Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

As an exploration of our interest in the dialogue literature engages in with non-critics, we’ve asked several Molossus readers to review selected titles. Our first such feature showcases screenwriter Jon Worley and entrepreneur Charles Renn.


Screenwriter Jon Worley, represented by William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, writes for FX. Keen to discover adaptable material, he is a routine reader of graphic novels.

Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell. (Top Shelf Productions) $19.95

A dark, hallucinogenic exploration of a childhood tainted by madness and melancholy, Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole is a story subtly told through lyrical, engrossing illustrations. The surface story is in serious danger of stepping into melodrama: Ruthy, a misunderstood teenager, copes with overwhelming numbness and alienation brought on by her schizophrenia medication. Powell, however, keeps things fresh, visualizing Ruthy’s internal life with a swirl of vivid, disturbingly trippy visuals: insect plagues, living pills, and an extremely menacing frog. The visual style informs the fragmentary emotions, complementing and deepening what we read. This is a surreal, elemental story, and a highly recommended one.

Business owner and Entrepreneur Charles Renn, owner of The Hive Los Angeles and its art gallery The Apiary, enjoys contemporary fiction, especially from Latin America.

Fugue State, Brian Evenson, Art by Zak Kelly. (Coffee House Press) $14.95

Brian Evenson’s collection of stories revolves around his intriguing theme, the fugue state, a mostly short-term amnesiatic disorder of the person. The opposites explored in Fugue State—young and old, strong and weak, fiction and seemingly non-fiction—develop into a well-written commentary on various contemporary American cultural positions. He explores death and immortality, survival and morality in the possible histories or futures he sets in cityscapes, farms, and the suburbs.

Evenson abruptly snatches innocence in “Mudder Tongue”. Its young female protagonist digests her parents’ recent divorce, the inevitable destruction of her father, and the fate of her mother. In the closing story, “The Adjudicator,” set in a post-catastrophic farmland, the story’s namesake’s god-like social control and ninja-esque killing reputation—both results of exposure to catastrophe—invite conflict with peon’s expectations and a self-conscious effort toward compassion.

The scope of Fugue State’s creativity generously invites the reader to create worlds of disease, torture, isolation, and mystery. A morbid aftertaste lingers after each story, a testament to the writer’s skill.

Certainly, Fugue State deserves attention as a clever and timely analysis of America’s self-absorbed culture, obsessed with destruction and annihilation. That said, the title story—and one supposes the collection’s climax—is a disappointment. In direct acknowledgment of the disorder, Evenson’s usual spirit for death and surprise are overshadowed by the story’s evident direction, amnesia.

Overall, though, the collection is an excellent exploration of the fugue state, with Evenson serving as competent guide.


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Fists, Pietro Grossi. (Pushkin Press) $15.95

fistsPietro Grossi is one of the emerging faces in Italian literature. With Fists, Pushkin Press and translator Howard Curtis give us our first glimpse of the young writer in English. Grossi is a public admirer of American writers such as Hemingway and Salinger, and their influence can be easily seen in his focused and straightforward writing style and his predilection for the young male protagonists who wander his pages searching for the male mold of identity. American readers will find Grossi’s prose refreshingly familiar stylistically, and exotic enough in terms of place and name to rile up the xenophobes among us. Grossi is one of those rare writers who is able to step away from his work and allow the story and narrative voice to wholly take over; he is successful both in first person and third person, believable as both a teenager and a man approaching thirty, as a city-slicker and a stable-hand.

Fists is composed of three short novellas. Boxing tells the story of two young men, the Dancer and the Goat, each of whom battle their own social isolation with remarkable boxing ability. The Dancer is an awkward youth—nerdy, skinny, and overlooked—who only finds confidence inside the boxing gym; the Goat is a deaf-mute whose obstinance and perfectionism have resulted in an unbeaten record. Both see themselves in the other and are compelled to test themselves against that self-reflective standard, however, neither can be victorious in the other’s defeat. As the Dancer remarks at the end of their fight, “Suddenly here we were, close to each other without our gloves on, both winners, both losers. Our weapons were gone, and we both had to come to grips with what remained of our lives.”

Horses portrays two brothers who are given horses as gifts by their father. Daniel sees his gift as an opportunity to develop a livelihood and initiates his own education by working in a stable. Natan, on the other hand, treats his horse as mere transportation to a new and exciting life in the city. In the words of the story:

It was immediately clear to everyone that the horses would take the two brothers to different places. It’s pointless to keep telling ourselves that we are all equal, we all make use of the world in our own way—to get, despite ourselves, to wherever we are meant to be. Some of us use a knife to kill, others to peel an apple. The same knife, but it makes the world different for each one of us.

Horses combines simple story-telling with emotional complexity. Grossi reveals just the right details to us at strategic moments so that the plot unfolds naturally and powerfully.

Easily the strangest story in Fists, The Monkey is also the only story in the collection that seems to be missing something vital in its guts.  Nico is a young man working in the film industry. He is at home one day, waiting for a call from his agent, when he receives some disturbing news—his childhood friend, Piero, has begun to act like a monkey. The story follows Nico’s journey back to his hometown, where he must face Piero’s psychological break and the implications it has with regard to his own identity. While The Monkey is an interesting concept, mixing Kafka-esque transformations (sans physicality) with Glass family social interaction, somewhere along the way Grossi loses grip on the diverging threads of his story. The Monkey possesses flashes of brilliance, but lacks the cohesion and focus of the other two stories.

On the whole, Fists is a beautifully executed book that warrants reading. However, one noticeable flaw in its makeup is its lack of any three-dimensional female characters. Throughout the book, testosterone is king, and Grossi merely provides quick sketches of shallow femininity. There is the doting mother who forces her son to take piano lessons and is scared to let him fight, the pharmacist’s daughter who exists solely as a device to project Daniel’s sexual aspirations onto, and Nico’s agent whom he describes as “one of those overweight women with their wombs full of cement who at some point in their lives have decided that a good business deal is better than sleeping with a man.” It is understandable that women are scarce in a book that largely focuses on masculinity, however, when women do appear from time to time (as they seem to do in the lives of men) it would be satisfying to see depictions of them that are as layered and subtle as those of the male characters.

Tim Bagdanov, Fiction Columnist and Investigator of Oddities, is currently pursuing a Master’s of Teaching degree at Chapman University. A writer of fiction and poetry, he lives in Orange, California with his wife, Jessica.

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Molossus is happy to announce a new feature, in partnership with World Literature Today. WLT Selections will appear monthly, as full length essays, interviews, poems, or stories selected by WLT Editor in Chief Daniel Simon from the current issue. This first story appears in the September – October issue of the magazine. 

“Home Affairs,” excerpted from Nigerians in Space, a larger novel in progress, follows a father and son as they attempt to penetrate the notorious Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town, South Africa. The father, Wale, has fled both his native Nigeria and his second home—the U.S.—in search of his dream to go into outer space. His son, Dayo, wonders why they left at all. But Nigerians are rarely welcome in South Africa, and refugees often get the cold shoulder. The story emerged from Olukotun’s work as a refugee attorney. 

Snapshot 2009-10-22 12-01-36

Photo: Murray Hunter


The bullwhip went up and snapped back in a flash, giving Wale just enough time to duck. The guard was angry—he’d been aggravated by a Tanzanian, fresh off the smuggling truck and waving a paper in his face—and finally, he’d had enough. 

“Three lines! Twenty-Twos, here! Twenty- Threes, here! Twenty-fours, here! Three lines!” 

When Wale and Dayo didn’t move, the guard came at them hard and fast, stepping back to stretch the full length of the bullwhip. 

“Get it up, Dayo!” Wale shouted. “Raise the shield!” 

Clumsily Dayo raised his basket cover, a makeshift shield, and whap!-whap!-whap! the guard rained the whip down, shooting bits of bamboo into the air. Father and son huddled together like a Roman turtle, raising their shields over their heads until the guard, furious, moved on and cracked the whip at a group of Congolese men chattering in Lingala, seemingly unaware of the commotion. 

“Three lines!” 

The rest happened rapidly: the whip snapped, a pair of spectacles—glinting silver in the sun— shot into the air, one of the men fell to the ground clutching his temple, and his companion in military fatigues hurtled himself at the guard, wrestling away the whip. He had been a commander the Ninjas in Bouenza, he shouted, and wouldn’t let the guard treat him like an animal. And while more guards joined the fray to retrieve the whip that the commander had taken, Wale spied an opening in the security gate and they were running fast, fast, fast past the hundreds of others, through the turnstile and the beeping radar detector and into the gloam of the old Customs House. 

Inside the long, dark foyer there was a corridor that led to the elevators. A stale haze hung in the air, obscuring their vision, and they began to sweat. They put away their shields and were about to press the “Up” button on the elevator when the guards entered dragging the military man by his shirt. 

“Stay calm,” Wale instructed. “Let’s go to the stairs.” 

The elevator door opened as the guards approached with their captive. Wale pretended like he had just exited the elevator, looking at his watch as if late for an important meeting. The guards pulled the man into the elevator without noticing and waited calmly for the door to close. 

Wale and his son walked briskly to the stair- well, where the steps twisted up interminably into the mottled haze. 

“What will they do with him, Dad?” 

“This is Home Affairs, Dayo. In here we will mind our own business. We get in and get out.” He stepped over to Dayo, who was hunched over, his mouth slightly open and looking stupid, and pressed a thumb into his spine. “Stand up straight. Close your mouth.” 

There were no windows in the stairwell, and the air felt as if it had hung there for decades. (more…)

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The Tanners, Robert Walser. (New Directions) $15.95

The-Tanners“The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether… he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways.” So begins W.G. Sebald in his introduction to New Directions’ recent publication of The Tanners, and the truth of his observation could easily be proven with even a cursory poll of American bibliophiles. Though admired in his own day by  Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse, Walser has been largely over-looked among readers outside of Switzerland and Germany; until recently, that is, when academia rediscovered his works  forgotten amongst the topmost shelves of modernism—wedged, perhaps, between dusty volumes of Remarque and Brecht. 

Simon Tanner, of the title’s Tanners, is a study in paradox: loquacious and introspective, industrious and idle, he stumbles through the Swiss countryside and through various employments in constant vacillation between excitement and boredom. In fact, sense of belonging and comfort with surrounding seem to be  emotional states that elude the Tanner family as a whole. They wander like orphans from job to job, town to town, and sibling to sibling with little of the self-confidence that is provided by an anchor of home.

Reading through the book one gets the impression that Walser suffered from some sort of literary anti-ADD. For him pen and paper must have swelled, as though viewed through a magnifying glass, until he could clearly see the missing bits of speech and chronicle he had yet to include. He then slotted all those bits into place so that each description, each dialogue, spans over pages and pages with hardly a pause for paragraphs breaks, or even the other sides of his characters’ meandering conversations. When Walser’s characters congregate in dining-rooms or stroll through fields, they don’t converse—they orate. In a 2000 review of The Robber and Jakob von Gunten, J.M. Coetzee remarks that “Walser’s texts are driven neither by logic nor by narrative but by moods, fancies, and associations: in temperament he is less a thinker or storyteller than an essayist.”

Yet somehow, despite his daunting blocks of unbroken text and long-winded oratory, Walser’s work remains readable and delicate. His humor is complex and his descriptions are laid out beautifully, with a painter’s eye. Simon’s indecision becomes irksome at times, but as his sister proclaims to him in a moment exaggerated vexation, “your behavior liberates our behavior from every sort of restraint.” And I find myself agreeing with her. 


Tim Bagdanov, Fiction Columnist and Investigator of Oddities, is currently pursuing a Master’s of Teaching degree at Chapman University. A writer of fiction and poetry, he lives in Orange, California with his wife, Jessica.   

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beautysalonMario Bellatin’s new novella
Beauty Salon, translated by Kurt Hollander and published this July by City Lights, is the haunting tale of beauty salon turned death parlor, named the Terminal by its homosexual owner and former stylist, for men dying from an unnamed plague. Like his other work, it is allegorical, brief, and eery. Though this is just his second work to be published in English, following Chinese Checkers, translated by Cooper Renner and published by Ravenna Press in 2007, Bellatin is well known throughout Latin America. He has won the Xavier Villarrutia Award and been awarded a Gugenheim Fellowship. He was born without a right hand, and frequently wears a variety of hooks.

To celebrate the release of Beauty Salon, Molossus presents an interview with Bellatin, from early 2007, a new portrait of Bellatin by Laura Peters, and another 2007 interview, this one with Cooper Renner and about translating Chinese Checkers.

A Conversation with Mario Bellatin
Carlos M. Sotomayor
tr. David Shook

This interview from early 2007 is reprinted from Carlos M. Sotomayor’s website, letraCapital, and followed the Peruvian release of his novel Perros héroes, at the Trujillo Book Fair. In his introduction Sotomayor writes that “Mario Bellatin has achieved the maximum reduction of the author’s presence in each of his books,” and he goes on to question him about that presence.

A few copies of the Interzona edition of Perros héroes, from Argentina, were circulated in Lima. Now, [the Peruvian press] Matalamanga has printed a nice edition of the novel. How do you take that?

Each edition is a new work. I try as much as possible to make each book appear as if it was just written. There are several editions of Perros héroes—on Alfaguara, on Interzona, on Matalamanga, on Ravenna Press, on Passage du Nord Ouest—but I don’t think that any are the same—I’m referring to the text itself—or that any annuls the others.

Is it possible that a Peruvian edition of one of your books that hasn’t appeared in our bookstores will arrive in Lima?

I’ve always published on several presses at the same time. It seems interesting to me to see how the texts take distinct paths according to the routes that their editors draw up. There are several books that haven’t been published in Peru, and I’d like to hear creative proposals from Peruvian editors to make the editorial projects really work.

The protagonist of Perros héroes, this blind and invalid man, really existed. How did you find him?

One particular afternoon I answered an ad in the classifieds for Belgian Malinois Shepherds. It was like discovering a wrinkle in reality that contained this fiction, that an induced fiction—that of once upon a time—could be difficultly achieved.

Regarding the concision of your language, or as Villoro would say, in “your phrases polished like rocks,” I detect a particularity in your work that in spite of this leaves a lot unsaid, a lot that the reader must complete…

It’s high time to return to the reader the liberty of recreating their own universes. That’s why I try to make the texts appear as if from nothing. Without a predetermined context or an author full of answers supporting it. I know that achieving that is something impossible, but to play with that possibility can be a good pretext for writing.

Your novels have been published in many countries and translated into various languages. Where do you think they’ve understood you best?

I don’t pay much attention to what happens with the books after they’re published. Nonetheless, I’ve received very interesting work from critics that have constructed proper discourses using my books as their base. For me it’s been important to see how a text can generate another autonomous text. These works have mostly come from France and Argentina.

In Lima you have a large following, including many young writers who appreciate your understanding of literature. How do you take that in relation to what happened in the ‘90s?

What you say satisfies me immensely, but I’m not sure if it’s true. I hope that someone feels close to what I do. I don’t have much contact with what happens here. Lima has been reduced to two or three friends. In the ‘90s I didn’t know much about was happening either. At that time Lima was reduced to two or three friends. Everything else, everything outside the confinement of my writing, I always considered it a plus that it never had to do with the things I was or am doing.

My friend Ezio Neyra told me that in Mexico Alfaguara published a book that compiles several of your novels. Is that because all of your books engage in dialogue with one another and are parts of a whole?

It’s strange, the part of your question “My friend Ezio Neyra told me.” It gives me the sensation that the existence of a book is in doubt. Something that would be perfect. Not to write a book but to simply name it and thus achieve its apparition. It reminds me of what I’m trying to do now. Writing without writing. To make a work of literature without needing to write it as it is assumed that books are written. To achieve that—which I’m still not sure how to do in any concrete manner—the first step was to liberate myself from the writer named Mario Bellatin, and what better way to do so than to bury him beneath his complete works.

Carlos M. Sotomayor is a Peruvian journalist and writer. He edits letraCapital.

A Few New Hooks for Mario Bellatin
Laura Peters


Laura Peters, Painter of Poets, is an actor, artist, and musician in Los Angeles. Her most recent screen appearances were on Happiness Runs and Text.

A Conversation with Cooper Renner
Angela Woodward

Cooper Renner is the translator of Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions by Mario Bellatin, out this year from Ravenna Press. One of the three pieces, My Skin Luminous, appeared in the May edition of elimae . Bellatin is a Mexican writer who began publishing in the mid-1980s and came out with a slew of interesting novellas in the 1990s and 2000s. These have been published by various houses in Mexico, Spain, and Latin America, along with translations into German and French. But this is the first collection of this fascinating and unsettling writer for the English-speaking world. I interviewed Renner to learn more about how he came across Bellatin, and what it was like rendering these unusual works into English.

What attracts you to Bellatin?

Bellatin is a very interesting writer, not least because of his devotion to the novella form. Apparently the economics of publication in Spanish-speaking countries are more humane than ours. His publishers are willing to issue slim books of under 100 pages. His focus, in the works included in Chinese Checkers as well as in others I have read, seems to be on exploring the ins and outs of specific situations. He is not plot-driven, nor do his characterizations seem to function in the normal way—that is, to create a sympathetic character whom the author leads through some sort of growth process to a sort of epiphany. Any given one of his sentences, isolated from its context, might seem like an ordinary narrative sentence in a traditional work. But Bellatin’s contexts don’t work that way: situations and thought repeat and recur in an apparently random fashion; he refuses to orchestrate climaxes and artificial excitements, even where a conventional writer would immediately do so.

We were talking about running out of things to read. I’ve almost stopped expecting, at this point, to come across more great books I know nothing about. But I only read in English. Yet you’ve been reading more and more in Spanish. How did that come about, and how did that lead you to translating Bellatin?

Going into Spanish was almost unconscious for me, I think. Because I was working in El Paso, surrounded by Spanish, it probably just kind of started seeping in: if not the language itself, the desire to use it. This links into the issue of not having enough good material to read in two ways: first, because there are plenty of Spanish language books not available in English translation; and second, because switching into Spanish required a great deal more concentration from me and therefore changed the way I read. The forms in which Spanish sentences operate were still often “foreign” to me, and there were still lots of words I didn’t know. There are STILL lots of words I don’t know. And I stumbled across writers whose works were not easily, or at all, available in English. I have read four, I think, of Manuel Rivas’s books, only two of which have been translated into English, most notably The Carpenter’s Pencil. I found Ignacio Padilla’s Las antipodas y el siglo in a bookstore in Dallas and got very excited by the Borgesian nature of those stories. I went on to his novels Amphitryon and Espiral de artillería, a short section of which I have translated and published in Anemone Sidecar.

Bellatin is an author I also stumbled across in the bookstore. Perros héroes is the work I found first, and of course my version of it appears in Chinese Checkers. I believe I read Jacobo el mutante next, then Salón de belleza. I initially contacted his agent about doing a two-in-one collection of Perros héroes and Salón de belleza, but they [Bellatin and his agent] weren’t willing to release the latter, which has been published internationally, because the edition Ravenna Press and I were proposing was a fairly small first edition. They proposed pairing Perros héroes with Damas chinas, to which I readily agreed. Bellatin e-mailed me revised texts of the two, which he had prepared for a Spanish collected edition, and I got to work. A while later, he sent me the text of a new work, which had not yet appeared in Spanish, though it may have by now, which he suggested would make a nice third for the book. The text was, of course, Mi piel, luminosa (My Skin Luminous).

Did you ever think you might be wrecking Bellatin by taking him out of Spanish? Are there aspects of his prose that don’t cross borders well?

I got really worried, sort of panicked, when it was time for the book to be released, thinking I might have done a terrible job, might have misrepresented Bellatin, and so forth. He had already told me that he and some of his friends liked the translation, but I worried that maybe their grasp of English wasn’t strong enough and maybe my translation had horrible flaws they couldn’t see.

And who knows? Maybe I have misreprented Bellatin. I hope not, but how do I know? I come to Spanish as a foreigner; it’s not suffused in my cells. It’s acquired. I gather, from the few responses I’ve gotten from fellow writers, that “my” Bellatin is at least an acceptable work in English, though that again doesn’t address the issue of its faithfulness to the Spanish. I did have to make the kind of choice you and I have already discussed—sticking with the more accurate “immobile” man [in Hero Dogs] instead of an equivalent that would feel more normal in English, such as “paralyzed” or “quadraplegic,” which would connote more or less what Bellatin seemed to me to be doing in Spanish. And I did, at one point or another, decide not to get too colloquial, a decision that may have been wrong, to be sure, since Spanish by its very nature looks more formal, at least to me, than English does. But Bellatin’s work simply felt more reserved that the sort of talky prose that features in most contemporary English fictional prose.

I don’t know how much of a connection there may be, psychologically, between Bellatin’s work and my own mind. The central idea of My Skin Luminousthe mother’s exposure of the boy/youth’s genitals—is, I think, immediately fascinating to any male, in some way perhaps a fascination of the abomination, to use Conrad’s term. It’s so outré. Could that really happen? Could there really be a culture which has this practice? I think this is a hook that men could hardly resist. What would it mean to be that boy? But Bellatin doesn’t pursue any of the sensational aspects of the situation in the way that most US writers would, I think. The exposure is part of the boy’s life, but not all of it; it’s part of Bellatin’s tale, but not all of it. I imagine an American agency saying, “But where is the drama? Where is the big scene? Shouldn’t he kill his mother at some point? Wouldn’t this trauma make him a psychopath?”

But Chinese Checkers and Hero Dogs are so different. The methodical, discreet doctor ruminating, but not toward any apparent conclusion, on his own life and its apparent tragedies while entwining it with the odd tale of the boy and the old woman; the immobile man, who is an (unexplained) emblem of Latin America. What really moves these novellas forward, since they are clearly not plot-driven, is Bellatin’s skill with words, his refusal to be cheesy and Hollywood-ish, his determination to say well what he needs to say, rather than to follow the traditional, conventional paths to commercial success. I think it’s very well worth noting that each of these three novellas holds at its heart the clear elements of either a sensationalized thriller or a thoughtful, serious, literary novel—but in each case Bellatin refuses to take the easy way.

Cooper Renner is an artist, editor, poet (as Cooper Esteban), translator, and writer. He edits elimae.

Angela Woodward is the author of The Human Mind (Ravenna Press, 2007) and the forthcoming The End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press, 2010). See also her review of Jaime Luis Huenun’s Port Trakl in the June 2008 issue of Tarpaulin Sky.

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Sara Brown & Armando Celayo

first published in World Literature Today 83:2, March – April 2009

Gary Shteyngart was born in 1972 in Leningrad, in the Soviet Union. He immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was seven years old, lost his accent at age fourteen, and graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in political science. He later received an MFA in creative writing from Hunter College, and is an associate professor in the creative writing program at Columbia University. 

In October 2008 Shteyngart visited the University of Oklahoma along with world-renowned Soviet artist Vitaly Komar. The two were part of a five-day lecture course entitled “Russian Émigré Artists in the Context of American Culture,” which was sponsored by the Oklahoma Scholar-Leadership Enrichment Program.  The participants in the class were able to have a 2-hour discussion with Shteyngart, in which he discussed his work, his influences (lots of Russian lit reference,         surprised?), and the three Hs needed for diversity: Hispanic, Hasidic, and Hipster.

We were wondering if there’s anything you’re working on right now. 

Yeah. It’s a very difficult book. It’s difficult because it’s so timely. I started two years ago, so it’s about the collapse of the United States. It begins with this sort of financial collapse.

A fictional collapse or the current collapse? 

No, two years ago I started, so it’s completely fictional. But, now I find myself constantly having to rewrite parts of it—

Kind of how it was with Absurdistan. 

That’s exactly how it was with Absurdistan. It’s driving me crazy. I feel like I’m the prophet of doom.

Stop writing. 

Stop writing, I know. I’m terrified.

Are there any recurring characters? 

None. I don’t think so. I keep changing it because I’m so finicky about it, but it’s also a love story, which is pretty different for me. It’s really about two people from two different cultures and their relationship. So, it’s a very different book, in a way—it’s different and it’s not. I usually write about Russia in very different apocalyptic terms, but now I don’t have to go to Russia to feel apocalyptic.

Is it like their love story’s set on the backdrop of the collapse? 

Yeah, It’s very—you know, playing with this kind of fiction that I write—character for me is the most important, but on the other hand, you also want to—I’m also very interested in a world of ideas. And also, I’m very interested in just day-to-day life in different countries and cultures and different politics, and how politics affects the personal.  Kundera, for example—who’s now under suspicion of some not nice stuff, but frankly I always thought he was, I don’t know what the real story is, but I knew that he was an ardent supporter first, and then after ’68 he changed.

But they did find his name right in the papers. 

They did, except there’s—I’ve been reading, I don’t know, this is going back and forth—he’s sort of hated, I think, in the Czech Republic, which is what I felt when I was there, which is odd because he’s the greatest Czech writer ever—there are some other connections for that post—

Small pool— 

Small pool, but the meat of his work is just astounding. And The book I’m writing about is also about the death of literature. It’s set slightly in the future and—it’s a little bit in the future—and nobody can read and comprehend a sentence. And, there’s actually one scene in the book where one character tries to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being to another, and there’s a generational gap between them, about ten years, but the other character reading just cannot comprehend one part of it. It’s something I’m very worried about, obviously. Where things are trending.

Do you read Russian? Is that something that you think has helped out your writing? 

Yeah, when characters come along. In the first two books, obviously, when you have Russian characters. In the third book, there’s one or two scenes—one of the characters has a Russian background, but was born in the United States, so he doesn’t have the same kind of memory that I’ve had, and other characters have had. So, yeah, I find it’s very helpful to have a second background, to have a second soundtrack, almost, going on in my mind.

And, it helps to keep up with Russian literature, what’s happening now—which is not a whole lot—but whatever’s happening is interesting.

It seems like you’ve got a whole lot of idioms in your language—especially with Absurdistan (2006), you had Misha, who’s very influenced by hip-hop culture, and uses hip-hop language. Was that something that you consciously wanted Misha to have so that it reflected his view of America? 

In some ways, Absurdistan was really in the throes of globalism, what happens to globalism when the whole deck of cards collapses. At this point, certainly in terms of culture, there’s a huge amount of permeation of American culture in Russia and other countries. I would go to somewhere and hear local rappers. So I think Misha is just the source of, he is the Zagat Survey, or whatever, he’s the most global man he wants to be. Other identities he carries—whether nationalist identity, or religious identity, or even his identity as his father’s son—are so important to him. The easiest thing is to opt out and to be the world—We are the world, as that song used to say. I am the world, or I’ll eat the world.

In an article you said something about how you identify yourself as a Soviet Jew. Considering the Jewish diaspora, do you think that helps you to understand the diaspora of other cultures? 

Well, being Jewish is being Jewish, of course, and being in a diaspora is being in a diaspora. Well, you know, it’s different. I think American Jews are—and I won’t speak for all of them—but I think those that are several generations behind feel certainly more American than anything. Although now there are organizations, there’s a lot of organizations for every ethnic group that try to keep the spirit going because it’s in their own interest to perpetuate. But, American Jewishism isn’t religious, and it’s really, maybe, a euphemism for feeling out of place.

So one aspect of migration in general is that it’s very difficult to incorporate yourself fully into one culture and it’s also difficult to go back to the other culture, so you kind of end up straddling the border, which is like what—Misha doesn’t end up straddling the border, he kind of embodies the perfect person who’s absorbed everything, but your Girshkin character, he’s straddling it. Have you found that in your experiences?

Sure. I mean, the question—look: that book I started when I was twenty-two, twenty-three, I was in college, my senior year, and when you’re that young, what are you going to write about? I’m amazed when people can break out and write about something different. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2003) was a very autobiographical book in many ways, whereas Absurdistan, my second book, obviously, was not. Absurdistan was based on a lot of things—on a lot of literature: Goncharov’s Oblomov, or Confederancy of Dunces, or even Candide.

But it also partly came about from somebody I knew in college, who was—there were a bunch of Russians there, and they were all very pre-law, pre-med kind of usual immigrant stock, but this guy was raising psychedelic frogs in his home, and I felt, like, god, here’s this rather large, portly individual, I thought he’s somebody who, for some reason, maybe because he was relative—oh I don’t know—but feels completely planted on American soil, and I was fascinated by that. He didn’t have the same conflicts of a non-native-born that I certainly had and that others had.

Also one of the people—Philip Roth for example—Philip Roth who’s obviously born here, and whose parents were born here—I think, yes—but he still managed to work with the complexes of feeling insecure in America. It’s interesting because America has this—well, whether America remains the beacon that it has been, depends on how well it does, how well it survives, and also how welcoming it is in comparison to other places like Europe and Asia. Certainly we like it the way it is.

Do you feel that as an immigrant writer you can add to, or you can give a more unique aspect of the American experience?

Well, we’ll see because in the first two books I touched upon America to some extent. The first book began in America, however many pages were set here. The second book is a constant riff on America and Russia. And so in some ways it’s like being dealt this huge deck of cards where you’re born in one gigantic empire and move to another gigantic empire. It’s not the same as being Norwegian, or from a place that’s small or entirely—it doesn’t have a messianic vision of itself. Russia—no matter what guise it’s under—and America—no matter what guise it’s under—will always have these messianic visions. But I, for one, felt myself—you know, there’s this certain class of people, I think, that’s just very comfortable on an airplane going between one place and another. On the flight from Dallas to Oklahoma was full of people from the subcontinent and Africa—

And they’re going to Oklahoma.

And they’re going to Oklahoma.

The thing about Oklahoma that not a lot of people realize is that it was built on three races—white, black, and Indian. But now, you look in Oklahoma City and you go to some parts and it’s very Asian, or you go to the Southside and it’s very Hispanic—you can go for miles without seeing a sign in English. Reiterating the question that was asked, do you see yourself more kin to writers like Junot Díaz or Aleksandar Hemon than you do other Russian immigrant writers?

Sure. Exactly. That’s actually what I was about to say. You know, there’s a reason—Nobel prize committee not withstanding—I think there’s a reason why American literature has been so successful, because it is the view—America is always going to be viewed forever as the epitome of industrialization for the last century or more, and in terms of grasping this and how migration will change the world, and how the migrants themselves will respond to this new environment, America has been taking the lead. Look at some of the other literatures that have been very vibrant, for example post–Zadie Smith literature in the UK, specifically in London, which is the most multicultural city in Europe, but also touching upon other places. I spent half a year in Germany last year, and it’s just not that—there isn’t a huge crop there. There are Turkish writers obviously, coming to the fore, but none—you know, if you want to look to the interesting writers, it’s still people like Orhan Pamuk or his contemporaries in Turkey—it’s just different. I do think that there will be a whole different group of writers coming up in all the countries in Europe. I spent a lot of time in Italy and I was looking forward to seeing the work of Nigerian and Italian writers.

It’s also the question of to what extent does that culture welcome and want to hear those voices, and immigrant lit is not just entrenched in America, in terms of literary fiction, but it comprises almost the bulk of it at this point. It is what people are interested in. It’s what wins the Pulitzer Prize. I know a lot of other Russian writers whom I respect and admire of my generation, but somehow I just feel more—maybe they have maintained a very great connection with their families and their communities—and I feel more sort of defamilialized—if such a word exists—I mean, obviously, I have a family—but I feel more un-tethered from community, from family, and I feel like I can sort of act as a more dispassionate observer from this point. And I do also go back to Russia, which I also observe, not just dispassionately, but with a certain amount of misgiving.

When you go to Russia, children don’t move out of their homes until later, but I mean that’s not necessarily a cultural thing, that’s just a lack of available housing.

It’s a cultural thing. It’s both. I think Russia’s one of—it’s the Italy of the north, where the ties that bind the family are very…are unbreakable. And that causes people a lot of psychological damage. The one thing I do like about America and other Anglo cultures is the sense of the worth of the individual, is the sense that you don’t have to exist solely within the framework of your nation, your church, your family. It’s a very exciting thing. In some of the other countries that I’ve traveled to it’s quite the opposite.

Do you think that the American interest in immigrant literature is a reflection of a post-9/11 event, where people are looking outward?

I wonder. It’s very interesting. I’ve never read it but the huge book that did very well in terms of critical acclaim and sales was…what’s it called? Something suns? A thousand suns?

A Thousand Splendid Suns? Khaled Hosseini?

Khaled Hosseini. Which is interesting. Russian literature was very big during the Cold War—Pasternak, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn—you know. People were lining up to buy a thousand-page Solzhenitsyn volume. I think Americans are always fixed on the enemy that represents the very opposite of their ideals. Educated Americans want to read about that other culture that people are scared by. It’s interesting, the kind of countries that do line up. Now there’s a mini-boom of Chinese literature that just started. It’s really interesting to see. Literature by Hispanic Americans is always important just because America straddles the border of Mexico, and also because it’s the fastest growing population.

Especially here.

In this part of the country?

Yeah. Do you think there’s a danger in Americans just focusing on just one author like Hosseini instead of getting the whole range of literature?

Well, we’ve all been feeding at the trough pretty well. In New York, I have a group of just immigrant writers that hang out together, and usually complain, but are kind of excited to see, obviously, what’s happened all of a sudden.

When I was starting out—I wrote the first book in college—and for most of six or seven years I didn’t want to publish it because I thought, Who the hell cares about some Russian immigrant’s story? And that was sort of the first book in that wave of Russian novels that people were certainly ready for. The Indian American writers are the other group that, I think, has really been terrific. In some ways to have the advantage of growing up with this kind of English spoken, at least, among the educated classes, but the way they manipulate that language is so exciting, you know. There’s colonial English, there’re different native—you know, the Gujurati, Marathi, Hindi, that inflects the speech, and it’s just amazing.

I blurbed two writers who’ve won the Booker: Kiran Desai and the gentleman that wrote The White Tiger [Aravind Adiga] that just won the prize. So I have a good track record in predicting, but these books are astonishing and deserved to win the prize.

I remember hearing that Akhil Sharma is one of your friends and he helps out with your books. Is his influence a cultural influence or is it just him, personally, as a writer?

As a writer. He’s the sternest critic I know. He’ll say exactly what’s on his mind.

You say you go back to Russia.

Maybe every year or two.

Are you accepted in Russia when you go back?

Yeah, nobody cares. It’s a large society. I have friends who I visit that are nice people. It’s just a very stressful society because it’s so…half of its economy collapsed. It was thrown from a very lower-middle-class country into a third world, developing country in the span of less than half a decade. All the industries collapsed, everything collapsed. To grow up in that kind of environment is incredibly stressful, incredibly depressing. On the other hand, you have this messianic idea that your country is great, it has the largest landmass and all these different things, and what’s happened lately is there’s been this collapse—the Democratic Party has been completely—it doesn’t really exist. And it’s been subverted by the capitalists. It’s like a kleptocracy where oil and gas sectors dominate the economy, in the way they do in countries like Nigeria and elsewhere. Other than Norway, I don’t think there’s a successful democratic petro-state. So, it’s the worst of all worlds in some ways, except there’s been the growth of the middle class and that’s one reason, especially in big cities like Moscow and Petersburg, where I’m from. There’s no underpinning to the economy other than oil and gas, they haven’t developed an infrastructure, they haven’t developed anything. So, these gains that are being made are subject to being rescinded. And then what? Then what happens?

But there’s a second type of collapse that’s already being funded and it affects the literature. You know, the literature that I like, Sorokin for example, is the literature of anxiety, we’re dealing with this, whether it’s boom or bust, this maximalist concept. Absurdistan was written right before the booms, so the country that it describes circa, say, 2001—which was about when Putin took over from Yeltsin—was, especially in Moscow, in a very big boom. St. Petersburg, where I’m from, still looks a lot of ways the way it’s described in the book because it’s a crumbling and a depressing place. It’s been gussied up since, but Russia is a place where it seems like the concept of adding fresh layers of paint isn’t condemned—but what’s underneath it?

You’ve referred to Petersburg as Leninsburg, instead of Leningrad. Do you think it’s more accurate to refer to it as Putingrad today?

Well, you know, I think I like Leninsburg because you can’t switch a country that quickly into a whole new world. You can’t say, Now we’re going to be a free-market democracy. Yeltsin has to be given credit for trying—he was not the man for the job, was drunk a great deal of the time, surrounded himself with all the terrible people. But at the heart is, you know, you can call it—even Petersburg also makes sense—he was a tyrant in his own right. There’s a restaurant in Petersburg called 1913 cause that’s theoretically the last good year in Russian history, when things were sort of trending in a good direction. So, you know, at least we never switched to Stalingrad. There was a Stalingrad.

What about American and Russian consumerism, just in comparative terms? There’s a vast difference between the two.

Well, Russian consumerism wants to be American consumerism, I think, in some ways. And not just Russia. You go around Asia, countries as diverse as Korea and Thailand. Everybody wants unfettered access to unlimited amounts of stuff. There’s a mall I went to in Bangkok, a mall that had Kentucky Fried Chicken on one level and a Lamborghini dealership on another. People want it all. The whole vast array of endless fatty goods. I mean, fatty goods and a Lamborghini. Stuff that’s not necessary to sustenance or to happiness, but which a group of people think will lead to a better life. Russians in the Soviet Union wanted so much—Abba records, Grundig shortwave radios from Germany—all these different things, it’s all we’ve dreamt about, my parents did. And then it’s there, it comes, and people in these countries also have been getting into huge amounts of debt trying to finance any kind of Western lifestyle. Huge amounts of stress.  Countries like Korea are some of the most stressful societies. And you can understand initially, taking a country like Korea, which is one of the poorest countries after the Korean War and is now certainly an incredibly wealthy country like Argentina is, as far as any other developed countries, but it doesn’t go enough to just to the point where there’s enough sustenance. The mentality is globalism, one has to be the best—it’s an endless race. It’s like an arms race. You have to have all the top goods. And Russia is a great example of that. Until last week, after the collapse of the stock market, there were more billionaires in Moscow than any other city in the world. Think of it: more billionaires in Moscow than in London or New York. London is the world’s financial hub right now, and New York is the financial capital of, still, the world’s biggest economy. And Russia, by comparison, is a mess. I mean, c’mon, these people… You can see what people want, and how wealth is distributed. And they’ve spent it, they’ve spent it on such crap. It’s unbelievable.

On that, going back to hip-hop—hip-hop can appeal to either a materialistic culture but it can also speak to a working class. How do you think hip-hop plays in Russia?

Well, it began as a working class cry and then it became materialistic. In Russia there’s a version of—it’s not hip-hop—Shanson—it’s ballads by sort of gangster-sounding men, it’s the best way I can describe it—

Timoti, the gangster rapper from Russia?

No, no, no. Shanson is a little different. It’s sung usually by older men, Severny is one of them, you know, Vysotsky’s sort of, isn’t exactly, but that rumble-style, that tempo. But a lot of the songs are set in Odessa always a gangster-land capital in Russia, and they were thuggish, but they weren’t exactly materialistic, they were sometimes love songs, not exactly, but also, in their own ways, poking fun at society and poking fun at the state. So, I think there’s a great tradition of that.

But, in terms of hip-hop, I mean, I’m not as…I find it very difficult to listen to. It just doesn’t sound—I don’t like hip-hop from any other nation other than our own, in this nation. Sometimes British hip-hop. I don’t understand French, but I’m told that’s the situation. In the peripheries.

Hip-hop was very important to me in college, actually, because it was a very good point for me to sort of leave the very conservative environment in which I grew up, and in some ways it was the first time that I’d been exposed to African American culture in new ways. I grew up in a very, I would say, racist environment. I think Russians in America are a very conservative culture—always vote Republican. So, that was a very big change for me. Back then it was still switching slightly from the music of revolt to the music of materialism. The old school ones: Ice Cube—

Public Enemy.

Public Enemy, of course. And that was slowly giving way to the Jay-Zs of the world.

And even Notorious B.I.G., because he seems to kind of combine the two, because he had a fascination with—

Yes, he did, he did. And he was just starting back when I wanted to become. . . . So, yes, when I was thinking of my Misha, I thought Biggie. How could you not?

October 2008


Sara Brown is a senior at the University of Oklahoma, majoring in Russian and Anthropology.  She recently spent a year living and studying in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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Armando Celayo & David Shook

first published in World Literature Today 82:2, March – April 2008

The stories in Drown (1996), Junot Díaz’s first collection, were called “powerful and convincing,” “sentimental, yet cynical,” and “mesmerizingly honest.” Two of the stories—“Ysrael” and “Fiesta, 1980”—were anthologized in the 1996 and 1997 editions of The Best American Short Stories. Since then, Díaz has been selected twice more for the BASS anthology (1999 and 2000), received the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction in 2002, and was recently awarded the Rome Prize. Díaz earned his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University and an MFA from Cornell University. He has taught at Syracuse University and is currently a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as the fiction editor for the Boston Review.

This past September saw the publication of Díaz’s long-awaited first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The book was met with universal praise: “If Donald Barthelme had lived to read Díaz, he surely would have been delighted to discover an intellectual and linguistic omnivore who could have taught even him a move or two” (Newsweek). The New York Times Book Review named it a Notable Book for 2007. The novel chronicles the life of Oscar de León, “a fat lonely nerdy kid,” from his childhood as a short-lived Dominican playboy, to the painful experiences of first love and high school, to his final days living in the Dominican Republic. But Oscar Wao is more than a bildungsroman; it’s an honest and poignant narrative that looks at the overbearing weight of history as it influences generations and generations of Americans, who often don’t realize the impact it has on them. Marla Johnson © 2008

Three weeks into his month-long book tour, Díaz met with us in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I was reading Chinua Achebe’s book of essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day, and he had this essay called “The African Writer and the English Language.”

Sure, no, I know it.

And he’s talking about how a lot of African writers were tentative about using English, but at the same time he realized he couldn’t use the English that other writers were using—he needed to take English and make it African, make it his own. And he has this quote from the London Observer from 1964, from James Baldwin, where he talked about how the English language reflected none of his experience, but if he learned to imitate it, he could make it bear the burden of his experience. And I was wondering, how conscious was your attempt to make English your own, to make it bear the burden of Dominican American experience? Was that a gradual process or did it occur naturally?

Yeah, no, I remember the essay, don’t remember the Baldwin quote, but it’s a good one to try to grapple. It’s sort of weird: language for me, you know, it’s one person, so it’s hard to build up a sort of philosophy on it in any way that makes sense, and I guess what strikes me at first is that language is a funny thing to attempt to nationalize or to put a stamp on. Language eludes any attempt anyone has to corral it. So, it’s always weird when people feel that there’s this sense of ownership in a language and that people use it to victimize other people, because language just doesn’t work that way, so I always think about the way young people in any neighborhood or particular spot will immediately work the language to their experience, to their little anecdotes. One of the things about having childhood friends is you don’t just have childhood friendships or relationships and physical proximities—you have your own goddamn idiom. You just create this entire language, and in some ways it holds you together—that idiom holds you together—longer than even your physical presence. So, you’re able to hang out with people and say one thing and they all just start laughing. And I think of that, in a sense, in the same way it happens for anyone who’s attempting to use language in an artistic enterprise, the same way that we use language to forge a reality among our youthful friends—we’re going to attempt to use it to try to particularize that experience, because there’s no exchange rate of language-to-experience that ever holds steady. Every experience of every moment seems to require some new way of saying it, and every artist seems to provoke an attempt to say something that might even be mundane, say, in an original way. So that’s a long way of saying that to begin with, we’re in that, we’re in this mechanism, that language is already plastic in ways that I think are exceptional, that are far better and far more fungible than anyone would like to give it credit for. But, as far as myself and my own individual project, the idea is definitely that propósito, like on purpose, which is that I was trying to see how far I could push English to the edge of disintegration, but still be, for the large part, entirely coherent. In other words, could I make the unintelligibility gap for any one reader as wide as I could, but still have it hold together, still be able to communicate the experience? And so, I’ve definitely thought a lot about it. My first sense of it was always with having to learn English as an immigrant, feeling, as an immigrant, the sense of a perfect English would never exist anywhere, but in your mind you have to dominate it, in your mind you have to master it, and your mind kind of torments you with every mistake you’ve made, preparing yourself against this ideal that doesn’t exist anywhere. And so, of course, I have all these things in my mind, and these are all sort of vectors that you want to play with because learning English is such a violent experience as a kid.

Given that geography shapes the way a writer views the world—like Faulkner wouldn’t be Faulkner without the South, and Rushdie wouldn’t be Rushdie without India and England—but in your experience, especially in Oscar Wao, much of the narrative lives in both worlds, but in the American world it also uses these very esoteric topics such as Lord of the Rings, and framing the viewpoint from the Watcher, which is this Fantastic Four reference, and I was curious, for you, how does American pop culture help you understand both worlds and present what you know to the reader?

Well, when we’re talking about English acquisition, one discovers very quickly as an immigrant kid that there’s English acquisition and then there’s English acquisition, that there is this almost endless array of vernaculars that you have to pick up. So that you can learn the standard English, but then you realize, I don’t know shit about sports—you got to learn the sports stuff. Then you realize, I don’t know shit about American popular music, I don’t even know who the fuck The Who is—you got to pick that entire thing up. Everyone’s making references to TV shows you’ve never heard of, old TV shows, and even little ditties in TV shows. I mean, the music from Jeopardy—that do do do do—that makes no fucking sense to an immigrant. You’ve got to learn that. And so, in the end, you keep stacking up all these little languages, these threads. And so comic books, fantasy, and science fiction are like a very vibrant, alive, and very American language. When I’ve been looking at some of the reviews, whether positive or negative, I think what gets missed in so much of the discussions is they seem to forget that science fiction is one of those really bizarre American imports. It was imported from France, from England, and it was somehow perfected in a bizarre way. And the comic book is an even more American form. They think the blues and the comic book are two of the most original indigenous forms. But it’s so strange that they’re completely marginalized, these very indigenous forms that are very marginalized, they’ve been an important part of what we would call the North American narrative, what we would call the formative literary experience. They’ve always been a great ontological or epistemic lens, so that you have fucking Ronald Reagan, for most of his foreign policy and most of his worldview, if you read those biographies of his, he used science fiction.

The folklore of science fiction was a huge part of his mind. And he’s not the only one. So I was thinking about how in the world to describe the extreme experience of being an immigrant in the United States, the extreme experience of coming from the Third World and suddenly appearing in New Jersey. You know when you test cars or planes, and you put them through stress tests? Every language that I was deploying, every language system, fell apart. As soon as I put it through the bend of Santo Domingo, 1974—no lights, nobody knew anything about the United States, nobody had even seen a TV—central New Jersey, 1974—cable, Vietnam, lights, electricity—every time I tried to use a narrative to take me from here to there, it disintegrated, as soon as it reached that—I don’t know how to call it—that world barrier. But science fiction, fantasy, and comic books are meant to do this kind of stupid stuff, they’re meant to talk about these extreme, ludicrous transformations, and so I really wanted to use them. I felt a great kinship to these narratives, which served as a backbone for so much of what we call “America” but are completely ostracized; it felt like the history of the immigrant, the minority, the woman. I was like, Yo, we’re friends. In darkness we meet. Let us do work.

That makes sense because the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, based Superman off the Golem character in Jewish mythology. A lot of comic books are based on Greek mythology, so it kind of makes sense that authors trying to express themselves would use sources outside of the United States to try to make sense of people.

Talking about comic books leads me to another question about minorities in your writing. Immigrants are a minority here in the United States, but because you write from the Dominican community, it seems that everything else is the outsider, because you’re looking pretty much from the inside out. But in Oscar Wao, you have minorities in the community, because Oscar Wao’s passion for sci-fi and comic books and Japanimation isolates him from making a human connection with everybody else, and even Lola, whose beauty isolates her from making any human connections with everybody else. So there are these other small minority communities that are kind of universal. I mean, being a nerd is being a nerd in every community, you don’t have to be brown or black or white—if you’re a nerd, you’re a nerd. I was wondering, is that something you were conscious about when you were writing Oscar Wao?

Sure. No, but some nerds are “worse” than others. We are such a deeply racialized society, and being a black nerd means something very different from being a white nerd, and being an Asian nerd means something very different from being a black nerd. And so I felt that that was really important. Even though “nerd” can be seen as a race, it’s just true: some nerds are doomed in their community in ways that—I mean, honestly, if you’re going to be a nerd, pick an Asian nerd, or pick where the community at least values education. I don’t say every community, you don’t want to generalize, I wouldn’t say my Cambodian friends would be like, Oh yeah, I really love education being valued in the camps. But, if you want to do a very wide, broad shtick, if you had to roll the dice, I would roll it in the Asian category, if they already picked me as a nerd, I mean, please, for God’s sake. You don’t want to roll in the Dominican category because that is the bizarrest thing you could be.

And so I was definitely interested in creating these mutants. In some ways I always joked around, the operative way of understanding these characters was the Fantastic Four, where they were the first family, in some ways, and each of them was like this exceptional mutant. But at the same time, what you’re saying is very much true, even if you get picked on this much in your community, I think you’re dead-on. The solidarity of nerds was very, very important to me. I mean, we’re not all equal, but at the same time we share this bedrock that occurs. I feel like, of any group of characters, they’re in the imaginary so powerfully, but there’s still so much to be done with them.

I was curious, did reading Lord of the Rings and comic books, did that lead you to other things, like “serious” literature like Beowulf or Greek mythology? Or was it something kind of isolated?

You know, when I was a young reader—I immigrated to the U.S. when I was six—I had difficulties speaking English, but I found it far easier to read English. They made up this word these days, they call it hyperlexic. That’s what they say now, but back then I was just a really precocious reader. So I had to compensate for my difficulties speaking English. I always think of it that when you read, no one can comment on your accent. When you read, it doesn’t make a difference about how poorly you mispronounce words. What was interesting was that I always read very diversely, so science fiction and fantasy and the fantastic, the genres, the pulps—they were all just a part of this larger reading, and what happened was I would jump from author to author, and the fantastic always interested me at any level. So by the time I was in high school, I’d moved into horror. I was reading horror writers and stuff—Stephen King and Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany—and what happened was that those books were the final bridge into serious literature. You know, a lot of those guys had real serious literary aspirations.

Yeah, Stephen King—everybody argues back and forth if he’s literary or not. He received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003.

If you look at his first books—I don’t know if you’ve picked up The Dead Zone recently. The dude was really a literary writer. Read The Dead Zone. He was trying for it. He was swinging for the fences.

I went to college, and in college being into that crap was a—you want to be the least cool dude in your English class, where all the women in class were talking about postcolonial literature, and I was sitting there going, The Stand [imitates throwing a book over right shoulder]. That shit went right over my shoulder. A typical fucking sellout. I just sold right out for the social bonus.

Well, in a way that was Oscar’s plight. He never gave it up, but that was the thing that kept him from meeting any kind of girls.

Well, he was real true to himself in ways that I could never be. I think that’s why he’s—I mean, he never betrayed, you know I say that’s the big sellout, I’m telling you, maybe it’s that I’m a coward or maybe there’s other people like me, but I look back at my past and I see how many times I’ve betrayed a youthful part of myself for social acceptance. Oscar is incapable of it. It’s not that he’s incapable of it; his passion prevents him. He just loves this stuff; he doesn’t want to give it up.

Do you think you did that in your early writing? I read in Callaloo¹ that you used to write screenplays in college. In that early stuff, did you feel pressured by mainstream literary fiction?

That’s a good question. I felt my problem was that I was always never gonna—I started writing screenplays and then I realized that the stuff I was doing was too beyond the mainstream. It’s not like so incredible, but to write screenplays about this stuff, I guarantee you that you will starve to fucking death. No one cares about this kind of work.

I’ll never forget when I knew I had to quit. I was in a scriptwriting workshop, and I was writing this script about something, and this other person was writing a shark attack script, and I pointed out—the whole thing was about this battle between these guys and the sharks—and I pointed out that one of the characters wets themselves and the camera pans in, and I was like, You can’t really see that ’cause they’re underwater, right? And the professor got mad at me. He was like, Well, you don’t understand the way this works, you know, you can make it work. And I just thought, Shit, I’m fucked. The shark kid is doing better than me. So I said, I gotta go.

And for me, when I think about mainstream pressures, I think an artist is always wrestling with this unique voice and with the unique vision they have, and then all they know about their convention, all the stories you know, all the things your friends like, and all the things you like were telling you, Hey, this other way is easier, this other way’s been done before, this way leads to acceptance. And you’re like, I know, but I want to have every seventh word a science fiction word. And people are like, Well, they’re gonna make fun of it. And, you’re like, Okay, and then you start to do it. But for me I discovered the courage that I lacked in my childhood because of social stuff—and again, I don’t want to make it seem like wherever the wind blew I would put on a white afro because white afros were in—but I think it’s just that I have particular sensitivities to some of the things that I changed, when I looked back on it I was like, Damn. When you’re a kid it’s hard—when you’re a kid it’s fucking hard—but I think in my writing I have the courage that I didn’t have maybe when I was nine, ten, eleven, and I find myself much more able to resist, though the struggle is there and it’s almost never ending.

I’ve heard you say, and even in Oscar Wao in one of the footnotes the narrator says, Oh, you’re surprised, you didn’t know this about Dominican history? Just wait till your kids don’t know about the United States and Iraq. But I wonder, you’ve said the average Dominican doesn’t know—a twenty-something Dominican—probably doesn’t know that much about Trujillo or anything that’s happened, but it seems, at least in your writing, like there’s this weight of Dominican history, even if the specifics are unknown. Maybe it’s characteristic of the immigrant community, but they have this sort of inherent toughness. Do you see that?

I guess I always thought of it as the way that families work. If you think about it—that line is a perfect one to burrow into it—if you think about it, the shadow of history doesn’t go away. It just doesn’t. You pretend that it’s your shadow, but it’s actually a shadow from a past that’s very old and very long. And so what I think about is that is the same way the Dominican community has all these shadows of history upon it—families within that have their own—but I think about the way the Dominican Republic casts a shadow onto the United States. Its involvement, which is completely forgotten, has shaped the entire destiny of this one country. It’s a perfect example of how history works—history works in a way that you would never fucking expect it—and that’s how the past feels. The past feels like, What is my responsibility as the United States, or as a person in the United States, to the Dominican Republic? I have nothing to do with it, I don’t know nothing about this country, I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, but that’s the way the past is. And yet the weight of that history is on you forever, and even if you’re like, No, it had nothing to do with me, it’s there, it works its way into things. And so, I think that in the end Iraq will be a similar situation where in a short time people are going be like, Look, I don’t even know what the fuck Iraq is. And so, when I think about communities that are wrestling with histories, they do stick together. Think about it: the United States has a history in the world that is horrible in some ways, and yet that’s only made us more clannish, more like, It’s us or them. It’s almost as if the only way to survive the mistakes we’ve made is by sticking together, because that seems probably more safe than just admitting we’ve made mistakes.

But to more directly answer the last part of your question, I just think immigrants in general, regardless of anything, are really extraordinary individuals. I just think how mundane immigration is across the world, to give up one world and go to another, man, that leads to certain survival adaptations, which may look from the outside like admirable toughness, but people are really just surviving.

So, do you think that the way you present history in your stories, is it something that’s reflective of the immigrant experience or is it something that the fiction shapes so that that’s how you’re going to present it to the reader?

Well, you can only do as much as your convention allows. It’s really hard to have a detailed chapter on dancing when you know for a fact that five seconds of film could do it better. So, the convention carries certain limitations and certain strengths. So you have your conventions, they set it up for fiction, and then you’re trying to talk about how immigration is used as the way to shake off history, but also to smuggle it with you without even knowing it. It’s like a horror movie where the guy leaves the island, he’s like, Whew—you know—and the little thing is clinging to the back of his suitcase. That’s in some ways how immigration is a chance for many people to start over, but if you’ve ever read the Book of Revelation, even the new world of Revelation is contaminated by the old. As soon as it begins, the new world already has the shadow of the old on it.

And so those are the things I’m trying to approach, and I try to see how far literature will allow me to talk about that, because the one thing about reading is reading is internalizing history. You’re just internalizing someone else’s story, and if it’s really a pleasing story, then you’re willing to ignore all the other stuff to get at the pleasure of the story. And in some ways, that’s how history passes and doesn’t pass. What’s pleasing, we’ll accept; what’s not pleasing, we’ll just erase and ignore. For me, the form allowed me to play a lot with that—what do we really want to listen to—and yet how our desire for a beautiful story is in some ways the thing that keeps us from really seeing and hearing the stories beneath us here.

That makes sense, because in Oscar Wao Belicia has this tremendous history in the Dominican Republic, but her children just do not know, they don’t really know what happened, and she doesn’t speak about it, but what happened still influences them, even though they might not know it. Just the size of her chapter in the book, it’s so much bigger than everyone else’s, so it does seem that you are presenting history because it’s so big, and everyone else’s story—we’re all, sort of, self-involved, these children of immigrants—but we don’t know what happened before us, in the few steps that brought us here.

Yeah, and the thing is that they live with that huge scar on her back. The craziest thing is that there’s this figure in the book called the ciguapa—which is this folkloric figure—and her feet are pointing backward. Beli’s always saying, I’m not that person, I point forward, I don’t want to think about the past. Her adopted mother’s always like, Oh, your father was this, your father was that. She’s like, I don’t fucking care about that, those people are all dead. What’s hilarious is that she becomes this bizarre ciguapa-figure because her children see her back, her past is staring at you. And, the first time we actually meet her is in this hall of mirrors, when Lola is looking at her mother—who’s in some ways a copy of her—and it’s her back that’s staring at her, this scar, and so I was really interested in that stuff. You know, you play with that because you’re a writer nerd, you want to have all these images and stuff, but at the same time, it always felt like your history is there, and you can’t see it, but it’s looking out at the world.

Did you smuggle history into the United States with you when you were a little boy? Do you think that writing these Dominican stories or stories about Dominicans have helped you to face that history more than you otherwise would have?

I don’t know. It’s probably less therapeutic—not that you’re saying that it’s therapeutic—but I’ve always wanted to know why. It seems simple, but I always wanted to know why we came to the United States, why I’m here. I couldn’t figure out why I was in the United States. There’re all these great bromides that you hear from your family folk like, We wanted a better life. But that’s not really enough; for me it wasn’t. I really wanted to know why the fuck we were here, and then you ask enough questions and eventually you begin to discover that the question of why the fuck we’re here is inextricably tied up with why is the United States here. You can’t talk about the United States unless your first words are “Santo Domingo.” That’s just the way it works, and yet you wouldn’t know that in either country. The egg, the cáscara, the eggshell no longer remembers the eagle that it gave birth to, and the eagle that it gave birth to no longer remembers its eggshell.

For me, it’s trying to understand these relationships, since I was a creature that was produced by those relationships. I think the joke in the book is about Shazam, constantly Shazam and Isis—these superhero characters are in some ways my vision of the Dominican Republic and the United States, where Billy Batson, the normal guy, suddenly says the word shazam! and turns into this superbeing. And in some ways it’s basically what happens. Santo Domingo’s typical-normal, we think the Third World’s commiseration and suffering is normal, and the United States is this superbeing. And so I kept wondering, What the fuck? Where’s my role in this? And you find yourself neither. The joke is you’re neither Billy Batson or Captain Marvel, you’re basically shazam!, you’re the word, you’re that lightning which transforms, that runs back and forth between them and holds them together, and I think part of this narrative was attempting to write the lightning, because I don’t think I could’ve done anything else, though my special position in my life was that. That’s what I was. I’ll be Billy Batson when I’m in Santo Domingo and look around, and then I go to the United States and you’re shazam!, but I felt what I really was was that thing which holds these two guys together, that makes their transformation possible.

With indigenous cultures, their stories are transferred through language, their oral history is passed on from generation to generation by means of their language, and for you coming to the United States, in your writing you’re using this very specialized language. Do you feel that you’re continuing that tradition or are you presenting something new, like this new narrative that’s uniquely your own?

We all have dreams of exceptionalism, the dream that we’ve innovated in any way, but it’s a hard thing to put your mind around. What is the legacy and the survival of language? And, if all the words of a language are lost, is that language lost? I mean, what if some of the structures of your language seeped into the larger language, the one that destroyed you? It’s hard to get a sense of what’s at work in these things. I think in the end that what is so fascinating, for me, about language is that language is in some ways a catalog or a pantheon of our survival, because in all languages—inside of their lexicons, inside of their syllabaries—in there are all these survivors from past catechisms. In Dominican, the word guagua—bus—is one of the last surviving words from the exterminated indigenous people of the Canary Islands. The Spaniards killed them all and picked up that word—“cart”—from them, brought it to the Dominican Republic, the sight of another extermination, and it’s there with the word for hammock—hamaca—which is a word from the indigenous Tainos, who were totally exterminated. And I feel like in a way as long as you can keep—people are handing these tiny relics, these small, little fragments of their survival, forward in time to these huge waves, these tides of language—and, I feel like being a part of that, no matter how much I innovate, the most important thing is that you’re helping something that’s really the most human thing, because one day that’s gonna have a great purpose, one day people will remember, one day there will be a reckoning, and it’s those fragments in language that are the testimonies, the testament, to what has happened. All our history, all our crimes, all the good things we’ve done are embedded in that thing, that fluid thing we call language. I sometimes think, Oh, yeah, I’m doing something really original, but in the end I feel like you’re just a part of something very, very large and very old and very human, and if you can add a thing or two to the stream, God bless you. But probably the most important role is that you’re a vector for something else.

Yeah, I remember hearing a quote that time moves through us, but in reality we move through time, and time has always been there before us, it’ll be there after us. Especially when you say those things about language—language doesn’t belong to one person, it’s this great thing that you move through and it picks up whatever bits of history that it can.

And really, it sweeps. It’s like a tide. But that’s why I think people are so aggressive and so angry about language. It’s that thing that you can’t control which makes you the most uncomfortable. That’s why nations are always legislating languages. The French have an academy for it, the Japanese don’t allow foreign words into their newspapers. They have a special vocabulary, a special language to show foreign words because they don’t want the contamination. I think that speaks to the mongoose-like power of language, how difficult it is to contain.

Even here in Oklahoma, they’ve been trying to pass these English-first amendments.

Yeah. I love that stuff. I mean, I don’t love it—the violence, the hatred, the xenophobia, and just the complete, shameful use of power—I don’t like that, but what I love is there’s no greater sign of deep-seated insecurity than attempting to legislate against the wave.

Yeah, tying to put a leash on the language. Recently in the Washington Post², they had an article about the top five hotspots where languages are dying, and Oklahoma ranks fifth in the world. And you wouldn’t think that. We’ve got about forty languages, and I think close to thirty of them have less than ten speakers still living.

It’s remarkable. No, I didn’t know that. It’s just fucking remarkable.

I was gonna ask you a question about colonialization. In your new book you talk a lot about the fukú that was brought on by the Admiral and colonialization, and I was wondering, in your view, how do you see that fukú still alive today? I mean, has that morphed into globalization and how the United States has tried to westernize so much of the world?

I’m sure my grad students would laugh, but I just think that what we call the modern—upon which this moment is predicated and formed the early grammar of—was created in the Caribbean, it was created with what we call the New World. I feel like we’re still living in the shadow. The curse of the New World is still upon us. Everything that we did in the Caribbean and the New World has had repercussions on the whole planet, and no matter how much it changes—how much the technology creates these new paradigms, how much hegemony alters itself and mutates to deal with a more dispersed capillary, a flow of power—the very brutal, racialized, hierarchical, Neolithic inhumanity of the “conquest” of the New World, that moment we’ve not escaped from. We’re still there, we’re still in it. That’s why the Caribbean is such a fascinating place. It’s the site of the original sin upon which all of this is based. And, you know, there are a lot of other sites, too, it’s not as if there’s just one, but the Caribbean makes it very explicit in a way. And I think it’s no accident that the site of the crime has been sort of anesthetized and amnesiatized into the place of sun and fun and rum. I think that that says it all about how severe and terrifying that original crater is in our imagination. You pierce the veil of spring break in fucking Cancún, and suddenly you find yourself in the other world where you were never supposed to go. I always think of the Caribbean as just a big, blue pill, you know? You go down there to put yourself deeper into the Matrix, to sleep sleep sleep. You go there to like [imitating hedonistic eating], but if you make the wrong turn and take the wrong pill, you could wake up in the heart of the fucking biggest genocide that ever happened.

You say you go to the Dominican Republic a couple times a year—do you maintain your Spanish?

Yeah, it’s pretty good. My Spanish is pretty good. I mean, I can have any kind of conversation. It’s nowhere near as good as my sisters’ perfect fluency, though—know what I mean? But I can speak to anybody, anytime, about anything. I probably need about two or three months straight there to obtain the fluency my sisters have.

Do you read literature in Spanish?

Yup. It’s a pain in the fucking ass, but I read it. And I don’t sit with a dictionary, I can read it. But still, it’s like, Wow.

Well, do you have anything else? Any last words?

One last broadside? One of the things I always liked that has been theorized about reading—I always thought this was extremely useful, especially when I was writing this book—is that one of the things that traditional criticism, when it’s thinking about literature, almost completely erases is the body-ness of reading. And I always liked that brand of criticism that, when you read, it’s a deeply physical experience. Mainstream and traditional criticism has ignored and avoided that entire thing, that reading is a way for people to re-body, to body-up. I was very conscious of that dimension when I was writing this book, for many, many implications that it is possible—completely in an imagined way—to give the illusion to a reader that they’re inhabiting a body that didn’t make it out of the abyss of our exterminations. That moment, that’s why I find this part very interesting, that’s why I like doing what I do, it’s not that I don’t just like languages. I’ve always been conscious about how stories can alter a body. And, for me it’s like all those ghosts, the only time I feel like they get a chance at a body is when we tell a story well enough. That for a moment your body gives a space for something else, a nervous system that never actually existed, but it’s not a bad thing to participate in, nor is it a bad thing to practice as a human, to get into the habit of imagining other bodies coexisting with you. It’s probably a good way to humanize people, so I kind of like stories and storytelling.

¹ Diógenes Céspedes, Silvio Torres-Saillant, and Junot Díaz, “Fiction Is the Poor Man’s Cinema: An Interview with Junot Díaz,” Callaloo 23.3 (2000): 892–907.

² Rick Weiss, “Vanishing Languages Identified: Oklahoma Is Among Places Where Tongues Are Disappearing,” Washington Post, 19 September 2007, A12.

September 2007

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