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Junot Diaz on borrowing identities

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This was quite deft. Junot Diaz was on New York public radio yesterday (minute 22 or so). Novelist Diaz is Dominican-American; and his interviewer, Leonard Lopate, seemed a wee bit ethnocentric. Or old school. Diaz flicked the lure:

Lopate: Last month… Ayad Akhtar… told me that he was mostly inspired actually when he was becoming a writer by Jewish-American writers. He felt like he wanted to give voice to Muslim-Americans in the way that Chaim Potok, Philip Roth and Woody Allen are voices for the Jewish American experience. Is that something you can identify with as a writer?

Diaz: Well I mean as a writer, I don’t know about anyone else, I’ve drawn, I’ve so withdrawn so many debts, I’m like way over my limit at the ATM machine of other writers. For me the African-American community had an enormous  impact, not only as someone from the African diaspora, but for someone trying to embrace and wrestle the American experience from an orthogonal point of view. As an immigrant, of course, Asian Americans have been absolutely foundational. I mean, Where would I be without Maxine Hong Kingston? Where would I be without writers like Anjana Appachana? I mean really, again like I said, the multiplicity of voices and of artists that have made me, are hard to give credit to.

And this was beautiful. Lopate asked Diaz about the influence of Jose Marti the Cuban patriot and poet. 

Diaz: I’m just obsessed with Jose Marti… For me Jose Marti was a figure who believed profoundly that our borders, who we are as nations, are not there to keep us apart but they were there for connection, they were there for unity. He believed  that a Haitian had as much stake in the Cuban liberation as a Cuban.

These days we tend to think of our national identities like we think of an expensive car that we keep in our garage that we don’t want anyone else to borrow. He didn’t believe that at all. He believed that our national identities were capacious enough to contain everyone.

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6 Responses

  1. marc b.
    marc b.
    August 17, 2013, 12:00 pm

    Ayad Akhtar… told me that he was mostly inspired actually when he was becoming a writer by Jewish-American writers.

    of course, leonard. that’s what’s expected of authors/artists being interviewed by people like . . . . leonard lopate.

    • Marco
      August 17, 2013, 1:49 pm

      It was a pretty lame question. I listen to Lopate and he frequently spouts this kind of self-flattering pablum. It’s the same pattern you see with Terry Gross. I honestly don’t understand the lack of humility and self-awareness of people like this.

      I don’t want to harp on this, but consider. Do we normally become aware of the ethnic ancestry of radio hosts? Not really. Yes, if they’re black or Asian there’s no disguising that fact. But in general, we have little inkling of their particular ethnic origin and which country their parents came from when they arrived on Ellis Island. But it has to be said that many Jewish radio hosts on NPR do inject their ancestry into their programs on a regular basis.

      There’d be no problem with this, except that it does end up reinforcing Israel’s ethnic cleansing. I think this site recognizes that there is a strange, tangential relationship here. Basically Americans listening to these programs become inculcated with the idea that Jews are a special people. And from there it becomes very easy to make the leap that as special people they should be able to oppress lesser peoples like the Palestinians. And I do believe many Americans silently hold this prejudice.

      • RoHa
        August 18, 2013, 7:51 pm

        “Do we normally become aware of the ethnic ancestry of radio hosts? Not really. Yes, if they’re black or Asian there’s no disguising that fact.”

        On the radio? Unless they are trying to sound like a caricature, how can you tell?

      • Pamela Olson
        Pamela Olson
        August 19, 2013, 10:09 am

        “There’d be no problem with this, except that it does end up reinforcing Israel’s ethnic cleansing.”

        Exactly. Be proud of whatever you want to be proud of. But don’t be a d*ck about it. Don’t justify theft and oppression because of it. Don’t be a smug, racist apologist for human rights abuses.

  2. RoHa
    August 17, 2013, 10:41 pm

    I would like to borrow an identity, so that I could have a good look at it and find out what an identity is.

  3. Krauss
    August 17, 2013, 11:56 pm

    The thing that has always annoyed me about self-proclaimed anti-racists is that once you go outside Western borders, their ideals deterioate quickly. We’ve covered that phenomenom exentsively on this site concerning Jewish matters but I’ve found more than a few times that people who vote on the left and who are people of color sometimes do it more out of self-interest than any real genuine values.

    Some of them are quite strong nationalists who don’t want open borders for their countries of origin(whether it be China, India or some African country) but want it for America etc to get their family in. Additionally, many of them(though not most) often support quite disastrous right-wing policies that they would oppose in America or in Europe.

    I know a Turkish friend, for instance, who’s quite sensisble on politics in the Western country where I live but who supports the suppression of kurds inside Turkey although not fanatically so but there’s still that “shoot-and-cry”, “oh well, what can you do?”-esque defence of it that I recognize.
    Ahmed Moor, a Palestinian intellectual, has also talked up his defence of ethnic nationalism.
    I don’t want Palestinian ethnic nationalism any more I know Jewish nationalism. If we want an open borders world we can’t by default have ethnic nationalism, the answer should be a bi-national state which Ahmed Moor in theory supports(in front of Western audiences) but then turns around and support ethnic nationalism too, for Palestinians.

    Well, even if Palestinians are suppressed now, so were Jews during WWII and Jews embraced ethnic nationalism. We know where that went. Naturally, he never gets that question from the left.

    I think this is part of a broader failure of the left, which essentially only demands of whites to be anti-racist and assumes that non-whites are non-racist by default.
    But I’m of the opinion that, actually, the open-border crowd should focus on the whole world. I don’t actually mind borders that much, but one of the ironies is that it’s much harder for an American citizen to gain citizenship in Mexico than vice versa. Of course, not that most Americans would want to immigrate there but it’s still an important point to make in the debate.

    Or why not talk about the fact that many Arab countries blantantly exploit labor that would simply never be acceptable in Western countries, some of it approaching slave labor, like in Saudi Arabia? The workers there have no way at all to gain citizenship.
    It might be difficult to gain citizenship in America if you work here under the shadow of the law, but it’s not impossible. In Saudi Arabia it’s literally impossible if you’re not of Arabic descent, and the conditions for their labor is, as I said, more like the conditions of slaves.
    I don’t see outrage there, maybe it’s because it’s mostly people of color suppressing other people of color. Do I sound like a right wing Zionist complaining about bias? Maybe, I don’t know. I just found a whole lot of inconsistency on the left on these issues and it annoys me.

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