Washington, Apr 23 (EFE).- The coronavirus pandemic could be leading science fiction fans – paradoxically – into well-known territory. But writer Junot Diaz admits that it’s an “incredible” situation and “much worse” than all the apocalyptic books or films he devoured as a boy.
Born in the Dominican Republic in 1968, Diaz moved to Massachusetts via New Jersey and his life and work reflect the experiences and the burdens of an immigrant trying to achieve – and achieving – the American Dream, up to the point where he is now considered one of the most important authors in the United States.
In 2008, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and in 2012 he received one of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants. His latest work, a children’s book, is called “Islandborn,” published in 2018.
From his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a creative writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Diaz told EFE – in an interview sprinkled with Spanglish, humor and references to the Caribbean – about the “dark impact” of the coronavirus among the poorest in society that you don’t see reflected on Twitter or Instagram, and about how to start dancing again after social distancing and the ability of power to reinvent itself with every crisis.
QUESTION: As a writer, you devote yourself to constructing stories. What do you think about the way in which this crisis is being discussed? In which genre would you place it?
ANSWER: I’m telling you, this is something that’s incredible. Because, just imagine, in most apocalyptic stories or films this is the phase that they always skip over in the narrative, right? You see there’s a problem and then we’re 6 months, or 28 days, later. This is the most difficult stage. Many people are suffering. The impact of what’s happening now … We’re not going to understand the (impact) until next year, I think. Of all the books I’ve read, and science fiction films (I’ve seen), this is much worse.
Q: You are a big fan of comic book stories of superheroes. How do you evaluate the character of President Donald Trump: a hero or a villain?
A: Oh, please. The whole world has noted that, as a head of state, we have – as we Dominicans say – an “absolute” incompetent. This guy can’t do anything, he’s made the situation much worse, many people have died because of his craziness, and that of his supporters. He practically has an army of people who are supporting him.
It’s one thing to have an idiot for president, OK, we’ve seen that in history. It’s one thing to have a cruel man, we’ve seen that. A narcissist … I don’t know how to say it. We have the worst of those characteristics in (this) man, it’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this. We have a president in the US who’s working to make things worse, I don’t know what to tell you.
Q: The current coronavirus crisis is generating new emotions and concepts in society. What are the most important and relevant ones?
A: Really, what I still see as the most important is hidden. If we’re talking about the Latino community, many of the people who have suffered are not … on the Internet, they’re not on Instagram. Talking about, telling, providing their testimony. The impact still isn’t being seen.
Within that silence, not what you’re seeing on Twitter, (it’s) in that silence behind that. For me, that’s the interesting thing. But also, what fascinates me are the “dj battles” that are being waged. Everyone is terribly bored. People are looking for a way to survive, to have fun. And people who’ve never taken a little walk in their lives are walking a lot. I see that as positive. But of course, the situation is ugly and serious.
Q: There have been limitations (imposed) on basic freedoms, like social distancing. How are we going to get close after the virus, especially in cultures as physical as the Latino one? What consequences can this have?
A: That will be hard to predict. I think there will be people who are doing to go crazy, who are going to have Carnival for a month. Other people are going to be more afraid, like kids … to whom they gave a slap, a smack. They’re going to be afraid, at first, a little timid. Most people aren’t going to have any money, they’re not going to have any work and will be broke. We’re going to get together again but at really cheap parties, you know, in the neighborhoods, very humble things. But people are going to get together, there are many people dying … to have a party.
Many people are not going to want to dance close together, but there are people who don’t give a damn (laughs). That’s the problem. Right now, we have a state of emergency, but many people are violating it.
Q: Do you think that this crisis can be transformed into an opportunity for change? Or will it unfortunately be a step backwards?
A: I don’t see that the powerful sectors have lost much power. I don’t see that the corporations or the rich are crying or suffering very much. So, it’s possible that we might start some kind of revolution. Imagine, I’d like to see something like that, I want to see this social contract get better.
But also, you have to take into account that power really takes advantage of this kind of crisis. What I want and what is possible are two very different things. I hope we come out of this with a workers movement, a lot more energy on the left. But we have to keep in mind that power reinvents itself with every crisis.
Q: It’s a global problem … Can it help create a renewed spirit of international coordination?
A: I don’t have much confidence in that. The coronavirus has revealed many ugly things. I don’t see that things are going to improve, I don’t think that all these countries will be ready to coordinate or cooperate. Think where that leadership will come from – it’s not coming from the US – and those other countries aren’t ready. I hope it happens, though.
I don’t know, man. What I’m (hoping) is that the world community learns something from this crisis. But the only thing the people with power have learned is that it’s a great opportunity to rob the poor. If there’s leadership it has to come from below, from the poor people, but for that to happen we have to wait a bit.
Q: As a writer, are these times serving as an inspiration?
A: No, this has me very depressed. I can’t write when I’m depressed. There are many artists for whom it doesn’t matter what’s going on in their lives, they keep moving forward. I’m not being inspired by anything. I’m reading a lot. Because, think about it, I have all this time, like everyone … Books I haven’t read, that were waiting for me on the bookshelf. But writing? No, I’m not touching it.
When the worst is going on outside, right now I’m reading a lot of horror. Like H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, William Sloan. That’s helping me, history is also helping me, a book about the 1918 flu.
Q: What is the role of artists in these times of crisis?
A: If we’re talking about the gringo government, even a one-eyed dog could help out this US government, absolutely.
Just think, writers, like all artists, always have a role, … a point of view that’s important, interesting, also new, sometimes a little scary. The future that interests me, that catches my attention, if a future where there are artists in the government, and not only the Mario Vargas Llosas of the world. For me, that a proper, courageous future.
Q: Lessons to draw from these times?
A: There are many people who are suffering. There are many people who are losing their jobs, on the verge of losing their business, their apartment, even their homes. We can’t downplay that suffering.
On the other hand, also, there are many who are not going through that really dark phase, it’s the first chance they’ve had to spend time with their families, with their son, their daughter, their loved ones. There are many kids who haven’t seen their parents as they’re seeing them now, they haven’t spent so much time with their parents.
I know that there are many people who are suffering, I have friends and relatives, but also it’s a time that can be taken advantage of to try to get close to our family. And I’m taking advantage of that, that’s helping me a lot to pass these weeks and, it appears, what are going to be months.
Trying to “reconnect” with my community in a deep way. Many of us have our family here in our apartment and it’s the first time that we’re spending so much quality time (together).