The 20th edition of the Singapore Writers Festival earlier this month saw a host of the most highly acclaimed writers, poets, playwrights and the literati of the region participate in the programmes — noted names included the Dominican-American Junot Díaz, who has published three books over 16 years — the 1996 short story collection Drown, the Pulitzer Prize–winning 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and the 2012 short story collection This Is How You Lose Her — each a celebrated title that delves into the intricacies of human relationships and the immigrant experience.
Coming soon is an illustrated children’s book, Islandborn, due out in March 2018, that has been 20 years in the making — Díaz had promised his young god-daughters to write a book with characters like them, Dominican girls growing up in the Bronx, and he’s finally keeping his word. And in addition to writing and teaching creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Díaz finds time to pen socio-political commentary and personal narratives for publications such as The New Yorker.
We chat with the author on speaking out in support of the under-represented, his (in)famously laborious writing process, and what he’s planning to work on next.
You’ve been vocal in supporting undocumented Haitians facing persecution in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria devastated their island. Do you see any contradiction in your roles as activist and observer or writer, and how do you balance those roles?
Plenty of writers have day jobs and families and political interests on top of their writing. Most of us able to balance multiple demands on our times and our imaginations. Given the complexity of our world, we have to. These disparate parts of me are just me so I don’t feel them to be in real conflict.
How has your advocacy and activism influenced your writing, and vice versa?
I’m not sure. My compassion seems to crucial to both of these practices. If anything, both of these areas help me increase my compassion.
You’ve talked about being a slow writer and chronic procrastinator — “It’s like you spend 16 years chefing in the kitchen, and all that’s left is an amuse-bouche,” you told The New York Times in 2012. Do you feel this mode of writing helps or hinders the material you publish? You’ve held on to manuscripts for years, so what is the process you go through to finally decide whether a project can move forward, needs revision, or has to be let go?
I wish I could put a better spin on it, but I’m just slow. And I don’t seem to get any faster with age. If I wrote more I’d certainly be happier, but what can you do?
Which would you rather have — a small number of published books but each an acclaimed hit, or a large oeuvre but perhaps with some books less well-received than others?
I’ve come to terms with lameness — so I’ll stick to just being me: Someone with three books that some people read.
After Islandborn, what will you be working on next?
That’s a good question. I hope a novel.
For more on Junot Díaz’s thoughts on being an author in a time of societal tension and pessimism, read the December 2017 issue of Prestige.