“Yo, dude, I think you might have won a Poo-litza!”
This, apparently, is how Junot Diaz received word of his big win.
I used a Junot Diaz story in one of my workshops last week — “Fiesta, 1980” from the story collection Drown. It chronicles the experiences of an adolescent Dominican boy as he navigates his nausea and family life during a trip to a party in the Bronx, with flashbacks that reveal the deeper dynamics behind the up-front action. We spent a lot of time talking about point of view in the workshop. It’s a first person retrospective piece that sometimes brings the reader in close to the 12-year-old protagonist’s experience, and other times privileges the adult narrator. The shift between the two is sometimes smooth, sometimes jarring. Diaz gives us a few lines of the protagonist’s dialogue, only to puncture the illusion of our closeness to the character by throwing in adult words or perceptions. In this way, we are both inside and outside of the protagonist’s mind at the same time. The narrator is effectively treating his younger self as a character. This is a technique called indirect interior monologue — and in the first person, it’s more often employed in memoir and personal essays, when writers often have to recreate some version of their younger selves on the page. See this great essay by David Jauss for more on indirect interior monologue and other techniques of point of view. It’s technical, but worth it.
In the meantime here’s a link to an interview with Diaz, (from which the opening quote of this blog entry is taken) conducted by Meghan O’Rourke, Slate’s culture editor, and Deborah Landau, the director of NYU’s MFA writing program. (Try as I might, I couldn’t embed the damn thing. Anyone with the know-how, please help me!)
O’Rourke looks comfortable on camera. Landau, not so much. But it’s still a good interview, not least because it gives a good feel for how Diaz really thinks and talks. Just how autobiographical is Diaz’s work? That’s something else we discussed in our workshop. The point of view in “Fiesta, 1980” certainly leads us to read it as nonfiction, and “Junot” would seem to have so much in common with his protagonist “Junior” (also the protagonist of his Oscar Wao book?) that it’s not hard to make the imaginative leap and think it’s as much memoir as fiction. But, of course, that’s pure speculation.
It’s interesting that NYU is teaming up with Slate to produce this kind of content: a service to writing students and interested Slate readers alike, and an indication that NYU’s program is at least trying to utilize new media technology as part of its offerings, which is more than can be said for some other MFA programs.