Realism is a moving target, especially when you’re creating stories that capture the weirdness of living in the wake of colonialism. Junot Diaz (This is How You Lose Her) took part in a conversation with Hilton Als at the Strand Bookstore, and he talked about how sometimes time travel is the only way to depict the post-colonial experience realistically.
The whole conversation is reprinted in the new book Upstairs at the Strand, and there’s a big excerpt over at Lithub. Including some stuff where Diaz talks about how his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao actually obscures its own lack of realism. And the different ways a story can be seen as “universal.”
But the bit about time travel is especially fascinating:
HA: You touch upon this idea of what’s coming up and we’ve had several conversations about time travel. You’ve said that one of the reasons why you loved science fiction by people like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany is because they were talking about time travel, and that literally you have gone from a slave culture to talking to hundreds of people at the Strand Bookstore. How does that happen? Being one or two generations away from the characters in your books, who are living below subsistence level, how does that affect you as Junot?
JD: And how do you narrate it? I always think of that question. I’ll sit at the Christmas table next to my grandmother, who basically grew up in a proto-medieval—comes from an almost slavery background in the Dominican Republic, working as a tenant farmer, in a terrifying kind of subsistence. I’m squinting at her with one eye, and then I’m squinting at my little brother, who’s U.S.-born, a Marine combat veteran, who sounds like someone turned the TV to the Fox channel and broke the dial. And I’m thinking, how do we create a self that takes both of those people in?
HA: You’ve catapulted yourself, through artistry, into another realm, so how do you physically and emotionally take it?
JD: It’s really helpful to assemble selves not always deploying realism. Realism cannot account for my little brother and my grandmother, but Octavia Butler’s science fiction can. Samuel Delany’s generic experiments can explain them. I read his book and that range is present, not only present, but what is unbearable about trying to hold the two together in one place. So it helps not to have realism as the only paradigm to really understand yourself.