Junot Díaz is not out to make friends, or so he claimed at a full Harvard Book Store talk on Thursday. Instead, he sees his function as an artist as distinct from that of a traditional entertainer. “An artist’s job is to enter silences that the world would rather not have us enter,” he said. Thus, instead of spending most of his time reading from his most recent book, the short story collection “This Is How You Lose Her,” he read only a brief passage before deepening the conversation. Discussion, rather than a one-sided speech, quickly became the tone of the evening.
His talk started off conventionally enough: after catching an audience member’s tossed copy of “This Is How You Lose Her,” he read a brief excerpt. In the passage he opened to, Yunior, the hapless narrator of his previous two novels “Drown” and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” tries and fails to convince his girlfriend that he was not cheating on her. With evidence of the cheating in her hands, the girlfriend asks what all of the words in his diary were supposed to mean. “Baby, this is just part of my novel—” Yunior responds.
Putting down the book after that pithy line, Díaz took questions from the audience. He said he likes creating flawed characters like Yunior, for flaws drive readers to sympathize and fill in the gaps in the narrator’s lapses. The most successful stories, according to Díaz, are the ones with characters like Charlie Brown who are always missing the football but continue to try anyway.
“Most of us are never kicking the football, and I think that makes us worthy of art,” he said. Yunior’s problem, for example, is that he can never quite achieve the intimacy he seeks. Any character’s repeated mistakes can keep the reader engaged, he claimed.
In addition to presenting the reader with a very human protagonist, Díaz attempts to engage with his readers even further by intentionally leaving gaps, silences, and fractures in the structure of his writing. “I want readers to collaborate with me,” he said. “There’s a reason I choose to write in a fragmented structure.” These breaks in a traditional narrative, he said, give the reader authority to fill in the blanks. As Díaz joked, there may be simpler ways to write books, but enhanced reader engagement is worth it to him.
True to his collaborative authorial form, Díaz was fully engaged and forthcoming throughout the question-and-answer portion of the evening, the topics of which ranged from “the question of the ass in Dominican culture” to immigration in the United States. He did not shy away from pointing out the silences in American society and spoke freely about issues in Dominican culture ranging from male virgins to female subjugation. Passionately opinionated, Díaz readily sought continued discourse by inviting anyone who disagreed with his views to debate with him after the talk: they could form a separate line from those who just wanted a book signed and a picture for Instagram.
Díaz may have initially claimed he did not need to make friends with his audience, but he made a point to form connections with those hailing from his area of the world. He made continuous shout-outs to people in the audience from New Jersey (“Maplewood? When I was a kid I used to mess with a girl from there. Fuck, yes, Maplewood”) and the Caribbean and immigrants in general (“All I know is some of us get rounded the fuck up and get deported”). Along with his casual tone and generous use of obscenities, Díaz placed himself and his stories in a young, Dominican culture in which “his boys”—both created and real—fall in love, fight, and struggle through life.
All three of his books are inseparable from their location; much of the hyper-masculine culture of Dominicans in the U.S. that Díaz describes is what drives his characters to make mistakes. Yet when questioned if the real “boys” back home recognize themselves in his writing, Díaz said he is not worried about that. “It doesn’t make a difference how much you take from your life—the colossal demands of fiction will change the character so much,” he said. Yet it was impossible for listeners to escape his formative background, for much of what Díaz talked about had to do with his life. Since he comes from the same culture in which his fiction takes place, it is hard not to make comparisons between the two, or at least see the inspiration behind his work. “It’s always about Dominicans living in central Jersey,” Díaz joked.
A self-proclaimed loser, nerd, artist, and man of color, Díaz pointed out that he thinks of his own life in similar terms as his writing. He described his life as a flip-book of changing locations, full of fudged yet beautiful relationships. “My relationships always seem to be lexicons of things not said,” he confessed. But it is these silences that drive his art and his characters, and perhaps compel his audience to keep reading the beautiful mess of narrative he creates.
—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I Ain’t Your TeacherR: Feed me a diverse curriculum, please. Z: I can’t describe the unimaginable feeling of validation that would come from seeing the narrative of our community gracing the pages of syllabi and being discussed in section.
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