Words on a Page: An Interview with Junot Diaz

His two principal linguistic registers (“this kind of crazy Caribbean language and music” and “this sort of African-American-infused American vernacular”) grind against each other along with the many other voices he ventriloquizes in his writing. Much has been made of his ability to stretch languages and idioms by putting them together, an ability that Díaz says is, at its root, the product of a certain shamelessness. “Shame more than anything interrupts your ability to learn. If you feel shame when people mock you or look crazy at you’re less likely to practice it. One of the things that’s helped me is that I have a particular amount of shamelessness around these different idioms that I love. I’ve grown up with hip hop my whole life but I’ve never felt any shame of misusing the language that I grew up with. I feel no shame using this discourse which is basically my English jammed against things that would be anathema in the larger hip hop culture, you know, mashing all the intellectual nonsense that I learned in graduate school with it. . . .

“It takes so much more energy keeping these things apart.”

Emphasizing the difference between the daily multilingual practice of a community and its reconstruction on a page, he maintains, “One lives in English organically and then one has to represent it artificially.

“The artifact of the fiction requires an enormous amount of work. There’s stuff that exists perfectly normal life in conversation—no one cares if you fuck something up, it’s felicitous, people enjoy it—it doesn’t have to be necessarily literary, but, yes,  [writing is] an enormous amount of work, an enormous kind of stupid work, which means that there’s a lot of just the basic experiment of adding a drop, tasting, nope, adding a drop tasting it, nope. That’s a pain in the ass, you know; my students know all about that, my students run through a million models to get to the right thing.”

The translation of the book from Spanish-speckled English into English-inflected Spanish required its own experiments (though, he argues, “If you think about it, it’s a piece of cake”): “What’s really driving the book is code switching. I can’t control all the other languages but I can certainly control English and Spanish, so that all I needed to find with the Spanish translation was find an entirely different code to switch. So what we did was we translated the entire book into Spanish and then went through the entire book matching English and Spanish looking for a set of codes in English that worked really, really well in Spanish to preserve that sort of multilingual madness. For example, the word ‘feeling’ is an English word that’s very, very common in Spanish and it means something completely different. If you say someone came at you with feeling it speaks of a deep sincerity, but it has a very particular cool resonance in Spanish.” He adds that you can never go wrong with a word like “cool.”

As for those translations into languages which he can’t control, he says simply, “In translation signal noise is a given.” He gestures towards the bookshelves to our left, “If you look up here, at least 10% of these books are in translation. . . In the U.S. we have the lowest rate of reading in translation of any country in the industrialized world. And yet there’s more complaints, or more reservations around translations than anywhere else.”

Ultimately, “I think the more that you actually spend a translated life, the more you realize that it’s a minimal charge to be able to engage yourself in another world.”

And, in fact, though Díaz began reading as soon as he came to the U.S., attempting to find some sort of life logic in the pages of books, it wasn’t until he was much older that he began to write. When he was growing up, his brother came down with a brutal form of Leukemia (“It was a big part of my childhood,” he says. “He’s fine, he’s in remission, but he spent ten years in chemo. That’s a fucking long time, man.)

In an attempt to communicate his world to his brother, he wrote twenty to thirty page letters to him during his long stays in the hospital.

“A part of the way I stayed connected to my brother was writing these enormous, ridiculous letters about what was going on about our lives, about the neighborhood, and in some ways my complete love of reading had prepared me for the moment that my brother’s illness provided, which was an excuse to now participate in the form I loved so much. So that’s how I started actually, writing letters to someone in a hospital.”

tags:   Junot Diaz