"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
JUNOT DIAZ’S LITERARY STAR keeps rising. In the past two weeks, The New York Times featured Díaz in their Sunday A&E section, the cover of its Sunday Book Review, and last week in its magazine section replete with pages from his notebooks. Earlier this year, he had three stories in The New Yorker – two that appear in his new collection and another perchance a chapter from a new work in progress. This Is How You Lose Her is currently on the Timestop ten-fiction bestseller list. The book’s launch in New York City drew a wraparound crowd of nearly 1000. And last week, Díaz received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
I first met Junot Díaz ten years ago at what is now Texas State University in San Marcos. He was a guest of its Creative Writing program headed by Tom Grimes and visiting his friend and fellow writer Dagoberto Gilb. I was then book editor of the San Antonio Express-News. That evening Díaz read from a work in progress, Monstro – a sci-fi tale set in the Dominican Republic. Over dinner, our conversation centered on two Dominican actors that had made it in Hollywood: Maria Montez and Rafael Campos. Junot had heard about but never seen Montez’s cult film Cobra Woman (1944) and Campos’ scene-stealing role as a Latino teen in Blackboard Jungle (1955). At the time, neither film was on video, but I had taped both off a cable network. I later sent Díaz VHS copies. He thanked me with a bottle of fine Dominican rum.
Reading Díaz is to discover a new voice in American lit that continually amazes as it informs, his text a vast storehouse of literary references, footnotes, and genre-bending throwaways. His groundbreaking use of Spanish without italics or translation is deeply refreshing to Latino readers, as it is to any reader who recognizes it as part and parcel to the bilingual Latino experience. In This is How You Lose Her, Díaz’s protagonist is Yunior – previously introduced in his story collection Drown and again as a witness and a narrator in Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior narrates eight of its nine stories in This is How You Lose Her. Readers discover he is a writer of fiction and a self-referential alter ego for Díaz. The unconventional telling of Yunior’s story, moving as it does from first person to second person POV, is not unlike Travis Bickle staring in the mirror saying, “You talking to me? Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” Díaz is slowly but surely picking up the pieces of Yunior’s life and converting them into a multi-volume tale not unlike Phillip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom or even James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan.
Díaz has also published a list of books he lost – or his ex took — while writing and living Lose Her: Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Samuel R. Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, and Sandra Cisneros’ My Wicked, Wicked Ways (from which Díaz gets the book’s epigram), and Brother Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, all of which are part of Junot’s literary DNA.
I have interviewed Díaz four times over the past decade. Each was different: the first in person, the second by landline, the third by cell phone. This one was an exchange of emails. I never expected Junot to answer every one of my questions. Yet he did. The interview covered the writing and style of the new collection, why he keeps returning to his alter ego Yunior, and what Yunior represents as a character and as a writer of fiction. We explored Yunior’s sex life and the molestation in his youth. We discussed the toll that the Trujillo regime still wields on dominicanos both on and away from la isla. The interchange ended with a brief update on the novel he is now writing and his current pastimes.
Gregg Barrios: In the new collection This is How You Lose Her as in Drown you don’t close off the experience of each individual story but instead return to the same characters in a different time and place. It’s episodic with a central character (House on Mango Street comes to mind). What attracted you to this form? I think of telenovelas. Is that too glib a reading?
Junot Diaz: This is not glib. Novelas taught me a lot about narrative, about storytelling, how to hold people’s attention over a span of episodes. But with this book I also wanted a hybrid pleasure. I wanted, to be precise, a story collection with a novelistic arc. I wanted to give the reader the short story’s standard pleasures: closure and its often blunt reminder that our choices and their consequences sometimes cut us off from the life we once had; and also I wanted to give readers the novel’s standard pleasure: long connection to characters and their world. Like a good immigrant I guess I wanted the best of both worlds.
GB: Did you struggle to make each book a stand-alone? I know more about Yunior than friends that have only read one of your books. If there were more about Yunior’s past history in the new book, we might better understand his derangements.
JD: I always knew that this book was a part of a larger narrative about Yunior. In my head each of the books that I have written so far represent a chapter in the larger tapestry of Yunior’s life. In Drown we learn about a lot about Yunior’s family and about his life both New Jersey and in the Dominican Republic. And in this book we more squarely see Yunior wrestling with love and intimacy; this is his particular fuku, his curse. In Oscar Wao he spent his whole time narrating someone else’s curse. Well, here he focuses on his own. But certainly I fought to make this book stand-alone and yet also to work with the other two I’ve written. It’s part of the reason that these things take so long to write.
GB: Yunior is the principal character in all your books; he is an alter ego for the author. And it is also fiction. And yet he is a most enigmatic character, an unreliable narrator in what he says and more importantly what he doesn’t say. Is he playing the reader? Himself? Is he hustling us in a literary game of three-card Monte? What doesn’t he want us to know? What is he so afraid of revealing?
JD: Think about what Yunior’s operative mode is with the woman in his life. Deception.
Playing roles. Wearing masks. And then think about what Yunior does for his work. He is a writer of fiction. He puts on masks for a living. I don’t think it’s an accident, this connection, and this overlap. Yunior has turned a problem in his social life into the engine that powers his artistic life. But if he was just a liar I doubt he would be very interesting. What makes Yunior so attractive and so problematic is that he is both brutally honest and blithely mendacious. He really has a scathing eye, talks about stuff most of us would shy away from bringing up. He’s also a top-notched prevaricator. The game of the book is always for the reader to parse when he’s being one versus when he’s being the other.
But look at Yunior’s life; look at all he has suffered. He was never really loved in his family like his brother was. A smart, sensitive political kid, he had a tough time in the world he grew up in. I don’t ever really come out and say it but any one who grew up in a place like London Terrace, reading and dreaming, can only imagine what kind of turmoil a young Yunior must have faced. Not tougher than many young lives but tough enough — not a life you’d want for your kid, certainly. There is tremendous vulnerability in this character. What is he afraid of you ask? Perhaps returning to that vulnerability. Confronting it again. What is he so afraid of revealing? Himself: weak, despised, alone and desperately wanting the connection he was always denied.
GB: Is part of it his failure to come clean about his conflicted sexuality? In Drown he is sexually abused on a bus then as a teen his best bud has sex with him twice. And in Lose Her, a high school teacher in what society considers criminal behavior sexually abuses him — big time. Now as an adult, you’d assume he’s dealt with this trauma, has gone to therapy, has told someone how this “secret silence” resulted in his serial promiscuity, his need to prove his machismo, and in his failure to be vulnerable, trusting or loving. But again my question: why isn’t more of his traumatic past in these new stories?
JD: Well, we don’t see it in these new stories primarily because a lot of that information is in Drown. I figured no need to repeat myself. But it is here as well of course: we see another piece of Yunior’s troubling sexual history in the story “Miss Lora.” A story in where it’s easy to lose sight of how messed up this stuff all is. I do think it’s fascinating the way that no critics (besides you Gregg) talk about Yunior’s sexual promiscuity in relation to some of the sexual abuse / transgressions he has suffered. But there’s no understanding Yunior without viewing through the lens of these things.
Therapy for Yunior? Perhaps but remember there are a lot of guys just like Yunior out in this world — who have suffered sexually and yet have not been able to seek the help they need for it, have not been able to say the words. One of the questions I always ask serious readers about Oscar Wao is why do you think Yunior, a boy, is so preoccupied, so sympathetic, about the sexual abuse suffered by Lola and Beli, by the women in the DR? And in that answer you perhaps can gain insight into Yunior.
Look, Yunior, is traumatized about these things. Which is why he can only circle the wounds, is never really capable of entering them and through that re-encounter with his old pain finding peace. Not yet at least.
GB: In the same vein that you are often asked what part of Yunior’s life is similar to your own, I’d ask if you also experienced both physical and sexual abuse as Yunior does/did? And if so, has that proven to be very painful to process, to put into writing?
JD: This is a tough question that requires a tough answer. I wish I could answer it as well as you asked it. All I can say is that Yunior’s suffering shares a lot with what I suffered as a young person. And that putting the pieces of yourself back together, after terrific violence, often takes a lifetime.
GB: I also see characteristics of Trujillo in Yunior — how he controls information, how he weaves his web with storytelling and makes himself sympathetic to the reader: “I’m not a bad guy…” — he begins the narrative. I see this in all three books. Is this far-fetched?
JD: Yunior is one of Trujillo’s Children. All of us Dominicans are. We are as haunted by him as we are by our own selves. Of course most of us don’t even know who Trujillo is but ignorance doesn’t stop history from working on us. As we all know history often does its best work on us when we don’t know a thing about the past. Oscar Wao makes that very same argument — that the present dictator of the novel is Yunior.
GB: I just read Monstro. I remember when you read parts in San Marcos some 10 years ago. It was quite different then. I heard you are planning to use a teenage Dominican girl named Isis as the principal character. At the end of Oscar Wao, Yunior imagines that Lola’s 14-year old daughter also named Isis will have “to piece together” Oscar’s papers and manuscripts that Yunior has under lock and key. In the Isis myth, she puts her brother Osiris together again and magically gives him a new penis. Is this a red herring or are you taking us in that direction?
JD: Well, no, in the myth, at least the one I’m familiar with, Isis never finds the penis. (Or she intentionally leaves it out. I like this version best.) Monstro is a book I’m still working on so God knows how it will end up but I hope there will be a thin resonance behind little Isis of this novel and little Isis that closes Oscar Wao. I’d just be happy to finish it, to be honest.
GB: Finally, you are always asked what new books you are reading. But what new video games or new films are you soaking up? (Oh, in Monstro is the character named Mysty a reference to my favorite video game Myst from the 1990s?)
JD: I’m into the new Walking Dead games that are coming out a chapter at a time. You seen those? Amazing. I love Myst. That damn game drove me nuts. But Mysty’s name I got from a friend. Thanks so much, Gregg.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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