice, we’ve learned from the struggles of women and people of color and immigrants and all of the vulnerable communities in our world — sometimes it provides the beat, and we all begin to dance to it. And then we begin to break chains in ways we’ve never broken them.
But I’m not sure it comes from writers.
On the value of the arts and humanities
That’s not to say that I don’t think arts and humanities aren’t absolutely essential for a moral, ethical, and human education. What makes the humanities absolutely necessary is, if you’re not a metaphysical and a spiritual person, you can use the word soul in a secular way, right? The humanities is the only set of traditions — and the arts, the humanities understood broadly — is the only set of traditions that we have that educates the soul.
Nothing else does so. You can take all the engineering and computer classes you want, but I can tell you that what consistently helps us understand what it means to be human, and offers us spaces where we can contemplate the improvement of that condition, has always been the humanities and the arts. And so therefore it’s absolutely essential.
On the spooky effects of the humanities and how undervalued art can drive us to liberation
Maybe this is just because I’m such a fucking dork, and my brain moves so slow, but I’m always cautious about one-to-one correspondences. Part of that came from when I was a young person and I was obsessively studying the South African liberation movements. This was late ’80s, early ’90s, hardcore in the stacks. And I still remember reading original ANC [African National Congress] documents talking about the generation that would end up igniting the liberation movement that would culminate in the overthrow of apartheid.
And I still remember the ANC internal document reviewing the arts and the music that this generation of young people liked. And they were like, "The music they listen to is utterly apolitical; it talks about money; it talks about having parties; it talks about sex." And the ANC completely wrote it off, that generation of the Sharpeville massacre. About a month after that internal document, this movement explodes.
I’m never certain that what we think feeds our souls always is the top 10 list. The present understands and values things the way the present should, but for me these things are incredibly complicated. These young people are listening to music that their revolutionary elders were saying was garbage yet clearly had an influence. Clearly that’s the generation that popped off.
It taught me a sense that, wow, these things are not easy to understand. And the art form you dismiss today, or the artistic garbage that you sub-esteem, is the very food and sustenance that drives the people toward liberation. That still echoes in my head.
I’ve got a bunch of students who like physics, and that shit is on some spooky effects. We like to think of history and art and culture as being Newtonian, right? It’s like, direct relationships, force A interacts with force B. But this is more on that bizarre spooky shit, where it’s like, particles do stuff they ain’t supposed to do, simultaneity. I’m like, "The universe smokes way better than we do, you know?"
On becoming an American and learning to unsee
One of the things about immigrating to a country, especially when you’re like, 6, is that you’re old enough to remember your education into the country’s norms. Most of us pick up the social rules of a nation when we’re too young to remember their acquisition, right? But if you come at a certain age you’re actually very conscious of their acquisition.
One of the things that any hegemonic country insists on — not only does it insist on a level of amnesia, but it insists on what you are permitted to see. Your unseeing, what we would call more technically negative hallucination, is part of your basic toolkit of being an American.
One of the things that seems to cross geographies, that seems to cross race, that seems to cross class, is that most of us have precisely the same kinds of blind spots around precisely the same kinds of issues. And so one of the things that I found myself as an immigrant realizing is that this is a country whose blind spots are around its own history of racial horror. Any attempt to improve the nation is usually considered something malign, unpatriotic.
For me, when I was living in that kind of environment, where I was being taught not to see, where I was being taught, "Don’t see that this country wants to practice racism but wants to pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t see that this country lives absolutely on immigrants but wants to hate them and say they’re lazy. Don’t see these things" — what was useful for me is that when I would read science fiction and fantasy, they would provide me a parallax view. Because I was acquiring the blindness. You’re seeing it as it’s coming on to you, but it’s coming on to you. You’re acquiring it even as you’re realizing the danger of it.
And science fiction permitted me an estranged realm. Sometimes you can’t see your life, but when you see your friends bugging out the same exact way, it’s like, "Oh, shit." Or you can’t see your relationship with your partner, and then when you see it in another person, suddenly it becomes really clear. Science fiction and fantasy and genre was like a surrogate America, where shit was playing that I was seeing in the real world. And I was like, "Oh, this has been useful for me. It helps me understand things."
On growing up in New Jersey’s alternate cosmopolitanism
One of the weird things about growing up in New Jersey, a place that I think a lot of people like to malign — one of the things about Jersey that just gets lost in the whole, like, "Ugh, this place," is that there is a lot of what I would call working poor cosmopolitanism. In other words, I lived in a working poor community, where I had Filipinos, Pakistanis, Koreans, Cubans, big community of African Americans — listen, it’s crazy, I had people from Uruguay. Fucking Uruguay!
One of the benefits of living in a kind of alternate cosmopolitanism — we tend to think of cosmopolitanism as places like New York City, right? Places like London. But this afforded me a completely different sense of what it means to grow up with this insane, just remarkable diversity. And a lot of the things I was trying to do with my language was attempting to capture, even if only. ... You know when you have a camera, and you’re trying to capture something that’s flying? And you capture a little bit of it? Even if was poorly shot, if I could capture what it was like living in this place…
I always use the example of Moby Dick, the Pequod. The Pequod is this multiracial, multicultural, multilinguistic utopian/pseudo-dystopian space. But where I lived made the Pequod look mad vanilla. For real, man. Queequeg would have been like, "Aw, these Negroes are on some other shit."
I always tried to get at that. Again, when you live in a community where nobody has too much power, it opens up spaces. I think if I had grown up in a predominantly African-American community, versus an African-American community that wasn’t predominant, I don’t think Spanish would have survived. If I had grown up in a predominantly Dominican community, I don’t think black English, which was my original English, would have survived.
Having this weird parliament of sisters and brothers permitted there to be linguistic survivances, that might not have otherwise happened. I have to thank that damn community for that, because it meant that I could have multiple solidarities. My friends who grew up in Washington Heights, they don’t have the same sort of things I did. They weren’t permitted to have those multiple registers in a very easy way. Maybe people were, but that’s not the friends I have up in the Heights. They’re real Dominican.
Why he writes in English rather than Spanish
Even the question reveals how politicized this is. Nothing gets at the heart of what we call the national question like what we consider our native languages to be. You can rile folks up by speaking the wrong language, or rile folks up against people who speak the wrong language. For me, it was less a matter of choice and more the fact that I immigrated at 6 and was not educated bilingual.
Again, I don’t know a lot of other people’s Dominican experiences, but my education in the Dominican Republic was typical of anyone who grew up in the barrios populares, which is that you got no education. So I only learned to read and write in English. I had to teach myself to read and write in Spanish on my own.
My comfort on the consequences of immigration, the way we don’t have choices when we’re kids, is that one thing about being Caribbean is that English has always been a part of our heritage. It’s very disturbing for folks who are Hispanifying to wrap their heads around the Caribbean. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone in Latin America, but I have way more in common with Jamaica than I got in common with Chile.
I mean, I’m sure we all speak Spanish, and we got things in common, like dictators and torture and colonial experience, America’s reaction to Latin America — but the Caribbean is a very different space that stands quite apart from Latin America.
And Latin America has had a great deal of difficulty metabolizing it, because the Caribbean is English-speaking, French-speaking, Dutch-speaking, Creoles, and all of those languages. We even have, if I remember — wasn’t there some Norway up in there? Or, like, Sweden? I’m telling you, one of those northern white folks got up in there.
In this case, I always feel much more at home, because at least English is a Caribbean tongue. So that’s how I comfort my lame self.
On how slow lenses help us access hyperobjects
Often we’re asked, for various reasons, to make judgments based on very thin slices of time and space. It’s a speed-dating universe. You’re living in a moment, and what you’re asked to do is draw conclusions immediately. But could you imagine having to draw conclusions on the basic unit of 10 years? That used to be old-fashioned marriages, right? You live with them for 10 years; then you’re like, "Now I know who the fuck you are."
The idea for me of these kinds of lenses is first reflecting for a longer period of time about a set of phenomena, about a social formation, about a historical occurrence. And what is gained when you reflect on it for four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years without drawing a conclusion.
I think there is much to be gained from slow lenses. Certainly those of us who are academics, those of us who are historians, anthropologists, this is our mode! Now, of course, the mode tends to be sped up, because in the neoliberal university, if you don’t produce you don’t get tenure, blah blah blah.
But still, certainly our best slow lenses tend to be with writers and artists and folks who think very long-term. This goes against the hyperspeed of our culture. The hyperspeed of our culture asks us to draw conclusions immediately, to think of wisdom being your reaction and not your relationship. And my thing is when you deliberate more time, you’re developing a very profound relationship.
I guess the things I’m interested in, if we wanted to use a critical term, they’re hyperobjects. So therefore, as hyperobjects, they’re incredibly difficult for us to wrap our brains around them. You really have to go into a very deep zone to begin to even get a glimpse of them. A hyperobject is so vast and so saturated and so immense that our brains can’t fully engage them. A lot of the things that have us by our necks are hyperobjects and require the kind of thinking that this society doesn’t encourage.
On the culture of respectability
Believe me, there’s a whole bunch of people in this room who, the very fact that I cursed immediately disqualified anything I said. All of us have made the mistake in our lives where the culture of respectability means more to us than the truth. We have to remember that. We aren’t all born wilding out, and it’s not some sort of evolutionary scale where you get past that and are superior. We’ve all been in the space, and we may be back in the space.
On being a tragic student of color at an elite university
Again, I can’t speak to everyone’s experience. I don’t know anything. I know one little tiny dot in the fractal constellation of the universe, and I speak just from there.
I still remember when I came back from college. I started to acquire the — you know the whole tragic mulatto thing? Well, the thing about the tragic mulatto thing is you just have to erase the word mulatto and put the word tragic student of color at an elite university.
I was starting to acquire the whole tragic mulatto thing, and I still remember my mom’s sister looking at me and scoffing. The translation would be like, "Yo, who told this Negro we were off the plantation?"
What I understood this to be, and it helped me a lot, was: What about growing up and surviving childhood as a poor kid of color made me unprepared to deal with crazy white folks at a university? In other words, I got through my childhood. This shit is nursery school after I got through my childhood.
Often there’s this immense disconnect, because we undervalue what we’ve done before. And so our childhood selves are sitting there when we’re in college, saying, "Why am I not being brought into this conversation?" Because when you bring your childhood self into this conversation, your childhood self survived without power, without frames of intellective reference, without solidarities, without student groups, without even emotional regulation. And yet it survived the very nightmare that we’re trying to wrestle now. What, Cornell is worse than fucking my neighborhood?
I can just tell myself, "You were built for this shit! You survived the first wave with no power. You got this."
The thing is that we don’t feel that. Because many of us, if you grew up like me, you assumed that university was some salvation. And you assumed that when you would get to university, there was this concept of transcendence. Instead of thinking that university was simply round two, most of us didn’t leave anything in the tank.
And so when we arrive at university, if our 10-year-old selves were doing this, our 10-year-old selves would take this university and break it over our knees. But our 18-year-old selves are like, "Ah, finished running the race." We step in — pow, we get knocked down in ways we would never get knocked down.
And then you realize that you’re built for this, that you could do this standing on your head, you’ve done been doing it, and that there is no end to this battle. If you dream there’s an end to the battle, that’s when you give up. That’s when you get demoralized.
This is to say that these aren’t new conditions. This shit is hard, but if you remember that your young self did this without anything, you can do this.
Now, is it fair that other people don’t have to deal with the shit you have to deal with? Nope. It is not fair. Is it just? Of course not. But I comfort myself with the thought that at least I am in the best company in the world. The people who have nothing, and who are given nothing: We’re the majority. We’re the ones who constantly tutor our societies on what justice means. We’re in good company.
On the inaccessibility of education
No one in Santo Domingo can afford my books, unless they’re members of the elite. Fuck the United States for a second. In Santo Domingo, ain’t nobody can afford my books, man. Fortunately, people be pirating them. People find a way.
We have one institution that is under constant assault, constantly menaced by the neoliberal mandarins of the society. In the United States, we have public libraries, and we have our librarians. They cut hours, they cut librarians, they cut budgets, and yet these libraries still survive. They’re the proverbial most rugged tree we got.
Barely. Let me tell you, barely’s better than dead. I’m not knocking what they do to us. I’m simply saying: We still have libraries. We got stuff that people in Santa Domingo have no access to. Zip. Zero.
Ultimately, this is a serious issue. The majority of what we would call education, with its tremendous specialization, requires the kind of capital that very few people can mobilize on the planet. The book is simply emblematic of a larger set of hierarchies that price people out. Shoot, most people don’t even have the luxury of spaces of deliberation.
Reading, intellectual life across the planet is super ridic. Fortunately, some folks find ways around this, but it isn’t easy. It is not an easy situation. I find so many people, when I go to Santo Domingo or I go to certain neighborhoods, they’re just like, "Hey, my library doesn’t even have your book." What do you say then? You’re stuck in a reality where what you do is not immediately accessible. And for a lot of people it’s a bridge too far. And for me, this is less a question of the writer and more how sick our society is.
We’re a sick society that folks don’t have ready access to books everywhere. We’re twisted. But everybody knows more about fucking Kanye West and Kim Kardashian? Yo, I like my Kanye, but damn, yo. So, you know, we’ve got issues.
On dealing with privilege in universities
When we think about universities — and this is not to diminish it; like, I was an immigrant poor kid who worked his way through Rutgers. Believe me, when you have a full-time job at a state university, like a 40-hour-a-week job, and you sit in classes with kids who have no fucking jobs, and they’re over here talking shit about poor people? And you’re sitting there looking at them like, "Yo, what the fuck?" I understand a little bit about what some of these experiences are.
It always is, this idea of abundance and scarcity. The question is, compared to who? Most of us are on a hill, trying to get up the hill, and what we compare ourselves with is people further up the hill.
That only causes pain. You’re comparing yourself to the person who has more shit, because they’re part of a society that guarantees that you’re gonna have less shit, and I don’t know how helpful that is.
On the other hand, if your solidarities and your sympathies are downhill, to the people that you left in your community, to the people who have way less than you do. … What helped me get through college was not thinking about how people have more privilege than me. It was how much more privilege I had than everybody I left at home. That shit saved my life.
Because you’ll go nuts looking uphill. And it’s a really convenient way not to think about your own privilege. Because behind you, there’s a vast amount of people down that hill who would kill for one-tenth of what you got. And it took me a long time to figure that out.
On building non-occupational communities
As far as what’s been going on in the last few years, I feel like I’ve drawn far closer to my community than I’ve ever drawn before. My community is not other artists of color. My community is other people of color. My community is not occupational. I am not a guild where we just get together with artists. I just don’t believe in that shit, you know? If I’m in a car tomorrow and Godzilla picks it up, Godzilla’s gonna find five Dominicans in there, all of African descent, and none of them are artists.
I find it far more valuable to have an organic community than one that’s sustained by this abstract paradigm of "we all do the same job." I mean, that’s the fucking neoliberal model. Neoliberalism wants you to network. That’s the basic mode: network. Hang out with other people who do exactly what you do.
Reality asks you to have contact. And that means there’s more complex relationships. And I’ve needed my community. The more openly white supremacist society gets, the more I’m like, "Yo, I’m glad y’all here. For real."
On dealing with people who choose to misunderstand you
It’s impossible to manage how people are going to actively misunderstand you. And depending on who you are, we don’t have the privilege of being covered. Look, I teach at the university level. But the women of color who are my colleagues have a very different experience than I have, just because I’m a man. And all of us faculty of color have a very different experience from the white faculty. And all of us who are straight faculty have a very different experience than the queer faculty. We all have different sets of privileges and different sets of advantages, and it is real easy, when someone wants to get at you, for somebody to get at you.
Some people are allowed to be themselves, and the rest of us are not permitted. And we are constantly under scrutiny, constantly being doubted, constantly being second-guessed.
I teach at MIT, where people are dique super smart, and I don’t think a semester goes by where there’s not one white male who comes into the class and tries to test me. Who comes in and is like, "I’m so unused to a brother being smarter than me that I’m gonna fucking flip out and try to act out." Which only leads to them discovering that I am smarter than them.
And that’s me as a dude! My female colleagues experience that once a week.
On being part of a future category
We’re human beings! There’s nothing special about being a group of color or being in any sort of group. We’re not fucking Vulcans. We’re always gonna have not-solidarities and things like that. But the fact that where we overlap, given that we have no institution to support us. Do we have universities to teach us how to be of African descent? How to be Afro-Latino? Do I turn on the TV and every TV show has got unconscious tutorials on who I should be and how I should think? Do I see political models? Do I see models in my social life? No. We’re doing this by the seat of our goddamned pants. And given what little we have, we’re doing extraordinary.
Is there more to do? No doubt. Is there everybody trying to stop us and alter our categories? Is everybody trying to stop us from having a complex identity? Yes. Whether we’re talking about the Dominican community or we’re talking about the African-American community, or we’re talking about the mainstream American community, people like us are problematic. Because I don’t correspond to people’s fantasies about what black people look like. And yet I’m of African descent. If I go by other people's formula, I cease to exist.
We live in societies where people say, "You can only pick one." That you must exclusively have one solidarity. And anytime that gets put before me, I know somebody’s trying to screw me. Because people like me and you and most of us, we have multiple identities. And when we just choose one, we have committed a horrific violence on our subjectivity.
And what we are is something that is, like most communities, in the process of being. Being Afro-Latino is a future category. Most people are! We’re in the process of becoming. We’re not a stable category that somebody can just quickly be like, "This is what we are." I think that’s a wonderful thing!
We could look to the left and be like, "Wow, I wish I could be like African Americans; they kind of have this idea of what they are." Only if you step back from a distance, when you begin to look into the African-American community, you begin to realize that there’s so much diversity and so much conversation and so much dialogue.
And that’s okay! I don’t mind being in a community in the process of becoming. To us belongs the future. But we must have the courage to stay the course.
And what you’re discovering in this process is going to inform so many people. It sucks to be part of the group who is at the front, but somebody’s got to do it. Who are we to pass that on to someone else?
The battle has been called. Now it is our turn to do our work. And we must do it with some dignity, and some courage, and some forbearance, because we are going to make mistakes. And we are not going to make anyone happy. And yet this is what striking out in a new direction requires, what it demands.
For me, my Dominican family is like, "Well, you’re not black, look how fucking light you are, shut the fuck up." There are black folks who are like, "I don’t care what your DNA might say, fuck you. You don’t visually correspond." Everybody’s always looking to make the world simpler, because people are uncomfortable with our complexity. Because people desire their purity cocaine.
But we will not cease to exist because of their fantasies. I will not abdicate the field because people want neat little categories. And I hope none of you do either. We will need you, and the path you break.
For more from Junot Díaz on the function of the humanities, how science fiction talks about colonialism, and creating the character of Yunior, check out our exclusive interview with him.