BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
JUNOT DÍAZ: The biggest megaphones want to talk about the person on top. They want to talk about the hero, the winner. But the little megaphones, you're in a library with your librarian, you're working at the church in the basement, helping folks out, you're coming in to a home and reading to elderly. There are all these other little megaphones that are telling you and whispering that "This is beauty, this is humanity, this is America."
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Junot Díaz is known to start conversations some folks would rather not have. Here he is at a recent conference in Baltimore, urging the audience to take a page from José Martí, the revolutionary poet and hero of Cuba's independence from Spain:
JUNOT DÍAZ: You need to cultivate the Martí mind. The Martí mind is simply that, as much love as I have for my own group, I have for every other group. To take possessive investment in each others’ struggles. Where whatever’s happening to the Gay community, is happening to us. Whatever’s happening in the Asian community, that’s us. Instead of possessive commodified investment in our identities, we need to take possessive investment in our other communities’ struggles.
BILL MOYERS: The life and work of Junot Díaz contain many worlds – and that makes him all the more worth listening to. His imagination journeys between the old and the new, between the America that was and the America we’re becoming. Straddling different cultures – yet American to the core -- he seems to be looking in every direction at once: a spotter of the future, a curator of the past, a man very much of the here-and-now. In his first book, Drown and in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao -- the novel that won him the Pulitzer Prize -- Díaz writes in short, vivid strokes of realspeak. His recent collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Díaz, the novelist, once considered becoming an historian and to this day he summons his creative gifts by looking to his own past. He was born in the Dominican Republic, part of that Caribbean island with a split personality, in what he calls a “super gangster neighborhood” and came of age among the “super poor” in New Jersey. Along the way, he developed a literary curiosity that pivots from dystopian visions of science fiction to the 19th century classic novel, Moby Dick. In Captain Ahab's whaling crew, men of every race are thrown together in pursuit of the elusive and the mythical. Diaz sees in this a parable of America then and now. He teaches creative writing at MIT and recently received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the well-known and coveted “genius grant.”
Junot Díaz, welcome.
JUNOT DÍAZ: Oh, thank you for having me.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I've wanted to have you, because I've wanted to ask one of America's foremost storytellers what's the story you're telling yourself out of this election?"
JUNOT DÍAZ: Whew, it was bananas watching that election. But I think probably the thing that comes out most forcefully after the election is how little people were expecting the voting, the sort of, the electoral body that made Obama's victory possible. I mean, I think there was, no one was talking about the sort of numbers that showed up for Obama. No one was predicting the diversity of the vote. No one was predicting that sort of the Republican strategy for securing a Romney victory would come to grief so kind of spectacularly. I mean, I'm telling you. Even the communities who came out to vote, I think, were shocked by their own numbers and by their own power. I mean, when you look at the Cuban community in Florida, a community that has historically voted super conservative and suddenly see an entirely new generation voting, and you see those numbers that they put up for Obama. It was extraordinary. And I think that a lot of folks have very poor sense of what's happening in this country on the ground. I mean, they're kind of all the way up here, whether it's age, class, institutional divisions. And they don't really have a real kind of panoramic or even a deep view of the real sort of granular shifts that have occurred in this country, that have been occurring.
I think the plot is that there is an enormous gap between the way the country presents itself and imagines itself and projects itself and the reality of this country. Whether we're talking about the Latino community in North Carolina. Whether we're talking about a very active and I think in some ways very out queer community across the United States. Or whether we're talking about an enormous body of young voters who are either ignored or sort of pandered to or in some ways, you know, kind of distorted, I think that what we're having is a new country emerging that's been in the making for a long time, and that in different regions we've already seen its face. But I think for the first time sort of revealed itself more fully to the entire country.
BILL MOYERS: Are there no honest mirrors reflecting back to us what you just talked about?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Sure. But, you know, you've got to really be interested in that. And sometimes your mindset, you know, doesn't allow you to see it. I mean, how many people do I know who work in a building where every single person who makes that building possible is Latino, you know? And yet, when you ask them, "Do you know any Latinos?" they're like, "Nah, really, the Latino community's growing?" And yet everybody that holds the door, all the way up to the guys who run the mechanical systems in the building. And so, of course, I do think that there's already for some folks that old story that we've been carrying about ourselves that gets reinforced every day in the news and every day on television, in the movies, and even in the culture of books, that old story is tenacious. And it's hard to kind of move that enormous boulder in a new direction.
BILL MOYERS: There are some people, of course, as you know well, who wish the old story were still the story. Bill O'Reilly, for example.
BILL O’REILLY on Fox News: The demographics are changing. It's not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things and who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it and he ran on it. And whereby 20 years ago President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff.
JUNOT DÍAZ: It's sort of delusional, first of all. I mean, because it's sort of a claim made and then the sort of what the information extracted from that claim. Yes, I agree that the majority, the plurality of voters in this country think the economic system is stacked against them. But I don't think that they therefore turn around and say, "We want stuff." I think what they say is, "And the Republican Party is part of the reason the economic system's stacked against us." But, you know, the larger claim, the larger sort of statement is certainly there is this panicked, wounded, astonished, nostalgic longing for an America, a white, conservative America, that in many ways never was. Never, never really was. And so it's sort of sad to see, you know, someone like O’Reilly. You know, that moment where he can't confront what's really happened. And he tries to explain it away in this really weird, welfare story that, I think, doesn't do justice to who came out and voted.
BILL MOYERS: I like Stephen Colbert's response to Bill O'Reilly's lament.
STEPHEN COLBERT on The Colbert Report: Folks, papa bear Bill O’Reilly is right. The white establishment, guys like us, we’re the minority now. And we’re helpless against this tide of non-white people who want stuff and things. They’re the thing-stuff-wanters. Whereas the traditional white people of any race, we don’t want things. We have things. Okay?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Oh, but he's great. I mean, you know, he gives us a great little counter story. But again, I mean, you know, I would argue that a good majority of America white folks don't got a lot of things, man. I mean, listen, this sort of economic madness that's been occurring the last 20 years means that there's a lot more losers than there are winners.
BILL MOYERS: I was taken with something you said recently in a speech a week or so after the election.
JUNOT DÍAZ at Facing Race conference: No matter how you feel about electoral politics and I for one am not a great fan, the fact that people of color communities did what they did in the face of insanely driven, absurdly mendacious, fantastically resourced white male opposition was not only unprecedented, frankly it shocked the shit out of nearly everyone.
JUNOT DÍAZ: I've never seen people look so slapped before. I mean, never seen people look so slapped before. Because, you know, they were crunching their numbers. And they thought they had all those darn states. And, you know, I was on a book tour. And I went to 20 something different states throughout that election. And I'm not an expert. And I wasn't taking polls. But I wasn't seeing what they were saying. I was hearing for the first time a kind of unconscious coordination, where I was actually running into kids who were normally real conservative, you know, come from conservative communities. I remember when I was in Miami. And there were all these young Cuban kids, who were like, "Yeah, I'm voting for Obama, because Romney sounds nuts to me." And it was the first time I ever heard people talk like that.
BILL MOYERS: What was happening to those kids? What was happening to bring about that change on their part?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Listen, I think one of the things that's real strange, and you see it for when I see it with my kids, is that they have entire networks of communications and entire networks of sort of joining up with each other and talking that I think allude folks like me and older. I mean, I'm not on Tumblr every darn day. I'm not. I don't have Instagram. I don't get on any of these networks my kids are on. There's all this movement and information that's passing and that is sort of slipping past what we would call the mainstream radar.
My kids, my students, they understand that there's these kind of two worlds. That there's the official world, or the official world that they'll go work and the official world where they'll talk to adults. And in that official world, folks don't talk about race. Folks don't talk about rape. Folks don't, you know, acknowledge how much young people are doing or what they're doing. Folks don't talk about how many gay folks are out there. Folks don't talk about how Iowa's got all these Mexican Americans living there. And then there's the world that they live, on the ground, where they're seeing all this stuff right up front. And I think a lot of what's going on is that you're getting communities that are becoming bilingual and speaking real speak (and real speak is the stuff that, you know, we can acknowledge is happening) and speaking the official speak. And in the official speak, we don't acknowledge any of this stuff.
BILL MOYERS: To me, it's code.
JUNOT DÍAZ: No, no, it's code, but it's also negation. Because, I mean, part of what you're seeing with the sort of Republican madness is that what they want to do is they want to put that story back. They want to push it back. They want to negate it. They want to erase it. And I think when you speak the official code is part of it is erasing. "You want to not talk about this, not talk about that, not talk about this. Let's just talk about the old thing. And if you talk about anything new, I'm going to get real mad at you." And my kids have learned to be like, "I'll talk about this stuff among my friends. And when I come up to the official language, I'll just not bring it up."
BILL MOYERS: How long have you been teaching?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Almost 20 years at a university level, yeah, almost 20 years.
BILL MOYERS: Have you seen a change in the kids since then?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, I mean, one of the things I've seen and plenty of people talk about it is the sort of way that economic forces have saturated education. I mean, my kids sound more, all of them, like business majors more than they sound like students. The idea was you went to college so that some sort of educational experience would transform you. The majority of my kids act like they're in medieval guilds. And that when they finish the four years, they'll be given a piece of paper that allows them to enter into the economic sort of circuits. And I think that's real weird. 'Cause when I went to college, you know, we knew college was going to help us for a job, but there was that belief and the idea that education was just good for you. It was part of being a citizen. It was part of transforming into being an adult.
BILL MOYERS: So do they, if they see themselves as economic man or economic woman, do they see themselves also, simultaneously, as Cuban American or Asian American economic person? Do they think that bifurcated way? Do they see themselves with the hyphens?
JUNOT DÍAZ: You'd be amazed how many of my kids, if you phrase the question a certain way they're like, "Oh, I don't think about that stuff at all." And you'll be like, "Hey, do you guys," I'll go to my gay kids. I'll be like, "Do you guy think of yourselves as gay voters?" They're like, "Are you crazy? No." And then you ask the question a completely different way. You know, you'll be like, "You know, this guy's kind of antigay." And they're like, "Yeah, man, I know he's antigay. And I'm not going to vote for him for that." And you suddenly realize that there's these, the way that these sort of identities are composed is far more nuanced often than the brute questioning and the sort of crude interrogation techniques we use to kind of get at them.
BILL MOYERS: So what do you teach?
JUNOT DÍAZ: I teach in two areas. I teach sort of the arts area, where I teach creative writing. And then I teach in the more critical area, where I'll teach classes like Apocalyptic Narrative in American Culture, History and Ancestry in African Diasporic Writings. Classes like the New Bildungsroman. And so, you know, you get the two sides. You kind of brain the kids up. And then the other way, you sort of get them to know about how they could be more creative, what creativity actually will do for you.
BILL MOYERS: What are you going to require them to read come February?
JUNOT DÍAZ: First book they're reading, like, right off the bat is H.G. Wells' “War of the Worlds.”
BILL MOYERS: Why?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, because it's kind of a great book about sort of the empire imagining its own end. How, like, someone who's at the center of the world, who spent all their time sending metal ships out to conquer people suddenly having metal ships sent to them to conquer them. It's sort of an interesting, both a historical and a creative piece of work. Like, in 1895, you could have aliens come and take the British Empire. On the other hand, saying, "The British Empire might be limited, the British Empire might end" in kind of a standard discourse, I think would have been rejected roundly in that place and time.
BILL MOYERS: What truth can you reach with fantasy and mythology that you can't get to as the historian you wanted to be or the journalist that I am or try to be?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, I think one thing for sure is that when we think about the strategy of realism, I mean, realism is a strategy. Realism doesn't always do a great job of describing what we would call "extreme realities" or "extreme lives." So, for example, immigration. We think of immigration in simplistic terms. But really immigration sometimes is hard to get your mind around.
How do you describe someone waking up in the morning in a house has no electricity, no running water. They don't have any television. They only speak one language. The only people they've ever met are Dominicans. And by that evening, being the center of New York City having cable, lights, electricity. Chinese guy upstairs. Right next door a Korean person. Downstairs somebody from Uruguay. The folks who are on the television, talking about all sorts of crazy stuff.
I mean, sure, realism might try to approach that. But in my mind, when I was a kid, when I read about time travel. Time travel felt like a much more honest description, to me, of what that meant, being transported from Santo Domingo '74 to New York and New Jersey in '74. That was far more honest to the experience than anything I could have written realistically.
BILL MOYERS: At the age of six, you came?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and for a young mind, I mean, it's an extraordinary leap. It's an extraordinary leap. And I think science fiction, I think fantasy, I think the genres do a wonderful job of describing all parts of, many parts of our society that realism doesn't do a great job of describing.
BILL MOYERS: Didn't you say somewhere that “Star Wars”, the “Star Wars” stories, you couldn't have a better framework for dramatic analysis or storytelling than “Star Wars”?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Sure, either, I mean, I love to teach those as structures. They're, like, great, great structures for sort of teaching my students how drama can work, especially how drama can work in a film.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, I mean, first, you think about the three movies. Again, the first, the original three movies. And when we think about the way that they're organized together. And, you know, there's always in any movie or in every book, not always, but traditionally, there's a place where the character, the main protagonist has to make an absolutely important choice. And that choice will set the consequences and will set in many ways the terms of the rest of the movie, and occasionally, the rest of his character's life. And what's interesting about the first three “Star Wars” movies is that if you look at them, where the character makes the choice is sort of structurally perfect. In the first movie, Luke makes the choice that he's going to go follow Ben Kenobi to sort of pursue a lifetime in the force, to become a Jedi. He makes that choice in the first third of the movie.
BEN KENOBI in Star Wars: A New Hope: You must learn the ways of the Force, if you are to come with me to Alderaan.
LUKE SKYWALKER in Star Wars: A New Hope: Alderaan? I’m not going to Alderaan, I’ve got to get home, it’s late, I’m in for it as it is!
BEN KENOBI in Star Wars: A New Hope: I need your help Luke.
JUNOT DÍAZ: The second movie, Luke makes the big choice that he's going to abandon his training and go try to rescue his friends, exactly dead in the middle.
MASTER YODA in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: Luke. You must complete the training.
LUKE SKYWALKER in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: I can’t keep the vision out of my head, they’re my friends I’ve got to help them.
MASTER YODA in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: You must not go.
LUKE SKYWALKER in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: But Han and Leia will die if I don’t.
JUNOT DÍAZ: The third movie, he makes the choice that he's not going to kill his father, the choice that the three movies have been leading up. And he makes it at the end. And there's this beautiful progressive symmetry, first third, half, final third. And the movies work elegantly. And these are the kind of hidden structures that allow dramas like these to hang together, even if someone doesn't recognize them happening. A part of your brain enjoys that beauty.
BILL MOYERS: Do those fictional moments that Lucas and his team put in there say something about reality?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, no question. I mean, listen, part of what makes-- if “Star Wars” was just nonsense, if it was just gibberish, it wouldn't hang as tight as it hangs. “Star Wars” has hung around a really long time. And there isn't a young person who hasn't felt the choice between, "I'm going to stay and help my family" or "I'm going to go and do something else that's more personal, that's more me." You know? And I think what makes something like “Star Wars”, the first movie, I think in many ways poignant and still reaches people is you get a character who desperately wants to leave, desperately wants to leave this little farm.
But you know what he decides when he's given the choice? He's like, "You know what? My aunt and uncle need me. It's an ethical thing. Even though I desperately want to go be a pilot, I'm going to stay here and help them." And that choice he makes follows him through the rest of the movies. The fact that he's more loyal than he is ambitious. And that loyalty is something that many of us as kids, you know, we're not always encouraged to be. And you watch those movies. You see somebody being loyal, really loyal, making a hard choice. I'm going to stay at home and work on a farm rather than be a star pilot. Well, that seems like a real serious and a real thing to me.
BILL MOYERS: Did you have to make that choice?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Certainly.
BILL MOYERS: When?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, I mean, I thought about, you know, I thought about my sort of sense of what I was going to be with my family, who I was going to be. Was I going to do something that would remove me entirely from my family? I mean, as an immigrant, coming from a kind of a community I did, it would have been easy for me to have picked a profession and to have lived in a direction that would have separated me from my community, would have meant that I had very little contact, maybe on holidays. That I could simply say, "Look, I've transcended. I'm now an American. All that Dominicaness, Dominican stuff doesn't mean anything to me." And the harder choice was to stay home and, I mean by "home" stay inside this community and try to help a community that always, doesn't always get help. Isn't always recognized. Doesn't always get beauty.
And it's actually, it's a difficult place sometimes to do work. America is a great temptation. America is out there. And in America, I could be fully American and not think about all that crazy immigrant stuff. And I made a choice that I thought, "Hey, I love my community. And, you know, I've got this place of privilege. And maybe I'll stick around and help."
BILL MOYERS: What did you see in writing that would fulfill your own sense of yourself?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, it's a good question. I think, when I think--
BILL MOYERS: I don't know how you do it. Because you take a long time to write. There must be periods of isolation and solitude.
JUNOT DÍAZ: Long ones, yeah, of course. Of course. Part of it is, listen, to write a book. A friend of mine once said this famously. And I think it's very true. To write a book, in the process of writing, you have to become the person you need to become to finish that book. And so when you write a book, you yourself have to be transformed in the process of writing it. And that can take a while, man. Especially if you're serious about the transformation. That could take a while. Each of my books have demanded in me an extra bit of humanity that I never had. And to make yourself more human, to make yourself more humane isn't-- a week project. Sometimes that takes a couple of years, man.
BILL MOYERS: What do we mean by that term, "to make myself more humane, to make myself more human"?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, for example, right, I wasn't exactly taught to be my, and I'm talking about my own self. I wasn't taught to think about Dominican nerds, to think about nerds in New Jersey, as the center of our story. I didn't think of them as the great heroes of whether I'm talking about the New Jersey story or the story of the Dominican Republic or the American story. I didn't think of that. I always thought of them as an object of ridicule, something you made fun of. For me, I had to learn and really in my heart integrate the idea that folks outside of the formula are, in fact, the center of the formula, that a nerd like my character Oscar in my novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” he is the heart of all our stories. But I had to actually believe it. And sometimes that's a journey, man, when you grow up being told that that's the kind of boy you should never be. Then to write about that boy, to write with great compassion, to write with love, to be critical without being cruel, hey man, not all of us get that immediately off the bat and had to learn those things to be able to write Oscar.
BILL MOYERS: So you had to imagine yourself as this fat Dominican boy who loves and is fascinated by fantasy and mythology and fiction?
JUNOT DÍAZ: And to be compassionate for the parts of him and the parts of me that the parts of him awakened. I mean, compassion, sympathy, these things are important. And sometimes they don't come just instantly. Sometimes you gotta work at them, man. I mean, listen, we forget that compassion isn't just something you get. Compassion is a muscle that has to be exercised.
BILL MOYERS: That's fascinating to me, because America, whether we like to admit it or not is about survival of the fittest. It's the individual really versus the lot, right? The Republican National Convention, all these success stories, Democrats, too. "I did this. I did that. I did this. I did that." And you're saying that's not the America either you experience as a Dominican or the America you really wanted to be part of.
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, we have a number of stories. And one of the stories is who we are collectively. We take great pride in our collectivity. Whether it's the collectivity of, like, "Hey, listen, we all came out and helped during Hurricane Sandy." If it's the collectivity of, "Listen, I come from this community. In this community we have pride. In this community we try to help each other." I think that there's always been a number of stories that contest and work against this idea of this sort of crazy individualism in America. And both have always been present. And I think that there's a great calling. There's a great combat between the two of them. And I guess part of me thinks that collectivity and helping your society and being civic-mindedness is as much a part of what it means to be an American as being this big peak winner, this peak person at the top.
BILL MOYERS: But that former story's not the one we've been hearing punctuated or accentuated the last 40 years, right?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, no, I mean, I think we hear it in different places. But do we hear it with the biggest megaphone? No. The biggest megaphones want to talk about the person on top. They want to talk about the hero, the winner. But the little megaphones, you're in a library with your librarian, you're working at the church in the basement, helping folks out, you're coming in to a home and reading to elderly. There are all these other little megaphones that are telling you and whispering that "This is beauty, this is humanity, this is America." And sometimes some of us listen to those lower whispers.
BILL MOYERS: You've said people of color for the first time in the history of the United States have now attained a strategic plurality. And that this racial trifecta, as you call it, has to figure out what it wants to do with that strategic plurality. What do you think it's thinking about, at the moment?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Such a diverse group, such geographically diverse. It's so hard to say. And are we ever going to get a candidate who’s so clearly, openly against these communities like Romney? I mean, no matter what Romney sort of spoke out of the corner of his mouth, folks voted against him because they knew that him and his party were dead set against them, you know? The Republican Party couldn't stop producing all that discourse about Asia, about China. Asian Americans are sitting there listening to this. And they're like, "That's kind of crazy." You know? They couldn't stop with all that homophobia. Gay Americans are sitting there thinking, "You know, these people are nuts, man. Do I want them four years in office?" And the Latino community spent the last four years being a punching bag for this country's economic decline and being sort of connected one to one with this idea that Latinos are all criminal-- illegal immigrants-- you know, undocumented. And so I think lots of folks were thinking, you know, "This guy is no good." Now will it ever be this clear again? Will folks feel that this one candidate is against all of them? I'm not sure. But it's a lot of power for the first time.
BILL MOYERS: But part of the Republicans got it. There are some people in Washington, on Capitol Hill, who say, "We got the message. And we're going to change." What if they pivot?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, but wouldn't it be nice to have a real conservative party in this country for once? I mean, I'm not against having a conservative party. What we have right now, the sort of weird way the Republican party has come together as a shelter for a lot of messed up and toxic paradigms. That doesn’t feel like a real honest conservative party. It would be nice to have one. You know? It's, like, I'm not looking for the end of any one party. It's like I don't think conservatives are evil. I don't sound like none of these cats who think all liberals are terrible or evil. I don't believe that at all. I think that a conservative party, a real healthy conservative party would understand that there's nothing wrong with someone being liberal. Like, we're not lining them up to shoot them.
The same way I think anyone who's progressive doesn't think there's anything wrong with conservatives. It would be nice if we had a conservative party that was rational, that was humane, that didn't sort of provide shelter for, like, crazies, folks who were, like, white supremacists, folks who were, like, homophobes. It would be kind of nice, man. It would be healthy for our political system.
BILL MOYERS: So one shouldn't assume, obviously, shouldn't assume that the coalition you described as the new America is going to wind up voting a straight ticket?
JUNOT DÍAZ: I don't think so. Listen, what makes us interesting as people is what makes us frustrating as people. Is that since we began we're utterly unpredictable. And I would never want to take that away from folks, even if I'm going to be at the losing end of that every now and then. I want folks to be folks. And to be folks means you got to be unpredictable and often do stuff that's not always good for you.
BILL MOYERS: So what did you mean recently when you said the new America that we've been talking about, "The new America has a presence, but it has not yet begun to take up the space it deserves"?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, I mean, God, listen, when I think about the new America, when I think about that diversity that we were talking about, young people, gay Americans. When we were talking about Latinos, Asian Americans. We're talking about immigrants. We're talking about youth. We're talking about city folks. It's kind of a broad coalition. But when I think about the way we present ourselves, when I think about the narratives, hell, if I just got the bestseller list from “The New York Times” for the last six months, if I just put the bestseller list just in a roll to you, I was-- listen, for four months, there was only one person of color on that list. And I would argue if we looked at it for a year there'd probably only be two people of color and the rest of folks were white. Now that is not America. That's not America. That's a distortion. And I would also say that when you look at Hollywood films. And you look at Hollywood films and 99 percent of the protagonists, the main characters are white and usually white males, that's a distortion, as well. That's a distortion as well.
BILL MOYERS: What is the source of that continuing distortion?
JUNOT DÍAZ: I think it's an addiction and a commitment to this old story. I mean, I think that folks are not wanting to shift gears. You know, we often think of Hollywood as real progressive, a bunch of lunatics out there. But Hollywood, as far as its racial politics is probably much more in line with this kind of Romney sort of conservative element, conservatives planks of the Republican Party than anything else. I think, listen, it's hard. It's much harder than we ever gave it credit for to really embrace a country like this one, a country that is so dynamic and so diverse at all different levels. And certainly, I think our cultural industries have lagged even behind banking. Look, you go to a bank, investment bank and say, "Listen, you need diversity?" Investment bank is going to say, "Yeah, we do." Go to Hollywood and say, "We need diversity." They're like, "Listen, we can only sell white." Sort of strange, man. But I think it'll change eventually.
BILL MOYERS: So what did you make of all of the talk after Obama's election in 2008 that we have moved into a post-race society? America has put racism and the structures of thought and the structures of power that arrive from that behind us?
JUNOT DÍAZ: That was just, that was my favorite, favorite act of wishful thinking, you know? That was my favorite moment of collective wishful thinking. I mean, that's gibberish, you know? That's gibberish. The election of one person doesn't speak to larger issues, I think, the way that people would like it to. We have to address always not what happens to one individual, but what is happening to communities. The individual, hey, the individual you could get a woman elect her to this office. And the majority of women are not getting these kind of jobs. You can have a Will Smith who's, you know, headlining Hollywood films. And yet, African American actors are utterly underemployed in every other area. And for me, I think that the focus on the individuals allows people to distort what's really, really happening. And listen, this is a country that doesn't like talking about race. I loved how we jumped from, "we haven't ever talked about race," to "now we're post-racial." As if we had been really working really hard at this for a long time. And "Wow, look at what we achieved." It just seemed like a real, real strange evasion.
BILL MOYERS: So you think the eulogies for whiteness are premature?
JUNOT DÍAZ: They're way precipitous. It's sort of like the eulogies for, like, capitalism. I mean, come on, man, you know? I think we've actually got to do the work, as a community. Listen, I'm an artist. What do I do when I think about the way I work as an artist? I find in the culture silences, places people don't want to talk, and I build in them. I work in them. Because that's what an artist does. You know, the artist has conversations that folks don't want to have. An artist talks about, points their finger in directions that not everyone wants to look. I mean, that's been historically the role. And I can tell you, as someone who's worked in this society's silences for a long time, we have not done the work to talk about race. We haven't. We've been avoiding it. And I think one day we'll get to talking about it more. But right now, we've been just avoiding it.
BILL MOYERS: I think I'm beginning to understand what you said, what you meant recently when you said that white supremacy is the great silence of our world.
JUNOT DÍAZ at Facing Race conference: We live in a country where there is no sustained conversation on the problem of white supremacy even in the communities most ravaged by white supremacy. What we’ve gotten in lieu of conversation is mostly silence, a terrible corrosive silence.
BILL MOYERS: We don't talk about that, do we?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Yeah. And, you know, what do we mean by "white supremacy" to be really clear?
BILL MOYERS: Well, what do you mean by it?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, I say "we" as in sense, like, the social sciences. The racial system that has sort of got this planet under a grip, a racial system that begins with the concept of coloniality, the racial system that sort of operates, whether it's the Dominican Republic or the United States, isn't called racism, technically, it's called white supremacy. We don't like to call it white supremacy, because folks get real, like, iffy. They're like “argh.” But technically, it's that. So I guess the thing is, is that whether we're in the Dominican Republic, you come to Santo Domingo and see if folks there are talking about race. You have in Santo Domingo a totally white elite, you know? 500 years, maintained themselves white. They own almost all the country. They own, make a ton of the money. And you go to Santo Domingo, people don't want to talk about race. They're like, "Race? There's no racism here." You know? Even though all the poor people are dark and all the rich people are light. And the same with the United States. I think that part of what privilege does, part of the operations of privilege is always to cloak itself in silence. So whether it's the privilege of money, the privilege of gender. I mean, try to get boys to talk about misogyny and patriarchy. Boys don't want to talk about that. Why? Well, because, "Darn, if I talk about that, that's a threat to my privilege."
BILL MOYERS: If racism is as deep and pervasive as you describe it, how is it that Americans elected and then reelected the first black president in our history and by convincing margins both times, if racism were still the lock on our systems of thought and behavior?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, because it's not, I mean, it's not like a magic spell that robs us of all agency, of all volition, and all complexity. I mean, I think, again, that as a country, we're a little bit to the place now where we can see ourselves electing a black president. On the other hand, as a country, I don't think we're in the place to talk about race at a collective level. If somebody even mentions race or if an article is about race, have you ever read the comments beneath any articles in the newspapers online when folks are talking about race? It's kind of nuts, man. And I think that for me the idea is that we can think about it complexly. We can think that, yes, we've gotten to the place where we can elect Obama. But we're also at the place where if anybody mentions race or somebody brings up white supremacy they'll also be attacked.
BILL MOYERS: By?
JUNOT DÍAZ: By whoever wakes up that day and reads that article and says, "Hey, that really bothers me. And I'm going to write in a comment saying, 'You know what? This isn't about race. This is about class.' Or write a comment and say, ‘Whites are the great minority, we should be protected.' Or write a comment that says, 'You people only want to talk about race all the time. You need to let that go.' Or write a comment and say, 'Hey, this isn't about race. This is about how crazy and poor and how much things you all folks want.'" And there's, like, a billion reactions. But that these reactions are happening is, I think, cannot sort of be denied.
BILL MOYERS: So what were you encouraging us to do in that speech when you said “I challenge”--
JUNOT DÍAZ at Facing Race conference: I challenge people every time you say African American, Asian American, whatever the group, count it and say white just as much. And say white just as much. We don’t do it you guys. We don’t do it.
JUNOT DÍAZ: Listen, I'm in a classroom. If you could just take a camera and come into a classroom and see how often my students can say black folks, they can say Asian folks. As soon as the word white comes near their lips, they freeze. They just can't say it. They've been taught by the society that this is not a word you say. And my students will come up with all sorts of wild evasions so they don't have to say it. They'll say like, "Caucazoids." You know? They'll just come up with some crazy word. And I think that there's no accident that the community in most power is the community that best erases itself. And I think it's good practice. I don't think there's anything wrong with identifying people by their race. I think what's wrong is drawing conclusions about that. In other words, for me to say, "You got hands." There's nothing wrong with that. For me to say, "You've got this color eyes." There's nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when we draw conclusions. And I think we've thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Because we seem to think that if you just distinguish for somebody that they have hands, that's as awful as saying folks without hands shouldn't have any jobs. But that's not true. Saying a distinction is different from drawing a conclusion from that distinction. And I think it's okay for us to be able to talk and say, "I'm a person of color. This is a person who's white." And that's not a bad thing. It's saying that that means something, that that somehow is deterministic. That's the problem. That's the real problem.
BILL MOYERS: So let me talk a moment about President Obama, the storyteller. Two years ago, in “The New Yorker,” you flunked him as a storyteller. You said--
JUNOT DÍAZ: I did.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, you did.
JUNOT DÍAZ: I did.
BILL MOYERS: You said, "He has not even told a bad story. He's told no story at all." And you hoped and you prayed that he would yet come through with a strong story of where our country is going, and why we should help deliver it there. But he didn't come through. You said he didn't even seem to be trying. So how do you explain the fact that a man who wasn't telling the right story or a strong story was reelected?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Because this is a guy who knows how to run a campaign. I mean, I don't know if you saw that CBS interview, where he sat down and he said, and I know it wasn't because he read anything of mine. But he sat down and he said, "You know what? My biggest problem the last four years is that I haven't told a story."
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity, and purpose, and optimism, especially during tough times.
BILL MOYERS: So here we are, Obama has a second chance. What's the story you want to hear him tell?
JUNOT DÍAZ: God, I hope it would be a story that sort of is honest about the challenges that face us. I mean, listen, when's the last time as a nation we've been asked to sacrifice, really come together and sacrifice? It's been a long time, man. My nephews went to Iraq. My little brother's a military kid. He's marine combat veteran. I mean, we ask certain sectors of our community to sacrifice, but I think it's about time we start talking to each other like we're living in the same country. And I think for him a good vision would be, like, starting the conversation of, "Listen, we're in this situation. We got an economy that's floundering, but it's getting a little bit better. We've got to start thinking about us as a civic entity, as a civic project. Let's pull together. Let's each make some sacrifices. And let's see if we can get this thing together somewhere." And again, if I was me, I wish I would see a little progressive activity around immigration. I wish I could see some progressive activity around our students, around our schools.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, I mean, they only now noticed that my students are walking around with student loans on their heads, like, the size of the Himalayas? I mean, look, we got to do something about this. We can't have an entire generation, two generations mortgaged to the eyeballs, man. We've got to figure out a way to deal with student loans and the proliferation of these loans. That wouldn't be a bad place to start, you know? I mean, there are whole areas that I wouldn't mind seeing Obama put his stamp on.
BILL MOYERS: Let's talk about your own story. You came to New Jersey from Santo Domingo when you were six. Your parents come with you?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Yes. My father was already here. My father had left in '69, a year after I was born, working in New York City. And then in '74, five years later, the rest of the family, me and my siblings and my mother joined him. We all moved to New Jersey.
BILL MOYERS: And how did they support you? What were they doing?
JUNOT DÍAZ: My father was a forklift operator. My mom had five kids, so you can imagine that was her fulltime job and her hobby. And that was how it all began. My dad driving forklift up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And us going to school. And my mom sort of trying to make it all happen in the house.
BILL MOYERS: What did they want you to do?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Oh my God, I mean, immigrant, conservative family, and a kid who they began to dawn that this kid was kind of bookish and kind of smart. My mom was, like, "Hey, I want you to be a doctor. And if things go really bad, be an engineer. And if things go super bad, be a lawyer.” But nothing beyond that.
BILL MOYERS: And your father?
JUNOT DÍAZ: My dad was super conservative. My dad was to the rifle range every Sunday. We went to the Englishtown Rifle Range in New Jersey. And my dad always said his dream for us is he hoped we would be real men. And that did not including being an artist, I'll tell you that. Did not include being an artist.
BILL MOYERS: So what did he think when you said, "I'm going to be a writer"?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, by then they had separated. Because I couldn't imagine the conversations we would have had if I told him. Because my dad was that kind of dude, who was just he thought that that wasn't masculine, that that wasn't manly. And in many ways, he thought that that was kind of communist. I mean, my dad was a real cold warrior type kind of cat.
BILL MOYERS: And? His reaction when your first book appeared?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Oh God, my old man was so furious. I mean, my mom always laughs. She has this great story she tells people. She's like, "Your dad was so angry, 'cause he couldn't understand that it was fiction. And he called me at the house once." My mom was saying this. She's like, "Yeah, your father called me at the house once. And I answered the phone. And it was your dad. And he's like, 'Where is my son?'” And she's like, “'Oh, he's sitting right here in the living room.’ He says, 'Oh, tell him to wait right there. I'm driving up from Florida to kick his ass.'" Me and my mom laughed and laughed and laughed. We just put the phone down. Because he thought that I had been disrespectful towards the family. That I had written about him and made him look bad.
BILL MOYERS: By?
JUNOT DÍAZ: I guess he thought I was too critical towards a kind of a character who resembled him.
BILL MOYERS: Were you?
JUNOT DÍAZ: I don't think so. Darn, I think I thought I let him off real easy.
BILL MOYERS: What did you read growing up that you think did strike a spark, did rouse the passion?
JUNOT DÍAZ: I think what happened to me was that I had never seen a library before. Like, I'll tell you, my neighborhood in Dominican Republic is people had a book and that was the Bible. And that was it. I'd never seen two books together. And I immigrated. And my library at Madison Park Grammar School, Elementary School, Mrs. Crowell. She took a kid who didn't speak any English. She didn't speak a word of Spanish. And she made it clear to me on the tour of the library on my first day that I could take out any of these books I wanted. And that was an astonishment. If you want to talk about that Henry James idea of a “vastation,” well, the opposite, a change of the soul in a positive direction. This was a vastation to me, where it was like, "My god, my life changed." And I remember the first book I pulled was a child version of “Sherlock Holmes,” Arthur Conan Doyle's “The Sign of the Four.” And I never looked back. I never looked back. That library—
BILL MOYERS: How old were you?
JUNOT DÍAZ: I was six. I mean, it was an astonishing thing for a young kid who grew up in a society like Santo Domingo, where I didn't have access to libraries to be told, "Here, this is part of our civic resources. This belongs to all of us. You could do what you will, as long as you do no harm.”
BILL MOYERS: When did you discover “Moby Dick”?
JUNOT DÍAZ: “Moby Dick” I discovered in college. “Moby Dick” was-- a professor of mine couldn't stop talking about it. And I went out and got it. And I was sort of floored.
BILL MOYERS: What happened?
JUNOT DÍAZ: I was floored. I really thought it was extraordinary.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Because I didn't expect it to be so contemporary. I mean, it's kind of a crazy, postmodern book. It's not like an 1800 novel. You know? You put another novel from the time period next to it. And those two books don't even seem alike. I mean, the dude interrupts the flow of his novel to have a play, to have characters talking like a play. He interrupts his novel to suddenly have a disposition on whales, as told through the size and shapes of books, you know? This portfolio, that, you know? And it seemed to be like something that had been a mutation of literature. Because I'd never seen anything like it. And, I kind of was interested in the actual metaphor of the boat, the Pequod.
BILL MOYERS: Which he named after the Indians, right?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I did not expect an 1800 writer to describe the kind of America that I had grown up with. I had grown up in a place called Lemon Terrace, New Jersey, where the guy down the street was Uruguayan, the woman across the street was Korean, the person around the corner was Egyptian. There were Dominicans. There were African Americans. There were white folks. And I felt like we were growing up in this tiny little Pequod. You know? This real diverse kind of ship. And when I was reading “Moby Dick,” I was like, "Man, this guy really has his finger on the pulse of the America that I came up in."
BILL MOYERS: In this country, we've forgotten the story of the Pequot Indians, that's the tribe that lived in New England along the Long Island shore coastline, when the English came. The whites finally annihilated them until as Herman Melville writes in Moby Dick, they were “as extinct as the ancient Medes." How come that image, that caught your fancy?
JUNOT DÍAZ: Part of it, for me, is there's some real honesty around who we are as Americans. What were the processes that made it happen? You know, when you look at this, you look at sort of what's going on in “Moby Dick,” that this tribe, this nation that's quote unquote "been annihilated," in some ways they survive in the name of the Pequod. You know, they survive in the name of the great boat. They are, in fact, the metaphor for the America, you know? So there's a metaphor of America, that the boat, the Pequod, represents for Melville and I think for the average reader. That certainly there's a lot that's very rich there. And as someone who grew up in, I grew up on an island where all the Tainos had been annihilated. And--
BILL MOYERS: All the?
JUNOT DÍAZ: The Tainos, the indigenous folks of the islands, the indigenous folks of-- Hispaniola. And for me, you know, to come to United States and sort of see that line and see that sort of historical reference, regardless how accurate it was, it struck a deep cord in me. It struck a very, very deep cord in me.
BILL MOYERS: And you said Melville was doing that to try and render the real American character?
JUNOT DÍAZ: When you read that book, you start sort of encountering all the characters on the Pequod. You start encountering Tashtego. You start encountering Daggoo. You have Queequeg. And later on it is revealed that Fedallah has been hiding down below, these harpooners. And there's Chinese folks, there's African Americans, there's folks from you know, Persia, there's folks from the Pacific. You suddenly begin to realize what you're reading here is a description of America. What you're reading of all the people who sort of make up the Pequod. Of course they're all dudes. And, of course, they're all kind of written in that kind of disturbing 1800’s sort of way of looking at it. But really at a metaphorical level, he's describing in many ways the stupendous diversity of the American character. And sort of how we live together, how we work together, and how like a ship a nation must have a common purpose.
BILL MOYERS: And do you still think that when you go back to it? Because I know you go back to it. You refer to it, time and again.
JUNOT DÍAZ: I think what's happened is that my community has become the country. I didn't realize that we were the future. I didn't realize that the Pequod was itself a vision, an augur of what America would become. And I didn't realize that who we were together, living in this 64-building kind of neighborhood, that the rest of the country would begin to mirror us. I mean, the seeds of the new America that we've been talking about, you know, you had seen it in New York City. But you'd also seen it in small communities like this one. And it was extraordinary.
BILL MOYERS: You make me want to know if the immigrant story is just the same old story with different characters in it and people of different color in it.
JUNOT DÍAZ: I think that there's a story about coming to a new world and trying to make it home, which is an old, old story. And certainly there's great profound variation in that old story. But I do think that this is a story that is in us, whether look, the Bible starts with the characters being brought to a new world. They wake up and they're in new space. Nobody's a first immigrant like Adam and Eve and trying to find a home. And, of course, they kind of botch it. And then are sent to another home. Very, very old, profoundly personal story. And not soon forgotten.
BILL MOYERS: Junot Díaz, I appreciate your sharing your time and your ideas with me.
JUNOT DÍAZ: Well, thank you for everything, Mr. Moyers, thank you.
BILL MOYERS: The latest book is “This Is How You Lose Her.” Junot Díaz, thank you very much.
JUNOT DÍAZ: Thank you, sir.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for this week. Happy New Year to you all. On the third of January, you’ll get a chance to talk with Junot Díaz and ask him your own questions in a live chat. That’s at our website, BillMoyers.com, on Thursday, January 3, 1 pm Eastern time. And take a look at our latest edition of group think. We’ve asked some editors to choose the most important but under-reported stories of 2012. That’s all at BillMoyers.com.
I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next year.