Junot Díaz Talks Civic Duty, Dystopias, and Lunching with Obama

By Pamela Avila 

Sinkholes, mudslides, and the closing and flooding of freeways in L.A. didn’t stop a crowd from filling up every single seat at Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) on February 17. It was a full house, with more waiting in the standby line for tickets; it seems no one minded the trek to DTLA for an evening with current Katie Jacobson Writer-In-Residence at CalArts, Junot Díaz.

After all, the reading had been postponed from its original date in January, so not even a “biblical apocalypse” — as Díaz described L.A.’s weather — would stop people from coming.

Before he took to the stage, director of CalArts MFA Creative Writing Program Maggie Nelson helped introduce the MacArthur “genius.” In addition to talking “literary shop,” she said, as Writer-In-Residence Díaz spoke to CalArt’s students about social justice issues, and helped “guide students in a moment of profound political anger, despair and sometimes panic.”

As Díaz graced the stage, he was eager to engage with his audience. “What y’all thinking about?” he asked, before he had even read from his work. He put people of color front and center — much like in his work. He asked who in the audience was Caribbean, Dominican, Latino, or of African descent, and he welcomed women of color to ask questions first. Díaz reminded us to focus on our vulnerability, our panic, and our anxieties, but to also not let them consume us. While we learned more about the writer, activist, and immigrant Junot Díaz, we also heard from the many faces and diverse narratives in the audience.

Questions sprung up about what Díaz ate at his lunch with the Obamas, the panic felt in the new administration, how to speak to parents about politically-charged topics, civic duty, and of course, on writing. He answered it all with humor, grace, and an honesty that only Díaz can exemplify.  

After the Q&A, in Díaz fashion, he borrowed someone’s copy of his novel to read from and we were instantly transported to Oscar Wao’s world. Díaz has authored the short story collections Drown and This Is How You Lose Her, and the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here are some of Díaz’s words from that evening.

On meeting Barack Obama for lunch at the White House:

I was fucking nervous. Do y’all eat when you’re in front of the president? I couldn’t eat anything, I had coffee and they brought dessert and I had the crust. But I didn’t eat anything else, and Obama ate everything.

When I immigrated to the U.S., and was growing up in New Jersey, if you had told me, [the person] whose parents could barely remember my name, that I was going to end up having a meal with the president, I probably would have laughed myself into a seizure. What was interesting about it of course, is it was the last goodbye before the coming darkness –– that was very troubling, that sense of it. Except he wasn’t troubled at all. His optimism is for real, it can’t be falsified. I don’t have that kind of optimism, but I thought it was very cool to see someone with that.

The other thing is, I’ve never met a person of African descent who had the ability to destroy the planet. Who had that [power], and had wrestled with that for eight years. That was also something I was very aware of, because we’re the children of all these apocalypses, we’re the children of all these histories that almost nearly, absolutely, obliterated us. And then here was this very strange, ironic, juxtaposition — that’s what I was thinking about.

On breaking away from dystopian fantasy and imagining better futures:  

Shit, I love my dystopias. Our concepts of the future have been, in some ways, overdetermined by dystopian discourses. Said another way, is that most of us, when we close our eyes and think of the future, think of the future as a nightmare. Which is cool because you should be able to think of it that way, but you should also be able to switch and reverse, and equally, nimbly, exercise some of your future-muscles along utopian lines. You don’t have to be Fredric Jameson, as I pointed out, to know that one of the great outcomes of an inability to imagine better futures is that when you fear that tomorrow will be worse than today, you basically fight to preserve today, which in a profoundly unequal society is incredibly helpful for hegemonic elites. So the ability for us, even as an exercise, to imagine utopian futures, how underpowered those muscles are, I think goes hand in hand with white hands around our necks. And this is something that I think we have to really reflect on because there are just languages — we’re incredibly fluent in “tomorrow is going to be really terrible,” but we’re not fluent in “the imagination that we could overthrow this bullshit and make a more just tomorrow.” That comes far harder and that’s part of our social imaginaries, but that’s also part of what Henry Jenkins at USC calls our “civic imaginaries,” that we have to learn to be able to at least imagine better futures if we’re ever going to be able to realize them.

On whether art can “save us” and the expectations of art as a civic liberty:

That’s a lot to sort of ask of literature. But it’s also a lot to assume that we have this kind of tremendous power. I’m not very romantic about what my creative work can do. I believe in the transformative power of art, I believe in the humanizing power of art. I wouldn’t be an artist if I didn’t believe these ideals, but on the other hand, I don’t think that you can send your art down to an elderly home to do work. I was talking to a bunch of students before and I just don’t believe this traditional sensibility that so many fucking artists — especially the tradition of mainstream white male artists — who are like “my contribution to the civic is my art.” I just don’t buy that shit. That’s incredibly convenient. It’s not the way it works, right. I, myself, believe that art should be in every part of everything, so art is a part of our resistance. But I was telling these young folks, listen, we all have to do civic work. Why am I going to send my art to help repair society when I can go down and do some fucking work? And we need all of us to do the work. This idea, this exceptionalism, that artists somehow, they really believe this magic about the work they do — that they can beat everything at once. I need folks to actually head the fuck down and give something back to the civic. The art helped heal me, but it doesn’t do a spooky indirect process, and we don’t need just spooky indirect processes, we need people metiendo mano.

On how to deal with feelings of uncertainty, fear, and panic in the current political climate:

We all have our appetites for fucking panic. We all have the way we bind anxiety. Unless you’re fucking nuts, this is a very anxious time. And some of us are nuts so whatever. This is a very anxious time, and some of us bind our anxieties through exposure; we can’t turn the fucking radio off, we can’t turn the TV off, if our idiot president if giving a news conference, we just tune in and then we spend hours listening to the after effect of tuning in, and that’s just the way we bind our anxiety: exposure.

Others are completely avoidant, I know mad people who signed off all their social media accounts and are walking around like a bunch of fucking luddites. They don’t want to hear anything about the news, they’re completely pulling themselves away. And some of us, we figure out how to ration and shit. How do we deal with it with a certain kind of distancing? I think first thing first: folks gotta get the fuck over the panic shit. Because we’re still in a lot of panic. So many of my friends are still real deep in their feels, they’re not thinking — they’re just lashing out and going crazy about this shit and we’ve gotta get past that. I’m not saying it’s not going to take a while, but I don’t think it’s going to help if in the long term we’re just veering from rage to depression to despair.

Affect often distorts our ability to understand and our ability to really see what’s going on. It certainly dampens our sense of agency. The more that you’re in your feelings in that kind of crazy way, the less likely you are to feel crisp access to your sense of agency. Get that mourning out, get that panic out, but we have to get to it. As long as you’re just bugging out because of what’s going on with Trump and his white supremacist kabal, your panic is going to eat you alive, your sense of rage and indignation is going to eat you alive. What I’ve been doing, and it helps me filter it correctly, is I just keep volunteering … If you spend as much time tuning in to fucking Trump, as we do volunteering, it would bring the panic down and also give you a sense of solidarity –– we are in the best company. Those of us who are in resistance to this shit, we’re in good company. It’s going to be a tough four years but it’s going to be even harder if all we do is panic.

On our fear of hegemony:

Hegemony has us so fucking afraid. They’re not afraid. They get into office with no training, no power, no education, no backup, no anything. They’re inventing schemes to destroy us. And they’ve got us so afraid we can’t even name them. We’re so perversely terrified of losing what we call the hegemonic dividend. We’re so afraid of the hegemons being angry at us. And I think we’ve gotta stop it, man. We’ve gotta stop it. People in power are not your fucking friends, they’re not. And if you think the blow will be lessened by making them like you, you’re in for a world of hurt.

To the children of immigrants who have difficulty discussing with their parents the political issues surrounding us:  

Blessed are those of you whose parents will go to a march with you. That was not my experience. What I had to learn is when my mother thinks about me going out on a march, she thinks about me being disappeared and tortured to death. What I had to learn was to be compassionate to my mother; you don’t unlearn a dictatorship just because you’re away from it. Most parents, like my mother, are very, very scared in ways that they’ve naturalized. I learned the best way to do this was just through compassion. If we remember what they lived through then we understand that this conversation is going to take a while, it’s going to take a long time to get through those defenses, but if we’re not patient, the conversation will never happen. Dictatorships don’t disappear like that. A history of profound oppression doesn’t evaporate just because a child needs you, and that’s the hardest thing. These things take time. I’m still cracking at my mom with this stuff, we still have these conversations because I believe it’s possible to slowly coax someone into feeling they’re safe enough to stand up for themselves, but they’ve got to do a lot of unlearning.

 

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