The Culinary Compass of Junot Díaz

InterviewChris Yong-GarciaComment

Born in the Dominican Republic, critically acclaimed author Junot Díaz immigrated to the US as a child and was raised in New Jersey. Fluidly blending Spanish into his prose and offering powerful insight into the emotional complexities and harsh realities of the immigrant experience, Díaz has often been labeled a voice for Latinos in the U.S. Ultimately, however, Díaz’s works have a universal appeal, transcending bounds of race and culture and exploring common elements integral to all human experience: love, loss, and longing.

Díaz is a graduate of Rutgers University and earned an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University, publishing his first collection of short-stories, Drown, in 1996. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Paris Review, among others, and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz is a finalist in the fiction category for this year’s National Book Awards and is a recent recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grant. Latin Lover was honored to be able to talk with Díaz on a range of topics, including his childhood, his love of food, and his new book, This Is How You Lose Her.

You’ve mentioned that food acts as a compass in your life. Where is that compass taking you these days?

Korean restaurants in NJ.  Mission Chinese Food on Orchard.   Maharlika in the East Village and now, of course, Jeepney—I know that Chris you had their choriburger and for me it’s one of the best burgers in NYC.  If you haven’t eaten the gyoza at Minca you have to.  In Boston I’m a huge fan of Vejigantes (their Sopa de Crema de Platano is not to be missed) and Strip T’s (try their eggplant Japanese bahn mi) and of course the wonderful East by North East.

A few years ago you wrote a piece for Gourmet magazine, “The Chef,” about your love of Japanese cuisine. Ruth Reichl, the magazine’s last editor-in-chief, commented that the journey you started for Japanese food was really about finding your father. Have you found him? What is the relationship between your childhood, your father, and food?

Yes, I found my father and what I found was perhaps the least pleasant person I could have imagined.  But not all of us have heroes and admirable people for parents.  Some of us have jerks and predators.  That’s my dad.  Not exactly the patrimony I imagined for myself but we do not pick our parents.

During my childhood my father had a passion for food and I guess wanting his love as a child I mirrored that passion.  I made it my own.  Never really learned to cook though.  I’m always writing in my head and what that means is that my mind drifts constantly and that’s not a good trait when you’re trying to be a chef.  I nearly burned down my grad school kitchen four times before I finally gave it up.

In “The Chef” you write that during your childhood you loved to spend your money on food, going out by yourself and eating what you really, really liked …Did you really do that? Do you still keep that wonderful habit?

Yes, I did that.  These days I prefer company when I eat out.  But I pretty much organize my days around food.  I’m an amateur foodie.  Anytime I’m going to a new city I do a ton of research, sound out my friends for recommendations.  Travel for me is all about eating.

How often do you travel? Is there a place in Latin America or the Caribbean (besides the Dominican Republic) that you’re hooked on? 

I make two or three big trips a year. This is what happens when you don’t have any children—time and money are easier to come by. I’m obsessed with el DF de México—I lived there for a year and try to go back as often as possible. Oaxaca was a revelation to me (I came to this particular party late.)  Colombia was another country I fell for hard.  I’ve been to Bogotá three times and each trip I ate until I practically burst.

You are a big role model for the new generation of Latinos and the immigrant experience in the US I remember people reaching out to you during your talk at “Word Up” in Washington Heights, not with questions about your creative process, but with questions about just surviving. How do you feel about that?

I’m a role model? God save us all. But let’s be frank: to be a person of color in the US, to be an immigrant, to be Latino, ain’t fucking easy. If you came up like I did you don’t have a lot of spaces where you can talk about your life, about your experiences as an immigrant, as a person of color.  You can’t talk freely about racism, about alienation, about white supremacy. Often what matters most to you is off-limits with most of your friends and family and in most venues. If you grew up like me you are often dying for connection, for communion, for the kind of conversations that this country discourages—conversations where we Latinos, where we immigrants, are the center, where it’s our concerns, our experiences that drive the dialogue. I’m not surprised that people use my readings as an opportunity to connect—if you grew up like me you are dying from the way we’ve been marginalized and silenced and erased and are looking for any excuse to reach out—to connect.

In the book’s opening story, “The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars,” Yunior confesses, “I really love Santo Domingo,” and goes on to give a beautiful description of the city. It seems to me that Yunior loves the city with a loyalty, with a fidelity, that his relationships with women often lack. He yearns for the city in New York and while stuck at the fancy resort with Magda. Have you ever experienced this, the heartache of being somewhere while wanting to be somewhere else?

Isn’t that what immigration is all about? Finding yourself with two countries, two lands, two homes simultaneously? One traditional way to deal with that conundrum is to sacrifice one of your homelands. Me, I could never make that terrible cut.  I decided very young to live with them both as best as I could.  When I’m in the US, Santo Domingo pulls on me—when I’m in Santo Domingo, NJ is always on my mind.  It’s my immigrant fate to live my two homelands simultaneously.  It’s been hard since we’re all tempted by the myth of cohesion, of unity, of singularity. But who the hell is all these things? We long for unity because really what we all are are archipelagos.

In several of the pieces, perhaps most notably in “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” you employ a second-person voice. What made you decide to use a second-person narrative?

The distance. Some of these stories I needed distance.  The material was too radioactive for me and I could not write these stories in first person without losing my perspective. And in third person they came off way too cold. I also needed that sense of the older Yunior talking to the younger Yunior. Second person gave me all those things.

“Otravida, Otravez” is the only story in the collection narrated by a woman. Was the writing process for this story different? What made you decide to write this story from Yasmin’s point of view?  Who is Yasmin in “real life”?

OtraVida is a story written by Yunior about his father and the Otra Mujer that nearly tore their family apart. The woman in the DR writing those letters is of course his mother. (And when you think about it she, his mother, is his writerly precursor). I know, I know: you’d have to be a grad student to unravel those connections (or at least have copy of DROWN handy.) I guess I conceptualized my books as chapters of a larger book and so each book stands alone but also speaks to the other books.  If you remember from DROWN that Yunior’s mother is named Virta and his father is named Ramón, that information (plus the fact that at the end of THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER it is revealed that Yunior wrote the book that you just finished) unlocks the story’s connection with the rest of the book.

But writing from a woman’s point of view is always difficult for me. For most straight men, I suspect. It’s not like we get a lot of training in early life imaging women as fully human.  Not much training in later life either. So that story was one of the difficult ones.

In the last several pages of the book Yunior laments, “The half-life of love is forever.” This line really struck me. Do you think the women Yunior has lost will continue to haunt him forever? Is it ever really possible to fully recover from the pain of lost love?

I think they will haunt Yunior forever because (A) he really did love them and (B) because he feels responsibility for what he did to these gals—for the million ways he failed them and failed the love between them. Yunior isn’t one of those people ain’t about forgetting. Say what you want about him. But he bears witness to his past—broods on his crimes and how many of us have the courage to do that?

10. If our magazine were to create a food contest and had every country submit their most important/popular dish, which dish from the Dominican Republic would you send?

Chivo guisado con chenchen. It’s a regional dish but my absolute favorite. The DR doesn’t have the dining complexity of Mexico or Colombia. Ours is a humble, robust cuisine but even here among the fragments of larger cuisines there are extraordinary gems and for me chivo guisado con chenchen is one of them.