Posts Tagged ‘Junot Diaz’
January 30, 2014 | by Tim Small
Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years, was published last fall and drew immediate notice for its amazing use of language and voice, the cadence of its sentences, and the authenticity at its center. It tells the sweet, sad story of Grace, a recovering drug addict, and her drug-dealing son, Champ, as they both struggle in an African American Portland neighborhood that was ravaged by crack in the nineties.
Critics said the novel was about race, or poverty, or America’s failed war on drugs. Big, social themes. Personally, I disagree: to my mind, The Residue Years is a personal story, a novel about love, redemption, and freedom. Interspersed throughout are a blank form for a rehabilitation center, a police report, a Baptist church member registration form, a petition for child custody—subtle reminders that this novel is also about all the ways in which we are held captive by institutions that, more often than not, fail us. Between these pauses lie some three-hundred pages of beautiful sentences that mix urban slang with pitch-perfect lyricism, resulting in a new way of expressing American English—at least to my European eyes. Victor LaValle agrees: “It’s tough to write beautifully about ugly things, but Mitchell S. Jackson makes it look easy.” Amy Hempel has said that Grace and Champ are one of the fictional families she has cared about the most. And that’s at the heart of Mitchell’s novel: family.
Last month I fired up Skype and talked to Mitchell for more than an hour—I was in Milan, and he in Brooklyn—about his novel, his writing, and the dangers of how books are marketed today.
Your language is a fantastic mix of literary, poetic, lyrical English, and urban slang—it goes up and down and back and forth. I’m curious to know if you tried to bring together those worlds consciously.
I do feel like I’m in the middle there. I have my preliterary experiences in the urban world, listening to a bunch of hip-hop and listening to my uncles, my friends. When I got in school and started reading, I found people who were writing about a similar kind of experience, and whom I thought the canon respected. But I don’t feel like I’m in a tradition. I don’t think I read deeply enough in either field to really know about a tradition. I do have influences—James Baldwin, of course, and John Edgar Wideman. But also Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah. I like to stay in the middle. I think that that tension lets me play around with voice.
What was your starting point for the novel?
I started writing autobiographical scenes and tried to string them together. I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations. It took me years to figure out what they really wanted. I had a premise—mother on drugs, son sells drugs—but that’s not human. Those are just things people do. It took me some time to figure out what the humanity in the characters was. I saw that this story was really about a mother and a son, about their will to redeem themselves from the hurt they’d caused. Once I realized that, I went back and rewrote a lot of stuff. When I started, the characters were so close to my own life that I felt like they had to speak and act and behave like the people they were based on.
Champ and Grace began as avatars of you and your mom?
At the beginning, and then they became composites. But the origin was in truth. Once you realize the characters have a life of their own and you let them do what’s right for them, the work opens up. I wish I were as smart as Champ, but I’m not as smart as him. Read More »
December 4, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
- The Supreme Court has spoken: Amazon will pay taxes in New York.
- The family of Norman Rockwell is going to the mattresses over a new biography by Deborah Solomon, which raises questions about the artist’s sexuality. Says Rockwell’s granddaughter, “She layers the whole biography with these innuendos … These things she’s writing about Norman Rockwell are simply not true.”
- In praise of writing while one reclines.
- Eight prominent Dominican figures have written an open letter condemning the work of Junot Díaz, who is currently visiting the Dominican Republic. They accuse the lauded writer of “a scarce capacity for reflection and a disrespectful and mediocre use of the written word,” and resent his self-identifying as Dominican.
May 6, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
The first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way was published almost exactly a hundred years ago. Its opening lines make one thing inescapably apparent: Proust’s style is inimitable; there is much more to it than long sentences, pauses for reminiscence and brittle cookie breaks, and whatever other tropes readers have associated with Proust. It is a style that tussles with our notion of literary temporality itself. Over the last century, countless translators have struggled with these famous opening lines:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: « Je m’endors. »
Nobody seems to be able to agree whether to translate the verb of the principal clause as a conditional or a past participle, because while in French it is obviously the latter, it seems to act as the former. We’ve had various degrees of “went to bed early,” “used to go to bed early,” “would go to bed early,” each meaning more or less the same thing, but none hitting the nail directly on the head.
Scholars have found these lines, at once, undeniably charming and a huge pain to work with.
But in this seemingly untranslatable sentence, even among translators—whose very job it is to take troublesome idioms and phrases and grammatical twists and make them legible and appropriate, and to do so by imparting as much of Proust’s style and as little of their own as possible—there is so much variety that it raises another important question: How would this sentence have been handled by other writers? Read More »
January 24, 2013 | by Jason Diamond
People who live in New York might agree that there is very little reason to find yourself between Fourteenth and Forty-Second Streets unless you absolutely have to. Go past Union Square, and you’re liable to bump into everything from confused tourists to people selling knockoff Louis Vuitton and Fendi bags worse than the ones you can purchase on Canal Street in Chinatown. The twenties into the thirties can look like a never-ending row of scaffolding at certain stretches, with C-grade delis and fast food chains hidden beneath, leading you finally to the terrifyingly bright lights of Times Square.
For the better part of the decade in which I’ve lived in New York, this experience is probably what has kept me from the middle of the city. But when I moved from Brooklyn into Manhattan, and started taking daily walks up the various avenues from the West Village to an office on Twenty-Eighth, I began to learn the history of certain buildings I passed along my way: admiring the townhouse at 28 E. Twentieth Street where President Theodore Roosevelt was born; the splendor and history of Gramercy Park; the row of buildings in the Flower District that seems unremarkable, until you realize that this block of Twenty-Eighth between Fifth and Sixth was once known as Tin Pan Alley, and filled the American Songbook. With each block, the twenties became more and more magical, especially on the days when I managed to avoid the crowds scuttling down the sidewalks—those less hectic New York days when I could look up and admire the various gargoyles and the golden dome of the Sohmer Piano Building. The architecture of the twenties distracted me from my daily grind, but it was on an evening trip to the grocery store that the area I once shunned suddenly took on an entirely new meaning. That night I noticed the red plaque on a doorway next to a Starbucks at 14 W. Twenty-Third Street that read, “This was the childhood home of Edith Jones Wharton, one of America’s most important authors.” Read More »
December 27, 2012 | by Francesca Mari
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.
“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”
There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.
There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves. Read More »
August 14, 2012 | by Sadie Stein