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Exploding World

Junot Díaz on art, the apocalypse and the importance of 'The Terminator'

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AIR RAID Junot Díaz has been trying for years to write a science-fiction novel inspired by his apocalyptic dreams.</p
  • AIR RAID Junot Díaz has been trying for years to write a science-fiction novel inspired by his apocalyptic dreams.

Junot Díaz lives with apocalyptic visions. Maybe it's because the 43-year-old author lived in the Dominican Republic until he was six years old, a place that he calls, along with Haiti, "the most apocalyptic in the world." Or maybe it's because he spent his formative years in New Jersey near a large landfill and within slight distance of New York City, during the nuclear threat of the 1980s.

"I was one of those kids that grew up in a time where we'd be sitting there watching the news, and they'd suddenly flash a map of New York City, and they would show a big black ring of every area, of every town, every person within that range that would be utterly obliterated," Díaz says by phone from the East Coast where he splits his time between N.Y.C. and Cambridge. "And of course, we were deep in the heart of that ring."

Inspired in part by personal hero Octavia Butler—author of the brilliant, Nebula Award–winning novel Parable of the Sower—Díaz has spent years trying to write a science fiction novel inspired in part by his apocalyptic dreams. An excerpt from his latest attempt-in-process appears in the June issue of The New Yorker. "Monstro" takes place in the Dominican Republic and tells of an epidemic that springs up in Haiti, producing 40-foot-tall cannibalistic creatures. It's the stuff of nightmares, told in the typical Díaz voice of a 19-year-old Dominican-American male who's more interested in getting laid than soul searching at the abyss.

Still, Díaz isn't very interested in discussing his latest project, which he says is just in the early stage, though he does admit that the "apocalyptic history of both the Dominican Republic and the United States has resonated with me and continues to shape a lot of the interests in my work." That, plus a steady diet of movies like The Terminator, which he's actually used in the curriculum in a post-apocalyptic lit class. "That's how nerdy I am," he says with a laugh, after proclaiming that "it's not only Sarah Connor that dreams of the world exploding."

Díaz' latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her, follows the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but he says it was written over a span of 17 years. Though they may not deal in actual end-of-the-world matters, the collection's stories capture the steady unraveling of one Dominican-American man (aside from one told by a female narrator) from childhood through adulthood. Yunior, the character also at the center of Drown, the 1996 collection that got Díaz pinned as the next "it" writer, reappears here. Yunior also happens to be Díaz's childhood nickname, though the stories are packaged as fiction and not memoir.

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