The Search for Decolonial Love, Part II

An Interview with Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz / The American Library Association

In the first part of my conversation with Junot Díaz, we discussed the influence of women of color on his work and how his work addresses race. I asked him about the way he establishes a disjuncture in his writing between the realistic representation of race and an endorsement of the racial logic on which the representation is based. He answered by appealing to the example of the character Yunior from Drown, suggesting that Yunior’s inability to transcend society’s racial and gendered logic contributes to his continued victimization by that very same logic. In this part, our conversation turns to The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her, and Monstro, his novel in progress.

Paula: The way you create that disjuncture in Drown makes so much sense to me. Can you say more about how this all plays out in Oscar Wao?

Junot: In Oscar Wao we have a family that has fled, half-destroyed, from one of the rape incubators of the New World and they are trying to find love. But not just any love. How can there be “just any love” given the history of rape and sexual violence that created the Caribbean—that Trujillo uses in the novel? The kind of love that I was interested in, that my characters long for intuitively, is the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence. I am speaking about decolonial love.

One of the arguments that the book makes about Oscar is that he ain’t getting laid because he’s fat and nerdy. That might be part of it, but that is also a way of hiding other possibilities. Perhaps one of the reasons Oscar ain’t getting laid is because he is the son of a survivor of horrific sexual violence. In the same way that there is intergenerational transfer of trauma from mothers who are rape victims to their daughters, there is also intergenerational transfer of rape trauma between mothers and their sons. But most readers don’t notice how Oscar embodies some of the standard reactions of young rape victims to their violations. Many women in the aftermath of sexual violence put on weight—in some cases as an attempt to make themselves as unattractive as possible. Oscar isn’t fat just to be fat—at least not in my head. His fatness was partially a product of what’s going on in the family in regards to their bodies, in regards to the rape trauma.

For me, the family fukú is rape. The rape culture of the European colonization of the New World—which becomes the rape culture of the Trujillato (Trujillo just took that very old record and remixed it)—is the rape culture that stops the family from achieving decolonial intimacy, from achieving decolonial love.

Yunior, in this context, is a curious figure. He’s clearly the book’s most salient proponent of the masculine derangements that are tied up to the rape culture . . . he is its biggest proponent and its biggest “beneficiary.” He’s most clearly one of Trujillo’s children—yet he, too, is a victim of this culture. A victim in the lower-case sense because his failure to disavow his privileged position in that rape culture, to disavow the masculine discourse and behaviors that support and extend that culture, end up costing him the love of his life, his one best chance at decolonial love and, through that love, a decolonial self. But Yunior’s a victim in a larger, second sense: I always wrote Yunior as being a survivor of sexual abuse. He has been raped, too. The hint of this sexual abuse is something that’s present in Drown and it is one of the great silences in Oscar Wao. This is what Yunior can’t admit, his very own página en blanco. So, when he has that line in the novel: “I’d finally try to say the words that could have saved us. / __________ __________ __________,” what he couldn’t say to Lola was that “I too have been molested.” He could bear witness to everyone else’s deep pains but, in the end, he couldn’t bear witness to his own sexual abuse. He couldn’t tell the story that would have tied him in a human way to Lola, that indeed could have saved him.

Paula: Right. Now, am I just a bad reader? Or . . .

Junot: No.

Paula: . . . is it that silenced?

Junot: It’s that silenced; that elliptical. Perhaps it’s too great a silence, which is to say, it’s probably too small a trace to be read. Only visible, if visible at all, by inference. By asking: what is really bothering Yunior? Why is Yunior such a dog? Just because? Or is there something deeper? Think about it: isn’t promiscuity another typical reaction to sexual abuse? Compulsive promiscuity is certainly Yunior’s problem. A compulsive promiscuity that is a national masculine ideal in some ways and whose roots I see in the trauma of our raped pasts. Like I said: it’s probably not there at all-too subtle. But the fact of Yunior’s rape certainly helped me design the thematic economy of the book.

Is it possible to overcome the horrible legacy of slavery and find decolonial love?

Paula: Well, let’s go back to Oscar for a minute. You suggested that, for Oscar, putting on so much weight was a way of protecting himself.

Junot: That unconscious manifestation of fear of molestation, yeah, I think that is what it is . . .

Paula: So, Oscar and Yunior are both reacting to the rape culture of the Dominican Republic, but they are doing so in different ways. Moreover, they are reacting to their different experiences of that same culture: Yunior is reacting to his own violation by becoming hyper-promiscuous, whereas Oscar has absorbed some sense of violation from his mother and so responds by making himself—certainly not as a matter of conscious will—sexually unavailable.

Junot: Yes, ma’am. In the novel you see the way the horror of rape closes in on them all. The whole family is in this circuit of rape. And, you know, the point the book keeps making again and again and again is that, in the Dominican Republic, which is to say, in the world that the DR built, if you are a Beli, a Lola, a Yunior—if you are anybody—rape is never going to be far.

Paula: This is so interesting because, thinking back to your story “Ysrael,” the description of what happens to Ysrael when his mask is torn away—just the whole way that happens—is completely reminiscent of a rape.

Junot: Sure, and it’s preluded by Yunior being sexually assaulted.

Paula: Exactly! And between Yunior and Ysrael there’s a kind of mirroring, a doubling that you see structured into the story and, then—it’s just devastating.

Junot: [Nods quietly] One has to understand that all the comments, all the things that Yunior does in Oscar Wao, move him inexorably away from the thing that he most needs: real intimacy which must have vulnerability, forgiveness, acceptance as its prerequisites. So that even though Yunior is sexist, even though he’s misogynist, even though he’s racist, even though he mischaracterizes Oscar’s life, even though he’s narcissistic—at the end he’s left with no true love, doesn’t find himself, doesn’t find that decolonial love that he needs to be an authentic self. In fact, he ends up—like the work that he assembles and stores in the refrigerator—incomplete.

You know how he assembles this work on Oscar, how he says it needed someone else to complete, a someone he fantasizes as Lola’s daughter, Isis? Isis’s name, of course, is a bit of an inside joke, but an important one. Because, what does Isis do, what is she known for mythologically? In the Egyptian legends I grew up on, Isis assembles her lover/brother Osiris, she assembles the pieces of Osiris that have been chopped up and scattered by Set. That’s one of the great mythical tasks of Isis, except—What does she leave out? In the legends it says that Isis doesn’t find Osiris’s penis, but I like to believe she just leaves it out. Osiris comes back to the world alive but penis-less. Which for some is a horror but for others a marked improvement. In keeping with the Isis metaphor I’ve always thought, the thing with Yunior is that he couldn’t reassemble himself in a way that would leave out the metaphoric penis, that would leave out all his attachments to his masculine patriarchal phallocratic privileges. Which is what he needed to do to finally “get” Lola. In the end, Yunior is left . . . with not much. No Lola, no Isis, no Oscar.

Thinking about Yunior as having been raped made (in my mind at least) his fucked-up utterances in the novel have a different resonance. And while he wasn’t yet ready to bear witness to his own rape, it gave him a certain point of view around sexual violence that I don’t think would have been possible otherwise. It helped me produce a novel with a feminist alignment. A novel whose central question is: is it possible to overcome the horrible legacy of slavery and find decolonial love? Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?

Paula: You have a new collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, appearing in print very soon. And you are also at work on a new novel, a portion of which you had intended to read from yesterday before you decided instead to give that amazing and insightful lecture. Will you tell me a bit about Monstro?

I have to wrestle with all this weirdness, have to wrestle with the voice, have to wrestle with the characters.

Junot: Of course. Monstro is an apocalyptic story. An end of the world story set in the DR of the near future. It’s a zombie story. (On that island, how could it not be?) It’s an alien invasion story. It’s a giant monster story. It’s about the Great Powers (China, the United States) attempting to contain the growing infestation by re-invading the Island for, what, the twelfth time? I always say if people on my island know about anything they know about the end of the world. We are after all the eschaton that divided the Old World from the New. The whole reason I started writing this book is because of this image I have of this fourteen-year-old girl, a poor, black, Dominican girl, half-Haitian—one of the Island’s damnés—saving the world. It’s a book is about this girl’s search for—yes—love in a world that has made it its solemn duty to guarantee that poor raced “conventionally unattractive” girls like her are never loved.

Paula: That’s so interesting because just a couple of days ago I went to a talk by the Stanford sociologist Corey Fields; he is doing some pilot studies about the impact of race on black women’s love lives. During his talk, Fields mentioned a book by Averil Clarke called Inequalities of Love. The thing about this book is that it talks about the fact that college-educated black women, in particular, date less, marry less, and have fewer romantic relationships than their college-educated white and Latina counterparts, and than non-college-educated black women. But the important intervention that Clarke makes is that she points out that everyone talks about this fact as a kind of difference. Well, sure it is a difference, but it is not just a difference—it’s an inequality. So she frames the situation in terms of an inequality and describes it as a “romantic deprivation” that black women suffer.

Junot: Love this!

Paula: And this romantic deprivation has all manner of cascading implications for everything else in their lives.

Junot: Oh man.

Paula: Anyway, Clarke’s book sounds like it is getting at something that you are getting at in your fiction.

Junot: Without a doubt. The inequality of love.

Paula: So how far along are you on Monstro?

Junot: Not far enough. You know, it sounds ridiculous, but the amount of deep structural work that I have to wrestle with before the first chapters start to roll . . . it’s the same thing that happened with Oscar Wao. I had to get all this stuff that I’m talking about to you now in place in my head. And so I have to wrestle with all this weirdness, have to wrestle with the voice, have to wrestle with the characters. I’ve written about 200 pages now and they’re actually not bad. But all of it was to set up the book and, in fact, none of these pages are going to go in.

Paula: Oh—that’s one of those mature realizations you come to over time. You write and write and write, and it does not end up in the book, but it was still necessary. It was all part of the process.

Junot: Totally true. I used to hate it. Now I’m more tolerant. Ever since my life exploded five years ago, I’ve learned a bunch of things and now, with the body failing, it makes you a little bit more humble. But it was great to get through that work. I feel like the first big part is done. And now I just started writing the novel, and I finished the first 50 pages, a part of which is what is coming out in The New Yorker. And, you know, I’m just going to keep going.

Click here to read Part I of this interview.

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About the Author

Junot Díaz is fiction editor of Boston Review and author of Drown and The Brief Life of Oscar Wao.

Paula M.L. Moya is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. She is editor of Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century.

Junot Díaz,
Song of Solomon Transformed My Life

Dorothy Roberts,
A World Without Race