Junot Diaz, the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the new This Is How You Lose Her—and a recent MacArthur Genius and, as of yesterday, National Book Award finalist—came to Seattle Public Library in September. He was asked about the origins of his character Yunior, who recurs and is often taken to be an alter ego for Diaz himself.
This is a pretty interesting answer:
Yunior came out of going to Rutgers University in the early '90s. Rutgers people, you know da deal. At the time that I went to Rutgers University, the insane mania for destroying the individual characters of Rutgers colleges hadn't begun yet, so there was still the women's college, Douglass. ... It was an independent college with an independent mission, and I had this incredible opportunity of being in classes with super well-organized committed feminists. ... At this time, douglas was incredibly politicized. WAR, Women Against Rape, do you guys remember how many members WAR had in those years? It was incredible. it was incredible. I'll never forget one of the Take Back the Nights, when the women were marching from Douglass over, and someone happened to burn down a fraternity house. And I don't mean motherfuckers singed the windows. I mean the next day, and this is no exaggeration, the next day there were Douglass women taking photographs in fornt of the burned husk of TK or DK or something like that, taking photos like this [gesture! what kind I don't know].
It was a totally different environment to go to university, and we're not even talking about the struggles and the activism of people of color. What happened was, I was in class with all these women who were supreme feminists, super interesting, and the question was always, for someone like me, was what is the role of a male artist in a feminist struggle? We can't be feminist, or I think. Our privilege prevents us. We can be feminist-aligned in some way. And so the women kept saying to us dudes, they were like the best thing you motherfuckers can do is draw maps of masculine privileges. You can go places we can't. Draw maps so when we land the bombs, they land accurate. So i'm not kidding, these were the conversations.
And Yunior, Yunior, as an exploration of a very specific kind of Dominican immigrant New Jersey '80s subjectivity, begins with that impulse. The idea that if I could write honestly about these very difficult subjectivities, a subjectivity that I knew very well, yeah, steeped in masculine privilege, steeped in the deformative worldview of patriarchy, that perhaps not only could I do art with it but it might be useful for someone in the future. And Yunior begins there, more than anywhere, to be completely honest.
I mean most people think that oh, you just wrote because you're like passionate, because you're like fucking creative. But I know for a fact that it wasn't until someone raised that question that I began to scheme on creating Yunior, and his particular characteristics are not what we usually find in fiction. The average masculine character...especially when it's written by boys, is wildly sanitized, wildly sanitized. So he begins there. And, you know, I had a super-fucked-up dad, so. [laughter in the crowd] I'm not joking, and it was a perfect way to explore some of these things that were also pulling at my heart. I mean, it's great when you can fold your heart, you know the kind of things your heart is telling you with the sort of stuff your brain is telling you. I kind of work best that way.
I love the idea that what people with privilege can do is "draw maps" so when people without those privileges who want to change things try to "land the bombs, they land accurate."
Thank you, DQ.