WOODSTOCK IT WAS NOT – despite the love, peace and non-violence preached. Nor, fortunately, was it Tiananmen, notwithstanding widespread fears of potential catastrophe when the teargas canisters began spewing their toxic load.
But to novelist Junot Díaz, it was “extraordinary. For all its contradictions and lunacy I love Hong Kong and when we were there our nightly walk was down to Admiralty. I saw it on the ground: my girl speaks Mandarin so I was like, ‘This is not the Hong Kong I remember from a few years ago!’ What was happening was really extraordinary; it made me very happy.”
Occupy Central with Love and Peace may have gone into hibernation for the moment, its makeshift encampments, which blocked major transport arteries and focused the world’s attention on the vexed question of Hong Kong democracy, packed away. But few doubt it will re-emerge – and however long the gestation, Díaz will remain a cheerleader.
“Stuff that looks to some like a poorly thought-out one-off ends up having enormous repercussions, but often far out of sight and in a different place and different way,” he says. “I always think that any act of spontaneous, organised youth resistance in a world that basically has ordained that young people should be fearful consumers at best, and at worst unruly bodies to be managed, is an extraordinarily valuable resource .”
Nor is he hesitant in condemning the track along which emerging generations seem to be shunted, a tendency witnessed during his participation in the recent Hong Kong literary festival. “I went to a bunch of schools and it’s astounding the scripts young people are being handed: the overriding imprimatur is keep your mouth shut, get really good grades, become monetarily successful and a consummate consumer. And fuck your dreams, nobody wants to hear about your dreams. You have no voice in society; this ain’t about you.”
Given his literary output, Díaz’s empathy with students fearing disenfranchisement and exclusion from the running of their lives is understandable. His most famous work, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, tells the story of a Dominican misfit, fat, accursed and comic-booksobsessed, transplanted to New Jersey and pining for love. The novel is sandwiched between two shortstory collections, Drown (1996) and This is How You Lose Her (2012), both of which dissect the often punitive lives of Dominican-Americans.
With his family, Díaz, now 46, left the Dominican Republic for New Jersey in 1974, rejoining his father, who had emigrated for work. There, the quasi-autobiographical Oscar, Yunior (the novel’s narrator) and other outsiders with noses pressed up against life’s candy-store window took root in the book-loving “ghetto nerd” (as Oscar himself is widely described), emerging later, fully formed, to paint pictures of Díaz’s fellow travellers with pathos, wit and savage humour. (Oscar, Díaz told Bomb magazine, “was who I would have been if it had not been for my father, my brother, my willingness to fight or my inability to fit into any category easily”.)
One such category was that of historian. “I was on the way to a PhD in history when creative writing derailed me,” says Díaz, a creative-writing professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I realised I didn’t have the heart; it takes a different kind of heart to be a historian than, say, a novelist – they’re totally different. A historian lives and dies by the precision of his research; I found myself longing for the gaps between the archives. The stuff that was missing was what most interested me and I realised that was where I was going.”
Drown was the initial result. “I loved short stories and part of me wanted to kick around with the the form,” he adds. “’How can I write a book in short-story form that reads like a novel?’” As well as form, This is How You Lose Her revisits the settings and characters of the earlier book. Yunior, older, penitent and possibly wiser, is again central to the work, as is the collision of the Dominican-American attitudes that shaped him.
Given a recent, high-profile reconciliation, might another wave of Caribbean immigrants soon be heading for American shores and a similarly intractable coupling?
“Cuba would have to be the smartest, luckiest player in the world to come out of this rapprochement not looking like a debauched, third-world Cancún,” says Díaz. “The pitfalls are many. The danger of US capital cannot be underestimated.
“It’s going to be tough. Will Cuba be able to engage in the ‘market’ while preserving some of its revolutionary socialism? My Cuban writer friends – the majority of their books are banned. So you’re hoping for a more open society that will permit them to publish, but even they don’t want to have to hand in their medical and education systems.”
Either way, the times they are a-changin’, believes Díaz. “There are a couple of things happening, in Hong Kong with Occupy and the US with Ferguson. There is an entirely new generation of people that we who are older have very little sense of; there’s a continuum of activity. The long-term [US] consequences of all the spontaneous, collective action around the institutionalised violence that police inflict on poor, coloured communities that is supported, endorsed and encouraged on multiple levels … will be extraordinary,” he says.
“I’ve been dealing with police brutality stuff since college. You’re in a car on the New Jersey Turnpike and there are two people of colour, both male. Once a cop has pulled you over with a drawn gun you begin to understand how vulnerable one is to violence in a putatively civilised place like the United States.”