Honor Your Narrative: Junot Díaz at the Fitz

Talking Volumes Fall 2012: Junot Díaz
Minnesota Public Radio
The Fitzgerald Theatre
September 18, 2012

The literati wait for September. It’s a tucking in. Cocooning. It’s books and coffee, red wine and wood fires. It’s boots and scarves and that tough leather jacket from Zara. Or for others, that black turtleneck that’s been folded in the sweater drawer since March. It’s submission season. It’s sending kids off to school after the buzz and flurry of summer and a guilt-free day of reading in your pajamas until those same kids clamor off the school bus at four o’clock. It’s also the thrill of a brand new season of literary events and rejoining the collective: hundreds of others in our thriving Twin Cities literary community who can appreciate the slang and unique colloquialisms of an engaging, brilliant, street-smart writer and self-proclaimed “Brown Nerd” from New Jersey. This Tuesday, MPR kicked off the season’s first evening of Talking Volumes with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, and I can say with great certainty that those in attendance left the Fitzgerald Theatre invigorated and inspired.

The Star Tribune’s Claude Peck introduced Díaz as a guy who can come up with a quick and precise put-down, someone who gets his characters (and people) and all of their foibles down immediately—which, oddly enough, made me nervous, as though Díaz would call me out at some point during the evening. The Díaz on stage, though, was cool, real, and present. Dressed in corduroys, a track jacket, and tennis shoes, the first thing he did when he crossed the stage was embrace and kiss MPR’s Kerri Miller on both cheeks. Miller was eager to get the conversation rolling, but he politely interrupted to thank her and everyone in the room for having him, explaining that he “just wandered the fuck in. Everyone else made this happen.” He was grateful, he added, that we had taken the time and spent the money to be there. “This is a valuable part of our civic enterprise,” he said, scanning the audience and making genuine eye contact with those of us in the first few rows where the house lights shone. “We artists wouldn’t know what the hell we were doing without having this kind of space.”

(c) Darryl Bush – SF Chronicle

MPR has called Díaz a profound thinker and I have to agree. He covered a lot of ground, including art, politics, the in-curiosity we exhibit as a country, Ronald Reagan, the way male artists portray women, community activism, and how his characters see a world full of issues we don’t like to address—class, race, inequity, and a political community that is disturbingly anti-Latino. Also, dear mill city artists and bibliophiles of all ages and genres: Díaz is a man after our own word-wrought hearts. In a climate where we all compete for the same sources to fund our work, where we hope to elicit good and decent recognition for a job well done, and where the aesthetic of the moment can dwarf all others, Díaz effusively tells his students, as he told all of us, there is every possible way to pursue art. Just because your art doesn’t conform to what other artists are doing, he said, doesn’t diminish its value. “There are so few alternatives for young artists, for those artists out there who feel this or that is not their narrative. Honor your narrative.” Narrative, here—though Díaz writes mainly fiction—is a stand-in for the arc of all arts. When pressed about the truth of fiction, he politely balked at the idea of a “truest genre” and reminded us that poets and journalists have shed more blood than any novelist, particularly in Latin America. Fueled by his own fire, he circled back into a political, applause-stirring rant in which he insisted that the US “is not the only literary experiment,” and that, someday, we may realize there are all of these talented people, our neighbors around the world, doing “amazing shit and maybe we should have fucking talked to them.”

* * *

In 1974, when Díaz was six years old and had just emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey, the library opened up his world. Aside from the few political texts his father kept close at hand, there weren’t a lot of books in his home, and he admits the first time he saw three books together was when he held his first grammar school workbooks. “The idea that I could access all of those books,” he said of his first library, “that they were so freely available, felt like magic.” Picture this: a six-year-old Dominican boy who cannot read or write English. He finds the old, enormous folios from the 1950’s and they’re filled with 18th Century Frontier Paintings. He views one of a mountain man with a hatchet, facing a bear (such Americana), and on the back placard three simple words written in English. “I could not imagine,” he said “that what the caption said, what was about to happen [in the painting], could be contained in those three words. Even though there were only three lines, they were speaking a world – more Everything than I could imagine.”

As a writer who’s been doing more reading than writing in her own private September, I can’t help but find Díaz’s comments endearing. He identifies himself as a reader first, a writer second, and scolded writers who don’t read enough. Far too many writers pause when asked what they are reading, he joked, before they go on to hold forth about Proust. “If it’s Proust,” he said between laughs, “they’re not telling the truth. They’re not reading.” A book worth reading should challenge you. It should strip you down. Writing, for him, was just an excuse to be “in books,” and when he was young he simply wanted to figure out what he could do that would give him an excuse to read. “I’m just saying,” he added, “if we’re on the titanic and it’s going down, most of the writers I know would grab the pen and paper. Not me. I’m grabbing the books, mother fucker.”

In This Is How You Lose Her, Díaz creates a world where his reckless, frightfully intelligent, irresistible protagonist, Yunior, cheats and cheats again, breaking the hearts of some extraordinary women and, ultimately, his own. Though critics have compared Díaz to his Dominican street slang-using alter-ego—much of it derogatory toward women- Díaz himself spoke out against people like Yunior—those driven to harmful behaviors and those who don’t want to deal with the consequences. Miller quickly pointed out that, more often than not, it’s men who fit this mold. “You are correct, my dear,” Díaz quipped. “We are now on the same page. Most men deserve an F for the way they interact with women.” When Miller asked if Díaz grew up in an environment where men were doing (wrongful) things to women but weren’t aware of it, Díaz pointed to Ronald Reagan, to a time when there was a sea change, when art became something else—when, he insisted, the male artist’s portrayal of women changed in a particular way. He summed it up with, “If this was what we had going into the future, we were in trouble.” Not long after that, Mitt Romney made his way into the conversation (but you knew he would, didn’t you?) when Díaz pointed out that the Republican presidential nominee hasn’t had a chance to break down the 47%, to give us an idea of what percentage of the 47 were women. Women and immigrants do the back-breaking work, Díaz said, and then we use them up and throw them away. When Miller said this made her feel like a victim and she didn’t like the idea of being a victim, Díaz replied “Neither does the patriarchy,” and revealed that that is why the patriarchy works. “If men actually had to make the patriarchy work, they would have to take a pay cut. The patriarchy works because people do the work for it.”

* * *

Díaz read twice from This Is How You Lose Her, but it wasn’t his favorite part of the evening. He was at his best engaging with others: the musicians and the vocalist who performed between interview and reading, Kerri Miller herself, and the members of the audience. He thrives on answering questions, not to mention meeting and speaking with his many fans and followers. One young woman, who called Díaz’s writing “raw” and his politics “beautiful,” wondered how it was for him to “be this” for people. Díaz was clearly humbled and his response outlined how hard it is to “be in ‘this’ the way they teach us to be: creating hierarchies, accumulating things, and competing.” He said he would rather be in a world where we can just hang out and talk about stuff – how to make things better – instead of buying jeans. “Not that I don’t like jeans. I do. I do like jeans.” But jeans aren’t the point.

Responding to a question about the “renaissance of brown nerdism,” Díaz spoke of his fascination with growing up inside the Dominican Brown Nerdism and not connecting with white nerds. “It was like being a minority within a minority,” he said. “I was in a generation of young Black, Latino, Dominican nerds and they were making it into college. It felt like a great silence I wanted to enter.” He also spoke about the responsibility of “creating mirrors”: it’s a ghostly experience when a young, brown kid cannot see anyone else doing what he’s doing.

Díaz gave a nod to his mother, traumatized, he said, by dictatorship and genocide. Of this Dictatorship Trauma, he explained that Dominicans always felt watched, like there was a bead on their every move, and his mother felt she couldn’t tell the truth. If the phone rang and the caller asked what she was doing, she’d say she was in the kitchen, even if she was in the bathroom. “The atmosphere created a fertile ground in which to write.” On writing itself—on process and finding his way through a story—he left us with something beautiful: “I begin feeling like I’m holding a compass in my hand and then a hundred pages in, I realize I’m only holding a rock. A hundred more pages, and I realize I’m holding my own heart.”

After answering questions, Díaz stood on stage for another hour, signing over a hundred books, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, and embracing his adoring fans. Though we are the same age, the mother in me worried about all of the cheek-kissing since we are on the collar of cold and flu season. I opted not to join the line, mostly because I’m skittish around authors. I worry I’ll say something embarrassing like, “I’m a writer too!” My friends and 2012-2013 Loft Literary Center Mentor Series Award Winners Jennifer Bowen-Hicks and Lesley Arimah were in line, though, and I think Jennifer put it best when she said, “I feel the most important thing an author has to give, they’ve already given – through their work.” This, Junot Díaz, you did, and then some. We thank you.

***
Purchasing Junot Díaz new novel, This is How You Lose Her, from your local book store: http://www.magersandquinn.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=2884299&isbn_id=6299681

Read more about Díaz on his website: http://www.junotdiaz.com

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