Junot Díaz on the Complexities Beneath the Blanket Term “Race,” Our Limiting Mythologies of Success, Why Dictatorships Are Like Reddit, and How Artists Survive
By Maria Popova
“Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her magnificent meditation on the magic of real human conversation. “Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.” Nowhere is this connective tissue of participation stronger than when we listen to two people of enormous intellectual potency converse about ideas of deep relevance to every dimension of existence, from the granular immediacy of our daily lives to the most abiding macro-truths of the human experience. Those are the types of conversations that have unfolded upstairs at The Strand.
Since 1927, The Strand bookstore has endured as a bastion of literature and an iconic New York institution — a “monument to the immortality of the written word,” in Fran Lebowitz’s words. The sole survivor of the city’s famous Book Row, this living landmark whose famed red awning boasts “18 miles of books” has continued to grow in size and scope. In 2003, it was crowned with a Rare Book Room occupying the newly built top floor — a spacious portal into a different era, with its oriental rugs and velvet curtains and Edwardian leather armchairs and shelves overflowing with treasures ranging from signed Hemingway first editions to esoteric Victorian encyclopedias of botany.
It was there that some of the greatest writers of our time began convening for a series of revelatory public conversations — titans like George Saunders, Renata Adler, A.M. Homes, David Shields, Alison Bechdel, Mark Strand, Paul Auster, and Edward Albee. The record of these extraordinary encounters now appears as Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore (public library).
Jessica Strand, who masterminded the series and who currently hosts the wonderful Books at Noon program at the New York Public Library, writes in the preface:
It was this feeling — the serendipity, the variety, the happy collision of books, ideas, and people — that we tried to capture in our reading series up in the Rare Book Room. The goal was to match writers with other writers: two (or more) equals on stage for freewheeling, candid conversations on their work, their craft, their likes, their dislikes.
The pairings span an enormous range of relationships — dear friends who had loved each other for decades, admiring strangers who had never met in person before, writers who teach each other’s work, thinkers linked by a common thread not readily visible. Each conversation is governed by a different self-determined dynamic — some become interviews, with one writer assuming the role of the revealer and the other of the revealed; some are two-way celebrations, where the mutual goodwill and deep admiration become the lens through which both writers’ work is illuminated; some are dynamic interactions of ideas bouncing between two formidable minds and radiating into a winding, layered, nuanced conversation about, oh, everything.
One of the most electrifying pairings is of two good friends, New Yorker critic Hilton Als and Pulitzer-winning Dominican American writer Junot Díaz, in which Als takes on the role of interviewer as Díaz reflects on his becoming as a person, his evolution as a writer, and the interplay between the two. What emerges is a refreshingly candid yet considered perspective on the nuanced complexities we flatten into the blanket term “race,” the pernicious mythology of success to which we all too automatically subscribe, and the burdens, responsibilities, and rewards of the artist as a public persona and a private person.
Nearly half a century after James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s terrifically timely conversation about race, Díaz points to the lamentable ways in which we’ve lost rather than gained dimension in how we think and talk about this elemental reality of human life:
We’ve lost so many words to talk about race, we don’t even have a conversation about it, we have lost it. Yet, in the Caribbean, there are more than twelve words that I can come up with to describe people’s skin color, at least in the neighborhood where I grew up in. In some ways I think that is useful, because it helps when it comes time to approach the question of privilege. People don’t claim amnesia. Some can think my uncles are super-backwards because the didn’t go to Ivy League schools, but they don’t cop to any of that ridiculous liberal amnesia. The sort of thing that translates into statements like, “Oh, it’s not race, it’s class.” I think you can’t have class without race. It’s called colonialism. Some people come right off the bat and say, a guy is ignorant. My uncles would never make those claims, but rather say it’s about black people. But I find that level of frankness, even if it’s considered regressive and messed up, a better starting point than the constant illusion of the sort of liberal moment that we have.
This impoverishing of vocabulary and perspectives, Díaz argues, has seeded our woefully artificial binary view of the role of race in art:
Whenever I read about people of color as artists I think it is so overly simplified. We tend to be reduced to the cultural element… Or we’ll be reduced to simplistic visions that say that in these works of art, this artist is talking about this crucial moment, or about the problem of race. [Critics will] use these terms that mean nothing, because they don’t want to approach what exactly a person is getting at in their work. If white artists were discussed along racial terms as often as people of color, we would be a better country. I never see a white dancer discussing how their whiteness impacts their dance. The first question out of an interviewer’s mind when they talk to a white artist is never if they have experienced racism. But as an artist, I must say it’s incredible the amount of times these questions come up, and when they ask me, I’m always ready to ask back, “Have you been racist lately?”
And yet, in a strangely assuring way, the wellspring of that reality-warping cultural amnesia is also the wellspring of our grounds for hope — our collective memory and our collective imagination are equally flawed in both directions of the time continuum. Myopically fixated on the present, we are just as unable to imagine a marvelously different future as we are to admit a damningly different past. Díaz observes:
One of the best things about art, as anyone who’s studied a Victorian text knows, is that the future comes faster than we imagine, and there is a future coming up, of young artists and young critics and young scholars, who are thinking in ways that make the current conversation about our art look incredibly reductive.
Even so, such emergent voices are tasked with reconciling opposing impulses and ideals — a balancing act so tremendously taxing that it borders on the impossible:
People want to read stories by “marginal artists” as universal in the exact wrong way we want them to be read. I want to be read as universal not because this stands in for all Dominicans… All art, because it scales to the human, because of that human-level distortion, is disqualified from becoming a stand-in for a nation, or a time.
On the one hand, we don’t want to be called out for that, but on the other hand, we want all the banners and prizes and privileges that come with that. It’s a terrible, terrible two-headed dragon to serve.
Echoing Ralph Ellison, Díaz considers the power of fiction in enlarging our collective imagination to encompass precisely these previously unimagined and conditionally unimaginable alternative futures for ourselves, as individuals and as a society:
It’s really helpful to assemble selves not always deploying realism. Realism cannot account for my little brother and my grandmother, but Octavia Butler’s science fiction can. Samuel Delany’s generic experiments can explain them. I read his book and that range is present, not only present, but what is unbearable about trying to hold the two together in one place. So it helps not to have realism as the only paradigm to really understand yourself.
But the quest to understand oneself, Díaz cautions, can be horribly impeded by the compulsion to be liked by others:
The engine that propels me is one that doesn’t want me to be anybody’s friend, doesn’t want popularity.
I grew up in a post-dictatorship dictatorship society. The axis of likability is how dictatorships survive. Becoming popular is part of what dictatorships hijack to remain in power. For me to write things from the same toxic axis that made stronger the dictatorship that completely disfigured my family and my society, it just wasn’t going to happen. My father was a Dominican military police apparatchik. He was emblematic of that culture. And I lived in a place where it was so much better to be liked because your shirt was ironed, or because you had a good posture. It was just insane, the way a military dictatorship is like Reddit… My experience of living in a post-dictatorship society is that everybody believes that they’re going to be the Reddit article that gets pushed all the way up. The like axis is just very, very powerful and I needed to tilt a different way. I needed to say that it is possible to say things, to be involved in a conversation with people where the relationship is determined by things more complicated than whether you like me or not. Maybe the content of my communication would be in itself worthy of discussion, regardless of how you felt at an emotional level about the person bringing the news. In a dictatorship, the two things get quickly put together. The news you bring stands as a moral judgment about you, and this is the way you keep critics silent, because you basically say, “If you criticize the dictatorship, it’s not only your thinking, your body is out of order, which is why we must destroy your body.”
Díaz considers how so-called marginalized artists make their way through the dominant culture even in non-dictatorial societies:
It’s an old pattern, but one that is super-reliable. We’re so erased. If you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you come from a poor background, if you come from a family who worked like dogs and never got any respect or a share of the profits, you know that ninety percent of your stories ain’t told. And yet we still have to be taught to look and to tell our stories. Many of us have to stumble our way through this. Despite the utter absence of us, it’s still an internal revolution to say, “Wait a minute. We are not only worthy of great art, but the source of.” It takes a lot of work to get there.
But his most salient, most uncomfortable-making, most intensely important point deals with our limiting mythology of the getting-there. With his characteristic large-hearted but fiery candor, Díaz pushes back against an audience question about how he was able to transcend a childhood of deprivation and “succeed so beautifully” as an artist:
This is the mythography of America, progressive, where you have this idea that everything moves upward, and people are always on this journey to improvement. So, “How did you make it?” Listen, this is very important to understand, I don’t speak the language of “make it.” 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 problem in this country rewarding 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.
In a sentiment that gave me particular pause both culturally and personally — having grown up in a communist dictatorship and now living in America as a woman and a queer person and a generation-zero immigrant, I belong to a number of the groups Díaz enumerates — he adds:
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. We don’t know anything about anybody. Yes, I have made a certain level of status as an artist and as a writer, but what I am reminded of most acutely is not of my “awesomeness,” or some sort of will to power that has led me through the jungle. What I am aware of, being here, is that I am representative of a structural exclusion.
He reflects on how living with such systematic “structural exclusion” counters the transcendence narrative undergirding the popular mythology of success:
We accept too much at face value these ideologies of transcendence… I just knew, from everything that I saw, that there is no transcending the human experience. You’ve got to realize that most of us feel permanently displaced and savagely undone. Most of us try everything we can to manage our fears and our insecurities. Most of us are profoundly inhuman to ourselves and other people, and that makes us no less valuable, and no less worthy of attention and love. I didn’t transcend all this stuff, you just got to live with [it], man, and there’s nothing like trying to run away from all that stuff to guarantee its supremacy… The transcendence myth will just do you in, in the long run.
To live with it, Díaz intimates, requires a willingness to hold the ephemeral and the eternal in both hands while marching forward — requires that we contact both the impermanence of outward successes and the immutability of art’s intrinsic rewards:
Only one person attended my first reading at Boston, my best friend, Shuya Ohno… [The United States] is not like Latin America, that tends to be much more committed to its artists, and you could be thirty years in the game and not publish one book and people still think you matter. We are a fickle, fickle nation, and today’s arrival is tomorrow’s “See, I told you, what a fraud.” Somebody will come along and that’s the reality of it. 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 have to be comfortable there, no matter what your fantasies of supremacy and success are, because tomorrow that’s where you’ll be at.
The best part about art is that as long as the civilization survives, somebody out here will keep one copy of your text, and perhaps that will give comfort, inspiration, and more importantly a space for an individual to be in touch with their humanity. To be temporally in touch with their best selves, which is fragile, flawed, weak, scared… That’s worth working, and that’s the moment why most of us go this very long, shadowed path into producing 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.
Upstairs at the Strand is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring eleven other equally yet very differently stimulating pairings, including A.M. Homes and Leigh Newman, Renata Adler and David Shields, and George Saunders and Deborah Eisenberg. Complement this particular portion with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on identity, race, and the immigrant experience and poet Sarah Kay on how we measure artistic success.
Published March 21, 2016