Junot Díaz on white supremacy, apocalypse, and the word that “could have saved him”


“White supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us.”

I did a Memorial Day weekend blog post on Junot Díaz‘s recent talk at Stanford here.  Apparently he jettisoned his plans for a reading that afternoon to make his impromptu and provocative remarks.  Or, as he put it then: “Guess what?  No fucking lecture.”


Paula Moya, an old chum from Cornell grad student days, was his interlocutor for a 2-part Boston Review interview that occurred after the two-day symposium on Díaz’s works.  He expanded on some of the ideas he touched on last May:

How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you downplay its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, or the Voldemort name which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet here’s the rub: if a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: the devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist.

I loved  Díaz’s Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008.  But I was admittedly puzzled by the narrator Yunior, a figure who emerges in other of Díaz’s works.  The author spent some interview time explaining him:

Yunior, for example, uses the “n word” all the time and yet he is haunted by anti-black racism within and without his community. Haunted and wounded.  In Drown as a whole, the million-dollar question is this: are Yunior’s gender politics, his generalizations and misogyny, rewarded in the book’s ‘reality’? Do they get him anything in the end? Well, if we chart the progress of the stories in Drown it appears to me that Yunior’s ideas about women, and the actions that arise out of these ideas, always leave him more alone, more thwarted, more disconnected from his community and from himself.

 Though the “Part 1” of this interview is getting lots of buzz on Twitter, I rather liked the “Part 2” that explored this character more deeply – an alter ego, perhaps?

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.

At about the same time as his Stanford talk, Díaz’s story “Monstro” appeared in the New Yorker’s science fiction issue.  It’s a preview of his next novel. He talked about it with Paula:

Of course. Monstro is an apocalyptic story. An end of the world story set in the DR [Dominican Republic] 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.

The interview is getting a lot of buzz. Read the whole thing here.


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