Q&A With Pulitzer Prize–Winning Author Junot Diaz

The bestselling author will deliver the 40th annual McFadden Lecture at the Central Library on March 2.

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If you’ve read anything by Junot Díaz, you know his work confronts race, immigration, and diaspora head-on, without filter and with a deep understanding of the human experience. The author of the critically-acclaimed short story collections Drown and This is How You Lose Her, as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, will bring his insights, opinions, and unapologetic personality to Indianapolis on March 2. We caught up with Díaz beforehand to talk everything from politics to book recommendations.

 

It feels impossible to start this interview without addressing the topic of immigration. You’re an immigrant, and most of your work is rooted in that experience. What are your thoughts on Trump’s recent immigration ban? How do you feel about the public’s response so far?
Trump’s immigration politics are appalling and dangerous. How convenient that this economic and political parasite would choose to run a vile anti-immigrant campaign when the reality is, the largest problems facing this country have nothing to do with immigration. Economy inequality, the destruction of our democracy by corporate interests, the degradation of our ecology, the lack of decent jobs, decent schools, decent healthcare, decent houses—these are real problems, but it’s so much easier to get worked up about “dem immigrants” than to do that which might improve our democracy and make our country’s future safe and more secure. I grew up an immigrant in this country, and I know firsthand there are strong nativist currents in our society. But Trump’s election shows you just how deep and cold these run.

In today’s climate of social and political division, what role do you think fiction plays?
Art always plays a role. But we also need people organizing and resisting. Art makes us more human and deepens our sense of the world, but a book alone can’t change the world. People need to come together for that to happen.

Do you ever find yourself trying to explain or prove the value of fiction? MIT, where you teach, is an exceptional school, but creative writing and the arts aren’t what one might first associate with the university.
I’ve been defending the arts my whole adult life. Try explaining to poor immigrants why literary culture matters. MIT is nothing new. By the time I got to the school, I had a lot of practice. The truth is that the average MIT student doesn’t need much convincing. MIT is a select college; select college students are almost always well-rounded students.

It’s pretty cool that you sat down to have lunch with Barack Obama before he left office. Can you talk about that experience? Did you exchange book recommendations?
What was most striking was that the President was not unbowed, even in the wake of Trump’s election and the unprecedented threat he and his cronies represent to our democracy. He didn’t recommend any books, though it is clear that he continues to be a deep reader.

Speaking of book recommendations, what are you reading right now? Is there a book that has been particularly influential to your writing?
Right now I’m reading Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, which is an excellent diagnostic of our current politics of rage. As for my writing, so many books helped me. But I certainly owe a heavy debt to writers like Patrick Chamoiseau and novels like Midnight’s Children.

Your stop here in Indy is just one of many appearances you’re doing this spring. Is a book tour as glamorous as it sounds? What makes one stop more memorable than another?
Lots of hotels and lots of room service. What I always remember most are the readers and their passion for books. That’s not something you easily forget.

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