Junot Díaz: “Radical Hope Is Our Best Weapon”

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[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Krista Tippett (On Being) interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz. Quoting the author—“From the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart”—she states that “his hope is fiercely reality-based, a product of centuries lodged in his body of African-Caribbean suffering, survival, and genius.” Here are excerpts of this episode (play the original episode on the On Being site):

Krista Tippett, host: In the aftermath of America’s cathartic 2016 election, The New Yorker collected a series of 16 reflections by varied authors. The one that most riveted me was by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Dominican-American author, Junot Díaz. His essay was titled “Radical Hope Is Our Best Weapon.” Díaz’s hope is fiercely reality-based, a product of centuries lodged in his body of African-Caribbean suffering, survival, and genius. I can truly say that no conversation I’ve had in all my years has felt more searing, important, and eloquent than this one.

Junot Díaz: I’m a child of blackness. Blackness was not meant to survive, and we have survived. And we have thrived. And we’ve given this world more genius than we have ever received.

[. . .]  Ms. Tippett: Junot Díaz is a professor of writing at MIT, and he’s the fiction editor of Boston Review. His books include Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This Is How You Lose Her.

Ms. Tippett: Your family came from the Dominican Republic when you were six years old. And that place and the New Jersey you landed in are both hugely formative, and that all comes through, all the way through your writing and your work. I always ask this question when I start my interviews, whoever I’m talking with, about the religious or spiritual background of their childhood. I’m really curious — I’ve never heard you speak overtly about this, and I do understand “spiritual” expansively, so I mean how would you describe the spiritual background of your childhood?

Mr. Díaz: The Caribbean — first and foremost, this is a site of empire and a site of the starting point of New World slavery and all of the inhumanities and survival responses that that produced. And among those syncretic reactions was the religious universe in which I grew up, a universe ostensibly Catholic, but which was shot through, sort of subsumed in an Africanized, New World cosmology.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, the spirits who kind of live inside the saints, the Catholic saints.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, the saints are simply the masks.

Ms. Tippett: Right, exactly, yeah, or hidden by the saints. There’s this word that you use at the beginning of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — the “fukú” — “the Curse and Doom of the New World.” There’s this line you have: “It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in these ‘superstitions,’ because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.” [laugh]

Mr. Díaz: I mean it was more that it was in everything and in everyone, and it was everywhere. It was the force that bound us all together. It saturated so much of the culture. And it was important, those first six years for me in the Dominican Republic, because I got access to worlds that I would not have had access to had I been only raised in the United States. I still remember being very young and that there was a family member who was one of these people who was believed to be a medium — in other words, that whenever she heard certain kinds of music or certain kinds of drums that she would become possessed, “se monto.” And by being possessed, she would become a medium for these numinous entities who seemed to have great interest in human affairs and would speak — they would speak through her. And I still remember, as a child, being overwhelmed and astonished by that experience, by having a family member who, out of nowhere, seemed to become someone else and speak, not only with a different register of voice, but with — from a different realm of experience.

And that’s not anything that you, as a child, easily explain away or put behind thin screens of rationalizations. That provoked an open mystery in me that I don’t think has ever closed. And it mattered to me, because I realized that I was growing up with the entire spectrum of epistemologies and ontologies of folks. I had folks who were incredibly empirical, people who had no religious beliefs. And then there were other family members who were deeply invested in this numinous universe. And having them all simultaneously — in many cases, hybridizing even the two extremes between the absolute empirical and the numinous — that was my foundational experience. And living all that simultaneously, it gave me a lot of room to think and a lot of room for how to be.

Ms. Tippett: How do you think that shapes you as an artist, your artistic imagination, even when so much of your storytelling is very carnal? I still — I don’t think of these things as in opposition to each other.

Mr. Díaz: No, and I would remind us that, coming from a reality where our oppression was ineluctably linked to our bodies — that we had, for centuries, no rights to our bodies and that all of the traditional pleasures and all of the traditional freedoms of human agency were forbidden to those of us of African descent in the New World, for a long period of time — the body, in such a murderous regime, under such nightmarish conditions, becomes chapel, cathedral, dogma. It becomes nearly everything. And so certainly, it took a bunch of work for Western theologians to create intellectual — and to argue the philosophical — bridges between mind and body or between the sacred and the material.

But in the New World, for those of us of African descent, we were living centuries ahead in our bodies. We were philosophizing centuries ahead of how bodies exist within, through, and alongside the numinous. And I have to tell you that, for people like us, for people who come out of the African Diaspora in the New World, simply to fall in love, when you have historically been denied love, the right to just connect to the body which you have chosen and that has chosen you, means that an act of love is not only revolutionary, it’s not only transcendent, but it is the deific. It is Godlike. It is a taste of the omnipotent. [. . .]

[Image above by Mark Gellineau; accessed via On Being.]

For full program, see https://onbeing.org/programs/junot-diaz-radical-hope-is-our-best-weapon-sep2017

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