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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Junot Díaz Discusses Immigration And New Book, ‘Islandborn’

Graphic illustration shows cover of Junot Díaz' new book,

Credit: Penguin Young Readers

Above: Graphic illustration shows cover of Junot Díaz' new book, "Islandborn," in this undated photo.

Pulitzer prize-winning author Junot Díaz sat down with KPBS to discuss President Trump's promised border wall, the "curse" that plagues the U.S. and his new book.

"Islandborn," about a Dominican-American girl who conjures visions of her home country, will be published March 13 in both English and Spanish. The book features images by Colombian illustrator Leo Espinosa.

Junot Díaz Discusses American “Curse,” Collapsing Imaginaries and New Book

Q: Did the current national debate around immigration and some of the rhetoric around immigration play into your decision to write a children’s book?

A: What’s happening in the world impacts who you are as an artist but I write really really slow. One of the things about Donald Trump and this whole white supremacist, white nationalist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant racism we see is that it has really old roots. Since I was a young person, when I first immigrated to the United States, this is a country that makes it really clear that as an immigrant, especially a poor immigrant, a poor immigrant of color, a poor immigrant of African descent from a Latino community — you’re almost always on probation. That’s how they make you feel. And you’re always represented in the larger culture as some abomination or some criminal or some trouble. The fact that Trump’s discourse was so popular is because it’s so deeply embedded — in so many places in so many communities … I grew up being told we were problems, and being told that we come to this country because we’re criminals and being criminalized. When in fact all the immigrants that I knew made these immense sacrifices, worked like animals, almost cut off half their souls to make it in this country to provide for their families out of love.

Q: What do you think about President Trump’s plans to build a wall?

A: The United States already has the most militarized, the most defended ... difficult border for anyone to traverse in the world. This is a border that begins on the other side of Mexico. I think that ultimately the border for me is far more symbolic of this just collapsing imaginary, this kind of messed-up cynicism and messed-up xenophobic nativism of so many people who feel lost and who feel threatened. This is a world and a country that’s being devoured by economic elites but the average folk is so distracted and so confused that they think the real person that’s invading, the real person who’s causing damage and the real reason they feel a sense of loss and feel a sense of threat is because of Latino immigrants in the south. They think somehow this wall will repair everything. Well that’s not true. Unfortunately, you’re just walling yourself in with your predators.

Q: What do you mean by the “collapsing imaginary”?

A: We’re seeing the outcomes of a poor education system, completely, the public education system has cratered because of all these conservative acts to defund it. So critical thinking is a rarity. When there’s not a public educational system, people have been taught to be afraid of everything: outsiders, folks who are queer, folks who are poor, folks who are different from them racially. Ultimately, all of these things tie into a collapsing imaginary. People can’t imagine that your neighbor could be someone good. They can’t imagine that the future, if we pull together, would be better.

Q: You’ve talked about how the scarcity of minority voices in publishing makes people internalize racism and identify more with whiteness than with themselves. What do you mean when you talk about the dream of whiteness?

A: We all learn languages. So let’s say you’re speaking Dutch, you’re speaking Spanish, you’re speaking English. You learn a language, you learn its grammar. Well, dreams is a language too. If the horizon that you learn doesn’t involve you, you’re going to learn that. In other words, if you’re a girl and you never see girls as doctors or girls as mechanics, you’re going to learn that’s the language of dreaming. That when you dream what your future is, you will leave that out. So if people of color are not being represented, if they don’t see themselves anywhere in the culture, you can’t dream a thing you can’t see. You find it difficult — let’s be a little bit clearer — you can and people do, but it’s a lot more difficult.

Q: How do you hope your latest book addresses the need to bring about some of these truths to young people in the United States?

A: Childhood is an important time where people begin to learn in some ways the basic grammar of the world they live in. And if you’re left out of that basic grammar, you have to spend the rest of your life making up that deficit so I thought one of the good things for me as an artist and as a writer would be to turn and try to do a kid’s book to try to address that deficit where so many kids of color are reading books that have nothing to do with them that don’t represent them they in fact are reading books where they have to think of themselves or think of the world as completely white. So even when they think about the world, they’re leaving themselves out, because that’s what they’ve been taught.

Q: In “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” you talk about a curse that plagues the main character’s home country. Do you believe in curses?

A: I mean look, you’re asking me in the light of a studio, do I believe in curses, I’m like, no. But let’s go out in the middle of the night in the countryside of the Dominican Republic and I’d probably have a different reaction. I will tell you that the United States is obsessed with curses because the United States is obsessed with this concept of itself of being blessed. It believes it is God’s chosen country. That’s an old American story. If you believe you’re God’s chosen country, that very act of believing opens up the possibility, the fear, the nagging fear that you might in fact be the opposite. That you might be God’s cursed country ... And I believe less in curses and I believe more in history and the weight of history and how history will always sort of imprison us unless we face it.

Q: Actually, my next question was going to be what would be the “zafa,” the solution or the cure for a curse if there were a curse. And I’m guessing that you’re going to say that it has to do with facing the reality of what’s happening and telling true stories.

A: Yeah I mean I think ultimately every culture is trapped by that which it disavows. Every culture is colored by the truths that it can’t face and it’s not that just me and you decide to face this stuff, there has to be collective reckoning. For the United States to really move on, to get out this persistent, absurd, racist, narrow-minded, adolescent, tantrum state, is going to require the whole collective to admit some very basic things. Yes the civil war was fought over slavery. Yes white supremacy is a reality. Yes there is an enormous amount of structural and institutional racism. Yes there have been an enormous amount of crimes and outright thievery and genocide against indigenous folks. There’s all this history we have to face. We have to face it together. And only by coming to a sort of a consensual collective agreement of what happened and actually allow ourselves to look at it, to hold it, to mourn it, can we begin to get the energy that we’re going to need to deal with this really kind of scary future that we’ve created.

Pulitzer prize-winning author Junot Díaz sat down with KPBS to discuss President Trump's promised border wall, the "curse" that plagues the U.S. and his new book.


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