Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz on learning from the negative example set by his “stereotypical jerk-off irresponsible abusive womanizer” dad, the painful lessons of his own infidelity, and the ritual of getting clipped … by his barber.
The list of awards author Junot Diaz has won over the years—-including a Pulitzer in 2008 for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—is so long we almost tripped over it. Here, Felix Manuel Rodriguez, author of Dad, Me, and Muhammad Ali, gives Diaz the Inside the Actor’s Studio treatment. Nothing against JLip, but we thought we’d kick our Q&A up a notch. This one goes to eleven.
1. Who taught you about manhood?
My father. I did exactly the opposite of what he did. He was your stereotypical jerk-off irresponsible abusive Dominican womanizer. There were some days when I thought I was watching a cartoon he was so predictably, simplistically awful. Just to give you a sense of this cat: I got four brothers and sisters and not a single one of them talk to this dude and haven’t for over fifteen years. I didn’t get lucky in the pops department. It’s true we don’t always fall far from the tree but my god, did I try.
2. Has romantic love shaped you as a man?
Intimacy, which is the core of love, is the only home we’ll ever have. People say you’re born alone and die alone–but last time I checked I was born out of a person, in a community—I didn’t just pop out of thin air. Intimacy is the fullest expression of our human destiny—to connect with another human being, and in that connection to find our truest, best selves, and that we cannot be alone. It’s what I sought all my life. To be able to be intimate means that you have faced yourself and that you know yourself and that you have the strength to open yourself up completely to another person. That shit is hard but it’s what I want.
3. What two words describe your dad?
I only need one: Abusador.
4. How are you most unlike him?
I hit no one.
5. From which of your mistakes did you learn the most?
From being unfaithful to a woman I loved. It really woke me up to my confusion and my cruelties and my cowardice and how poorly I had lived up to my ideals. I really fucked up. But I would not be the person I am if I hadn’t had that fuck-up to teach me. Hard fucking lesson, wish I’d been smarter, but you can’t wish for a life you’ve never had.
6. What word would the women in your life use to describe you, and is it accurate?
Which women? The ones who still like me? They’d say reflective. Other women might not be so generous.
7. Who is the best dad you know, and how does he earn that distinction?
My boy Victor Díaz. (No relation.) He has a son and a daughter and his patience and compassion are without equal. If I could half the dad this dude is, I’d be made.
8. Have you been more successful in public or private life?
I don’t have much of a public life so it’s easy to win in that area. My private life encompasses all of me and that shit feels like a 50/50 thing. I wish I had done better. Well, that’s what the future is for.
9. When was the last time you cried?
This last weekend when my mother visited me in Boston for the first time ever, and she said that she wished I hadn’t blown it with the ex. I dropped her off at the airport and cut loose, because of course I wished I hadn’t blown it too.
I know I sound ridiculous but these things take a bit to clear out of your system.
10. What advice would you give teenage boys trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
Advice is all young people ever get. I’d rather give mentorship: a reliable, steady, supportive presence that can model productive behavior and help them navigate this crazy world.
11. What is your most cherished ritual as a guy?
Going to watch the game (baseball.) Or getting clipped at my barber up in East Harlem. Frankie—who is always giving me advice on how to visit Santo Domingo without going broke.
Interview by Felix Manuel Rodriguez, Author of Dad, Me, and Muhammad Ali
About Junot Díaz:
Díaz was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and is the author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, African Voices, Best American Short Stories (1996, 1997, 1999, 2000), Pushcart Prize XXII and in The O’Henry Prize Stories 2009. He has received a Eugene McDermott Award, a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, a Lila Acheson Wallace Readers Digest Award, the 2002 Pen/Malamud Award, the 2003 US-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is the fiction editor at the Boston Review and the Rudge (1948) and Nancy Allen professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To learn more visit www.junotdiaz.com