Writer after writer will tell you the same thing: It starts with a voice, with the faintest suggestion of a character. That character comes to inhabit the world, the real world, and the writer is thrilled, and maybe a little frightened, of how real that character becomes. Writing what it dictates only tightens its grasp.
For Junot Díaz, it all started with Yunior. The cerebral, impulsive Dominican-American character turned up over 20 years ago, back when the writer was applying to graduate programs, and Yunior’s voice has been central to Díaz’s fiction ever since. Díaz, who’s been on a hectic travel schedule, corresponded with the Daily via email from Japan before his visit to the University of Michigan this Wednesday for the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. The author reflected on his work and what it’s like to be an artist of color in 2017 — and, of course, he elaborated on the role Yunior has played as a narrator and a muse in many of his stories.
“Yunior is a particular kind of cat with very specific textual, political and cultural preferences,” Díaz wrote. This adds life to his fiction, peppering his work with references and asides that keep it current, yet situate it in a specific place, time and culture.
Yunior’s darker side — and by extension, Diaz’s — showed up in “Drown” and its stories of alienation and abandonment; over a decade later, romance and lust grated on Yunior’s conscience in “This Is How You Lose Her.” Both of these were collections of short stories, drawing upon Díaz’s immigrant childhood in New Jersey and his navigation through the U.S. educational system.
Yunior is narrator of Diaz’s lively, dysfunctional stories of American life — but he isn’t always the protagonist. It was Yunior’s voice that brought another compelling character to life: Oscar Wao, subject of the 2008 novel “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Díaz received the Pulitzer Prize, and handfuls of other awards, for this novel; due in no small part to the sharp, humorous, yet sometimes desolate voice of Yunior as he narrates Oscar’s story. As Díaz has written his character into being over the years, Yunior, it seems, really has developed a life of his own.
“Yunior was already in place from my first book and when I started Oscar Wao he really dictated a lot of the form. (And boy do I mean dictated.)” Díaz wrote.
This not only strengthened Díaz’s novel, but twisted it in new and unexpected ways, as his unreliable narrator weaves stories of his own until the truth is as muddled as it is in life.
“Yunior dresses the novel in a manner th helps to deepen and complicate the narrative while simultaneously obscuring his narrative intentions,” Díaz wrote. “His narrative elaborations are as much a mask as anything.”
For Díaz, this love of the unreliable narrator, of the complexities and multiplicities of any “true” story, lie at the heart of his love for fiction itself. It is easier, after all, to say something of value when Yunior can say it himself.
“I hate writing essays,” he wrote. “I don’t trust my voice in the non-fiction modality. I prefer the uncertainty and multiplicity of fiction.”
The author may shy from the absolute truths of nonfiction writing, but these days, he delivers truths of different sorts — as a long time activist for immigrant rights in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, and as a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both of these roles draw upon Díaz’s talents, but also stretch his attentions, and he finds he must throw himself into just one pursuit at a time.
“My writing seems to serve no one else but itself but with community work there always seems to be a higher calling, civic responsibility and the like. I’ve never been able to be do both madly at the same time, though,” he wrote. “I seem to be very monogamous with my passions. Either I’m writing like crazy or I’m engaged in the community like crazy. One or the other.”
While Díaz may not feel that his fiction contributes to society in the same way that his activism does, his stories of Dominican American immigrant life open up a world that wider audiences may never otherwise come into contact with. It doesn’t change laws or elect anyone to office. But all the same, Díaz believes that as a writer, he has a responsibility to bring an alternative perspective on American life into the national conversation.
“My hope for all artists is that they try as hard as they can not to reproduce the dangerous hegemonic narratives that our society seems so addicted to,” Díaz said. “As a country we’ve got a lot more work to do to bring our canon in line with reality and not with the artificial fantasies of those who use their power to populate the culture with their own images.”
Coming-of-age immigrant narratives like “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” are becoming a more standard part of the American literary landscape — and a much needed one at that. There may still be a long way to go, but Díaz is optimistic that new voices are being heard, new narratives being written.
“Clearly there’s a necessary and wonderful transformation happening in American letters, towards greater diversity and inclusion, a transformation whose ultimate trajectory we can scarcely imagine,” he said. “I’m glad to be writing and reading in this day and age. The future seems so damn bright from where I’m standing.”