Friday March 13th, 2009

Rock vs. Egg

The Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, to which I’ve contributed in the past, recently published its annual “20 Interviews” issue, and it’s packed with literary figures, including Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem, Jane Mayer, Frederick Seidel, and Junot Díaz. In addition to sounding excited about a new novel in progress (great news, considering the famously long gestation of his Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Díaz talks about film adaptations (Oscar Wao is big-screen-bound) and hip-hop. A taste of his thoughts on each subject:

SS: And as far as the Oscar movie goes, you’re detached enough that even if they cast Wilmer Valderrama as Oscar, it’s not going to break your heart?

JD: Well, you would want things to work out for the best. Not that I’m bloodless about the thing, but at the same time there’s only so much that you can control. If there’s an adaptation made, I want it to be the best adaptation possible, but I’m not going to fuckin’ throw myself off a bridge if it’s not, because it’s not in my control. You’ve got to be realistic about it. You’re not talking about human beings, you’re talking about corporations. Corporations don’t have feelings, they don’t have sentiments. So you’ve got to be careful about how you apply your own affect toward entities that have no affect. In Santo Domingo they always call it the fight between the rock and the egg. Who’s gonna win?


SS: You came up in the years before rap became a billion-dollar industry. In the Eighties, rap was still a highly marginalized music that catered to a marginalized population of New York youth. Did you identify with it immediately for those reasons?

JD: I think part of what is interesting about this novel is that it just takes the idiom of hip-hop as a given. . . . For me, as someone who grew up in this world just listening to it, we had this understanding that it was just normal. . . . I thought that that was what was really important in Oscar Wao. I wanted to make the hip-hopness of the book normative, and not something that was sensational. Which I think is very important, because one of the things that happens with this economic shift in hip-hop from a local market to an international brand is that they were really trying to push people into becoming this sensational lifestyle, this almost pseudo-religious practice. And when we were coming up in the Eighties, it wasn’t like that, man. You loved hip-hop, that was that. But you didn’t think of hip-hop as this salvation. Now there’s a lot of corporate money in getting young people to embrace hip-hop in ways that would seem very strange to a lot of people from my era. If you took kids from 1986, 1987 and time-traveled them to right now, I think they would find some of the ways that people are like “hip-hop is religion” or “hip-hop explains the universe” really weird. It was meant to be an organic part of people’s lives, it wasn’t meant to replace people’s lives.