Díaz: We all dream dreams of unity, of purity; we all dream that there's an authoritative voice out there that will explain things, including ourselves. If it wasn't for our longing for these things, I doubt the novel or the short story would exist in its current form. I'm not going to say much more on the topic. Just remember: In dictatorships, only one person is really allowed to speak. And when I write a book or a story, I too am the only one speaking, no matter how I hide behind my characters.
Slate:One could, of course, have written a more straightforward "political" novel about the depredations of Trujillo's dictatorship. How—or why—in your mind do the stories of Trujillo and Oscar fit together?
Díaz: I guess the question for me is, how are they not related? It's like the history of the Dominican Republic. You can't tell the history of the U.S. without the history of the Dominican Republic, and yet people do so all the time. Oscar, like Lola, like Yunior, is one of Trujillo's children. His shadow, his legacy, is upon them all in ways that none of them understand. Trujillo is a local version of the legacy of the New World, which all of us who live in this hemisphere carry upon our heads. The novel's question is: How do you deal with this legacy? Do you run from it? Do you ignore it, deploy existential denial? These are strategies that add to the legacy's power, that guarantee its perpetuation. Or do you look into the silence and actually say the words that you have to say?
And as a footnote: No one can write a straightforward political novel about the Trujillato and capture its phantasmagorical power. That's another reason I had to go hard-core nerd. Because without curses and alien mongooses and Sauron and Darkseid, the Trujillato cannot be accessed, eludes our "modern" minds. We need these fictional lenses, otherwise It we cannot see.
Slate:The book is full of footnotes, especially at the beginning, forcing the reader to break away from the narrative to take in information that may or may not be "external" to the story. What made you decide to put footnotes in the novel? How does the presence of "factual" footnotes affect the fiction of the novel, in your mind?
Díaz: The footnotes are there for a number of reasons; primarily, to create a double narrative. The footnotes, which are in the lower frequencies, challenge the main text, which is the higher narrative. The footnotes are like the voice of the jester, contesting the proclamations of the king. In a book that's all about the dangers of dictatorship, the dangers of the single voice—this felt like a smart move to me.
Slate:You once said that "you build your entire work on a series of failures." Can you talk a little bit about what you meant?
Díaz: I've never had the good fortune of getting a clear idea in my head and then writing the damn thing down in one go. The only success I've had as a writer is by screwing up over and over and over. I'll write a story or a chapter 20 times before I start approaching what I think the story should be. And it is in that process of writing what I'm not supposed to be writing that I find my way to what I am supposed to be writing.
This is a tiring and demoralizing way to go about writing. But I don't know any other approach. One of the reasons I guess I take so long to write. Not only is the process hard but it takes a lot to get back to the computer, when I know that chances are good that I'm only going to screw up again.
Slate:Your first book, Drown, a collection of short stories, was published to critical acclaim. Was it very different to write a novel?
Díaz: I've only written one story collection (of a sort) and one novel, so my perspective is rather limited. Drown was nothing like Oscar Wao. I felt like I was in two different worlds. When you write short stories, you are a laser, cutting, cutting with precision and ruthlessness. A novel was all about the embrace. Trying to get my arms around as much material, as many characters, as possible.
Slate:Much of the press about your work speaks about the fact that you are a "Latino writer." Do you think of yourself as a Latino writer? If so, what might that mean? If not, why not?
Díaz: We're in a country where white is considered normative; it's a country where white writers are simply writers, and writers of Latino descent are Latino writers. This is an issue whose roots are deeper than just the publishing community or how an artist wants to self-designate. It's about the way the U.S. wants to view itself and how it engineers otherness in people of color and, by doing so, props up white privilege. I try to battle the forces that seek to "other" people of color and promote white supremacy. But I also have no interest in being a "writer," either, shorn from all my connections and communities. I'm a Dominican writer, a writer of African descent, and whether or not anyone else wants to admit it, I know also that Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen are white writers. The problem isn't in labeling writers by their color or their ethnic group; the problem is that one group organizes things so that everyone else gets these labels but not it. No, not it.
Slate:Do you feel you have a duty to be representative?
Díaz: I've been asked to be "representative" for as long as I've been a Dominican. As a person of color living in the U.S. you're often considered an extension of your group—individualism is hard to come by. So this is nothing new. But I'm just one person, writing about one tiny set of (imagined) experiences. Sure, you can use what I write about to open a discussion about larger issues, about the communities in which my set of experiences is embedded, but that doesn't make me any expert on anything or the essence of the Dominican Republic.