On Being with Krista Tippett

Junot Díaz

Radical Hope Is Our Best Weapon

Last Updated

September 14, 2017

Original Air Date

September 14, 2017

“From the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.” These are the words of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz. His hope is fiercely reality-based, a product of centuries lodged in his body of African-Caribbean suffering, survival, and genius.


Image of Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz is the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Ridge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT. His books include DrownThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This Is How You Lose Her.


Krista Tippett, host: In the aftermath of America’s cathartic 2016 election, The New Yorker collected a series of 16 reflections by varied authors. The one that most riveted me was by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Dominican-American author, Junot Díaz. His essay was titled “Radical Hope Is Our Best Weapon.” Díaz’s hope is fiercely reality-based, a product of centuries lodged in his body of African-Caribbean suffering, survival, and genius. I can truly say that no conversation I’ve had in all my years has felt more searing, important, and eloquent than this one.

Junot Díaz: I’m a child of blackness. Blackness was not meant to survive, and we have survived. And we have thrived. And we’ve given this world more genius than we have ever received.

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Ms. Tippett: Junot Díaz is a professor of writing at MIT, and he’s the fiction editor of Boston Review. His books include Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This Is How You Lose Her.

Ms. Tippett: Your family came from the Dominican Republic when you were six years old. And that place and the New Jersey you landed in are both hugely formative, and that all comes through, all the way through your writing and your work. I always ask this question when I start my interviews, whoever I’m talking with, about the religious or spiritual background of their childhood. I’m really curious — I’ve never heard you speak overtly about this, and I do understand “spiritual” expansively, so I mean how would you describe the spiritual background of your childhood?

Mr. Díaz: The Caribbean — first and foremost, this is a site of empire and a site of the starting point of New World slavery and all of the inhumanities and survival responses that that produced. And among those syncretic reactions was the religious universe in which I grew up, a universe ostensibly Catholic, but which was shot through, sort of subsumed in an Africanized, New World cosmology.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, the spirits who kind of live inside the saints, the Catholic saints.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, the saints are simply the masks.

Ms. Tippett: Right, exactly, yeah, or hidden by the saints. There’s this word that you use at the beginning of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — the “fukú” — “the Curse and Doom of the New World.” There’s this line you have: “It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in these ‘superstitions,’ because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.” [laugh]

Mr. Díaz: I mean it was more that it was in everything and in everyone, and it was everywhere. It was the force that bound us all together. It saturated so much of the culture. And it was important, those first six years for me in the Dominican Republic, because I got access to worlds that I would not have had access to had I been only raised in the United States. I still remember being very young and that there was a family member who was one of these people who was believed to be a medium — in other words, that whenever she heard certain kinds of music or certain kinds of drums that she would become possessed, “se monto.” And by being possessed, she would become a medium for these numinous entities who seemed to have great interest in human affairs and would speak — they would speak through her. And I still remember, as a child, being overwhelmed and astonished by that experience, by having a family member who, out of nowhere, seemed to become someone else and speak, not only with a different register of voice, but with — from a different realm of experience.

And that’s not anything that you, as a child, easily explain away or put behind thin screens of rationalizations. That provoked an open mystery in me that I don’t think has ever closed. And it mattered to me, because I realized that I was growing up with the entire spectrum of epistemologies and ontologies of folks. I had folks who were incredibly empirical, people who had no religious beliefs. And then there were other family members who were deeply invested in this numinous universe. And having them all simultaneously — in many cases, hybridizing even the two extremes between the absolute empirical and the numinous — that was my foundational experience. And living all that simultaneously, it gave me a lot of room to think and a lot of room for how to be.

Ms. Tippett: How do you think that shapes you as an artist, your artistic imagination, even when so much of your storytelling is very carnal? I still — I don’t think of these things as in opposition to each other.

Mr. Díaz: No, and I would remind us that, coming from a reality where our oppression was ineluctably linked to our bodies — that we had, for centuries, no rights to our bodies and that all of the traditional pleasures and all of the traditional freedoms of human agency were forbidden to those of us of African descent in the New World, for a long period of time — the body, in such a murderous regime, under such nightmarish conditions, becomes chapel, cathedral, dogma. It becomes nearly everything. And so certainly, it took a bunch of work for Western theologians to create intellectual — and to argue the philosophical — bridges between mind and body or between the sacred and the material.

But in the New World, for those of us of African descent, we were living centuries ahead in our bodies. We were philosophizing centuries ahead of how bodies exist within, through, and alongside the numinous. And I have to tell you that, for people like us, for people who come out of the African Diaspora in the New World, simply to fall in love, when you have historically been denied love, the right to just connect to the body which you have chosen and that has chosen you, means that an act of love is not only revolutionary, it’s not only transcendent, but it is the deific. It is Godlike. It is a taste of the omnipotent.

[music: “Alma” by Gustavo Santaolalla]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with writer Junot Díaz.

[music: “Alma” by Gustavo Santaolalla]

Ms. Tippett: One thing you’ve said that struck me, you said to another interviewer — “I spoke silence better than I spoke English or Spanish” — that there was an aspect of your childhood that was about the keeping of secrets, the holding of one’s tongue, which I think is an aspect of life and childhood, but for you, it’s also connected to the particularities of your childhood and the immigrant experience and your family, and that that was connected to you wanting to become an artist, a writer, a breaker of silence.

Mr. Díaz: Certainly, but I would argue that it’s deeper. On one level, silence was a priceless survival strategy for those of us coming out of a dictatorship, in a post-dictatorship society that had not yet undone the work of that dictatorship. In the long afterlife of dictatorship, silence was invaluable, holding your counsel, not allowing people to know what you were really thinking. That permitted, for many, many families and many, many, community, permitted survival.

Take it one level deeper — and when we’re thinking about the numinous, when we’re thinking about the sacred, it always asks us to move more deeply, to head towards the depths — when one considers the deeper histories, where those of us who emerge from the social death of slavery, from that ontological precarity of slavery, there’s also the fact that silence is not just our inheritance, but it’s also a methodology. It’s a way of understanding that, even though we’ve become free by law, the reality is that we still, those of us of African descent, live under a terrible, terrible precarity that is directly predicated on the original crime of slavery, that the racial regime of the West means that, for those of us of African descent, that being able to use secrecy, being able to use silence, was an important counterstrategy. And so you’re in all of these things. All of this is about you. And you see it playing out.

And then, of course, one immigrates, and another layer of what are the secrets, what can be said, begin to unfold, because now you’re in the procedural, bureaucratic precarity of being an immigrant from a father who comes over illegal, the concern that you might say something that could end up jeopardizing your family and end up plunging you into difficulties — this also becomes a concern. And it — all of these together — some of these realms, I think, are more intangible, more subtle, others more immediate and acknowledged — but all of these realms come together to form this idiom of silence, which I feel I’m most fluent in.

Ms. Tippett: You feel that still?

Mr. Díaz: Still.

Ms. Tippett: Most fluent in the idiom of silence?

Mr. Díaz: Still. Nothing has changed. What about this last few months has encouraged anyone who is an immigrant or anyone of African descent or anyone who has emerged from an authoritarian society to say, “Aha, this is something, now, we’re transcending. This is something we’re distancing ourselves — it is behind us”? If anything has been revealed in the last few months, it is that these strategies continue to be relevant, because we have not undone the nightmares that we’ve inflicted on this world during this New World project.

Ms. Tippett: I want to — let’s talk about — I’ve been reading you for a long time and then really knew that I really wanted to talk now after The New Yorker collected a series of pieces in November, 2016, called Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America. The piece you wrote as part of that was striking in many ways, and just — I think one thing that was interesting is, other — the titles of the other essays had words in them like “denial,” “bullying,” “dystopia,” “protest,” “opposition,” words that have become kind of vivid in the way we use language in these months. Yours was titled “Radical Hope Is Our Best Weapon.”

And obviously, months have passed since then; the world is progressing, but I want to just kind of dive into that — what you were saying, how you’re seeing this moment, how you’re responding. And I guess one thing that really struck me about — I could imagine somebody looking at that title, “Radical Hope,” and thinking that this was optimistic, fanciful. It’s very reality-based, right? I mean one of your lines was: “Let’s be real: we always knew this shirt wasn’t going to be easy.”

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, and I mean it’s important to remember that we can parse the “we” and “this shirt” in many different ways. Certainly, I was speaking to a very specific audience in that piece, and I’m glad that other folks resonated; they felt attunement. But look, I mean when we think about the state of the world, when we think about where we’re at, Trump is the latest, awful, awful turn. But more than anything, the world has been in an awful state for a long time. But I would not say that this is a different order of madness. I think it is a sharpening of the already-present madness.

Ms. Tippett: It’s continuous with what’s been happening for a long time.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, and that it’s a lot more familiar than we would like to admit. But ultimately, the question is, what kind of effective, philosophical, political stance are we going to take when facing these recent inclemencies? And I understand — I understand, when one gets walloped, that it is natural to get negative. It is natural to become disregulated. It is natural to become catastrophic. There’s nothing wrong with that. I pass through these every day and under less challenging pressures. But ultimately, the question really is, for all of us, is that — what’s at stake? What have we accomplished to date, and what does that accomplishment to date reveal? What mandates does it give? It is very important to regroup and to reflect, to strategize, because even though I’m saying, “OK, yeah, we’ve seen this before,” it doesn’t mean that things aren’t new and that introspection and strategizing and new forms of solidarity aren’t required. That’s not what I mean. To point out that there’s continuities is not to deny that there is new and novel aspects to this present terror.

But ultimately, there’s questions about how are you conceptualizing this challenge? Are you conceptualizing it only in the short term? So is our entire, kind of, parameters, Obama? In other words, is that it? It’s “Oh, compared to Obama” that this is such a nightmare that we’re doomed? I mean that doesn’t allow you much room, but it also leaves out so much complexity and so many accomplishments, and for me, to remind myself and, certainly, my interlocutors in that piece, of how much has been accomplished under worse odds.

Ms. Tippett: Right, right. So much of what we’re up against now is, after all, familiar, but part of the dynamic now is that it is familiar to some and not to others. It has been familiar to some and not to others, even through the Obama presidency. How do you respond to people who say, “A primary thing that has changed now is simply that this is all out on the surface” — this dysfunction that still existed, these chasms?

Mr. Díaz: Well, I mean one always returns to that Lenin formulation that there are contradictions in society, and the same contradiction for some people is not antagonistic, and for others, it’s antagonistic. The United States has been an engine of white supremacy since its formation and continues to be so, and I think that, for many people, white supremacy was a non-antagonistic contradiction. They would say, OK, yeah, this thing sucks, but I don’t really have the energy or the time to do much about it. And for many of us who are the victims, the direct victims of white supremacy, for us, it has been an antagonistic contradiction for a very long time.

And one of the things that has happened, of course, is that the line that divided folks who thought white supremacy and all the kind of just garbage that Trump represents was non-antagonistic from the people who thought it was antagonistic — I think that line has moved. That needle has moved. More people now find this to be an antagonistic contradiction than did before. And this is not insignificant.

Ms. Tippett: Right. And so is that, in a sense, this paradoxical good or this possibility of this moment?

Mr. Díaz: Well, we’ll see. Again, I think that commitments play themselves out over the long term. You’d be amazed, how people get riled up about things and then slip back into the comfort of their historical privileges and their historical aporias. Again, I think that it would take a lot, a lot to awaken those who have feasted well on our hegemonic structures. It’ll take a lot to awaken them to the actual cannibal horror in which they partake. And I’m — perhaps Trump is enough; I’m not sure. The only way that we’ll be able to know is over the long term.

[music: “Herzkeks” by Manu Delago]

Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Junot Díaz through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Herzkeks” by Manu Delago]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with writer Junot Díaz on altering the calculus of hope. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of fiction, born in Santo Domingo and raised in New Jersey. We’re talking, in part, about his essay, “Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon,” commissioned by The New Yorker in the face of a changed political landscape.

Ms. Tippett: In this New Yorker essay, when you asked the question, “So what now?” and you say, “First and foremost, we need to feel,” and I want to talk about what you’re saying there. There’s a lot of complexity to what might look like a simple sentence. We don’t actually — we do outrage really well in America, which you said. There’s a lot of that. But these other, more complex feelings that will take us to other places — I think you’re kind of pointing at how we don’t necessarily know how to do that whole range.

Mr. Díaz: Well, some people do.

Ms. Tippett: Some people do, yeah, but I mean in public life, what we reward in public life, what we make space for.

Mr. Díaz: No, our public life stinks. Our public life is like a deranged three-year-old, and I wouldn’t want to offend deranged three-year-olds.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right. Right.

Mr. Díaz: Well, certainly — I mean look, we are not a culture that has built into our way of being, our way of thinking, our civic imaginaries — contemplation, mourning, working through difficult contradictory emotions. That’s not part of our society; and therefore, where society leaves off, we need to take up. Society miseducates us. Society gives us a lot of prompts and a lot of encouragements to be reactive, emotionally reactive. In this, we have received tremendous tutelage. So the ability to do what our societies seem incapable and unwilling to do is important. It’s incumbent upon us to be reflective, to be complex, to be subtle, to be nuanced, to take our time in societies which are none of these things and which encourage none of these things, because after all, there is nothing, I would argue, more critical than to be misaligned from the — with the emotional baseline of any mainstream society.

Ms. Tippett: So to be misaligned is a virtue, is that what you’re saying?

Mr. Díaz: Misaligned to hegemonic emotional frameworks? Hell, yes.

Ms. Tippett: Misaligned with what is unhealthy, yeah.

Mr. Díaz: I mean here yeah.

Ms. Tippett: I mean one of the things you’ve done that has been very powerful, and also, maybe, a piece of silence you’ve broken is, as a man and as a Dominican man, you’ve talked about vulnerability, which could seem — certainly, is very complex in the context that you described of this New World experience of having to struggle to survive, to have agency. And you’ve talked about your father was militaristic, that boys in your family were beneficiaries of this patriarchal ethos, which was inherited from the larger culture, but that you experience yourself to be a victim as much as a beneficiary of that. I mean the fact is, that’s also this — the ethos of American culture that we’re talking about, of American culture. And I think these qualities you just named that we would have to learn to exercise in public to actually change — of contemplation, of mourning, of letting in complexity and subtlety — those are acts of vulnerability.

Mr. Díaz: And vulnerability is the precondition to contact. You can form no intimacy without vulnerability. I mean how many of us are in intimate relationships where we have incomplete vulnerability? We, ourselves, are not completely, yet, in, because we’re not completely vulnerable; and therefore, we have emaciated the opportunity afforded by these relationships.

Ms. Tippett: And so this also becomes implicated in the social cost or the social symptom of the dysfunction we have, of our isolation from each other, our distance from each other, the fact that we do not know — [laughs] we do not know our fellow Americans. We don’t even seem to feel that we have the same experiences.

Mr. Díaz: Well, yeah, I mean there’s a lot at work there, right? First, we were starting with the subject of masculinity and certain kinds of ways that masculinity enshrines and, in some ways, super-valorizes the ideal of the invulnerable male subject. I mean that’s a big part of what we would call hegemonic masculinity — that one is not vulnerable, that one is not penetrated, that one has a narrative where intimacy is not necessary. And when you look at the strictures, when you look at the rules of traditional masculinity, it’s all about creating an inhuman: someone who is all surfaces.

Ms. Tippett: An inhuman…

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, an inhuman: someone who’s all surfaces and has no innards, has no interiority and doesn’t require community, doesn’t require intimacy, doesn’t require family. And I think I don’t need to explain that to any woman; we’ve been dealing with the fallout of that utter nonsense for centuries and how the work — the terrible damage it does to young people, to families, to communities.

There’s a larger question, of course, about how all this stuff plays out in communities when we’re — and now we’re reaching up to the community level — we’re also talking about the way that our current economic system, the way this stage of capitalism, neoliberalism, how it has destroyed what we would call the public good, the public commons: ideals of the civic, ideals of the social, altruism. All of these delicate, invaluable virtues are being sacrificed over the pagan stone of neoliberalism’s obsession with market. And again, not to do a disservice to pagans. Pagans are — there’s a messed-up metaphor. But it’s just a cruel, cruel economic system in which we live and one that has made people deeply afraid of their neighbors, one that has institutionalized a certain cynicism, a certain suspicion about our fellow person.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and a utilitarianism about…

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, but also just a kind of a cruel pessimism that everyone is a criminal on the make and that the only thing that you can trust is the individual. That, again, is taking that logic of a person who has no need for intimacies, no need for a family, no need for community, to its most extreme form. I mean there’s no accident that white supremacy and its masculine forms come together in our economic system to produce this kind of logic.

Ms. Tippett: And the political corollaries — I mean this is what you’re talking about, but this way large, external accomplishment is glorified, and that’s the only thing we measure, and that interior life kind of became optional to success, and that reflected in our national politics, kind of on steroids at the present.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, I mean ours is a cannibal logic. We reward those who can devour the most. You can devour the most market, because you’re the number one musician? Reward them. You have sold the most tickets? You’ve devoured the most space, the most screens? Reward them. I mean it’s terrifying, when you think about it, because it’s this logic of hyper-consumption.

Our political, economic systems have destabilized the planet. And the planet is going to continue to unravel. And the consequences of the unraveling are going to play out in people’s bodies and in where they decide to move those bodies. And how all of our national elites deal with that reality, I think, is the number one — and how we’re all going to deal with these realities — is the great challenge facing us. And in some ways, I think, it’s something that is going to be the great test of whether we, as a collective, will have any future worth speaking of.

[music: “And By Sweet I Mean” by Ben Lukas Boysen]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with writer Junot Díaz.

[music: “And By Sweet I Mean” by Ben Lukas Boysen]

Ms. Tippett: I hear you, in this conversation and in other words you’ve spoken and written, always bringing that kind of large aspiration and challenge. Also, back to the matter of intimacy and love — I mean somewhere you’ve said that the quintessential American narrative is the quest for home and that — but that’s not just about shelter. It’s about intimacy. It’s about love. I mean are those — as you think about walking through this American moment and expansively, having a large view, a long view of time in this long-term project we’re in, how do you — is “love” a word that enters your imagination, that enters your conversations these days, and what can that mean?

Mr. Díaz: Well, of course. I mean what are we in this game, if not for love? I can’t speak to anyone else, but if you’re — if someone tells me there’s no love in the universe, I’m — well, what interest is there in the universe, then? What’s interesting about the universe? For me, perhaps overly simplistically or perhaps overly sentimentally, love matters. I do believe that human beings are, without question, social creatures. Our biology seems to dictate that.

But I would also say that there is a challenge, in being human, that we have vulnerable needs, but we also have minds that can deceive us that these needs are unimportant. And for many of us, to be able to trust somebody else, to be able to have faith that someone else or that the future or that the community can take care of us, that we will not be destroyed when we lower our defenses, for many of us, that’s a challenge. And yet, you can’t have any kind of love, whether we’re talking about civic love or we’re talking about interpersonal love, without first dropping those defenses, without first making yourself vulnerable.

I mean ultimately, when you look at it — you don’t want to be too simplistic, but the nature of having these chats is, you oversimplify — but when you think about it, look at the whole debate around climate change. The whole debate around climate change is a bunch of lying fools sitting around, almost all male, but whatever — a bunch of lying fools saying, “The earth is not vulnerable. There is no injury.” And there’s just a repetition here; there’s this mantra that comes out of these hegemonies, which is: “We are invulnerable. We’re not vulnerable. There is no loss. We don’t need to change anything” that just is — it’s just destroying us, man. And it’s so dull and wearying, and yet, we’re all caught up in this madness, simply because of our pride, our inability to be like, “Hey, man, that hurts. Hey, man, that’s scary. Hey, sister, that’s humiliating.”

Ms. Tippett: So the language of “radical hope” — you’re also drawing on Jonathan Lear in this piece you wrote for The New Yorker. I mean you’ve said that all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also have hope, which is not blind optimism, but radical hope. Talk about what that is and how you find yourself living that now.

Mr. Díaz: Well, it depends how you constitute your community. How do you constitute your community? I’m not so arrogant that I only constitute my community in a very narrow, selective way. When I constitute my community, I think in a generative way, where I include the people who come before me, and I include the possibility of the people who will come after me.

That opens up a lot more room and a lot more space. If your community is no further than your injury, then it doesn’t seem like any agency is possible. But if your community extends more generously, more capaciously — well, certainly there’s a lot of grounds for hope there, just by the way you framed your history, your reality. Framing is as important as anything. And so when I include my grandparents, who didn’t have one-tenth of what I had, and yet who labored super-heroically, when I include my great-great-grandparents, who lived on the edge of these ex-plantation systems and were, at any moment, at the danger of the violences and the politics of these ex-plantation systems, and yet they labored super-heroically towards a better life — when I include them in what I consider my community or my compass of thinking and of being and of feeling, possibilities open that might not have been there if my gauge was very narrow.

If today, the last few months, or the Trump administration is all you’ve got, it sure looks bleak. But when I think about me, when I think about my family — hey, I always say this, but it’s true — people used to own me. White people used to own bodies like mine. And when I look at what my community has done to change that, when I look over what my community has done to make democracy possible, when I look at what my community has taught this world about justice and about humanity, in the face of abysmal inhumanities, well, I’ve got to tell you, that alters the calculus of hope. And it gives me hope.

Ms. Tippett: Are you experiencing — so in the spirit of what you’re saying, and I’m so with you about having a long view of time as a resource — I mean as a necessity, even to be reality-based — so it’s just a handful of time since November, 2016, to now. But do you experience conversations, imaginations opening, in a way that is consonant with that hope? That is, do you feel generative energy?

Mr. Díaz: It’s not a — again, this isn’t coming from Trump. This is coming from what we have survived and overcome.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, so it — right. OK.

Mr. Díaz: In other words, my love of life, my belief and faith in my people’s liberation doesn’t come from the obstacles that hegemonic formations throw up. It comes from my ancestry, from my communities. And therefore, yeah, there’s an obstacle in front of us. We’ve seen these before. Might be a bit terrifying, might be a bit unusual, might be a bit new, but onward we go. We have broken every chain this society has tried to throw around our necks. They don’t stop trying. We will break them again.

Ms. Tippett: This is really big and wonderful, and I just maybe want to kind of finish. But before I do, I want to take a slight diversion, which I don’t think is completely a diversion, which is your love of science fiction and the way science fiction is in your fiction. And I also love science fiction, and my story is not your story, but I grew up in a very small town and went to Brown, which was like going to a different planet. And you came from Santo Domingo to central New Jersey; it was like a different planet. And for the very first time, when I was reading you, and the science fiction references keep jumping out at me, including “Fear is the mind-killer,” it occurred to me that science fiction is there for people who change worlds. What did you say a little while ago? You were talking, also, about that numinous world that — the sense that there are many worlds within the world. I just kind of wanted to note that. I mean — and it’s not an escape. It’s actually revealing or kind of opening your imagination to vast cosmic possibilities that aren’t immediately reflected in the world around you.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, well, it could be an escape, but I do find science fiction to be — for me has been an excellent literary technology for understanding our many worlds, for understanding what’s been disavowed about our societies, for understanding our political unconscious. It’s really — science fiction is really good to think, man. And for some folks, the aliens and all the stuff about otherness is just surface titillation. For others of us, it becomes a source for theorizing about real-world alterity and alternate possibilities. And that’s the way I reacted to science fiction, in some ways. For me, science fiction offered the possibility of different ways of being and of ways of possibly overcoming the cage that surrounded us.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and another reference that I feel is kind of in the ether right now is this Whitman line of “I contain multitudes.” It’s come up a lot, lately, and you invoke that in the context of a question about what is America — that there are these multiple Americas. I wonder how your long view of time, your rootedness in the whole sweep of history, of your ancestors, of your people as the ground on which you stand in the present, how that speaks to you about multiple Americas and how to live with this, generatively.

Mr. Díaz: Well, I mean shoot. It’s a question that has bedeviled the New World and bedeviled societies for a long time. I mean shoot, we’ve got the Babel myth at the heart of the Bible, the idea that God struck down humans by making them more diverse. [laughs] Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing. But, you know, so it goes. I just — when I think about what is required for all of us to live on this planet, it’s going to be the kinds of solidarities and the kinds of civic imaginaries and the kinds of radical tolerances that we’re not seeing. We’re going to have to practice a democracy that we’ve yet to define or even lay down the first four bricks of. There’s nothing about our impoverished political systems, our imagined communities, that is going to be able to hold us together in the face of the coming storm of climate change. We need a lot more than we have. And the fact that so many of us are scared by our multiplicity shows you how much work we have to do.

Our multiplicity is our damn strength. There is no getting around it. People want to make it the danger. People want to make it the problem. No, it’s only going to be the problem if we don’t make it our strength. And you don’t want to be so fantastically reductive, but really, at an operational level, it’s really what it comes down to — either we’re going to embrace humanity and figure out how we can all live together and work together to overcome the damage that certain sectors of us have inflicted on the planet, or we’re not. And I, for one, think eventually there’s — I don’t trust our politicians. I don’t trust our mainstream religious figures. I don’t trust our business leaders. I don’t trust any of the sort of folks who already have power and have already shown us how little they can do for us, and they’re showing us their cowardice and their avarice — I don’t trust any of those people. But I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.

Ms. Tippett: Right. It’s the life together that we have to figure out, not — we don’t have to solve multiplicity.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, well, I mean we’ve certainly got to stop this absurd paradigm of — that this thing is a problem. This is reality.

Ms. Tippett: Right, right, right.

Mr. Díaz: We’re not going to wish away this, so let’s cut it out.

Ms. Tippett: There’s this — I love this — I love these sentences in that piece in The New Yorker: “Time to face this hard new world to return to the great shining work of our people. Darkness, after all, is breaking, a new day has come.” It’s a wonderful image.

Mr. Díaz: It’s the truth.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and counterintuitive, as reality is counterintuitive, to the intuition we’ve been taught that is not actually training us in reality.

Mr. Díaz: I’m a child of blackness. Blackness was not meant to survive, and we have survived. And we have thrived. And we’ve given this world more genius than we have ever received.

[music: “Juggalo Gigolos” by Juj]

Ms. Tippett: Junot Díaz is the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT. His books include Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This Is How You Lose Her.

[music: “Juggalo Gigolos” by Juj]

Staff: On Being is: Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Malka Fenyvesi, and Erinn Farrell.

Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.

On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development and education.

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