While you were getting carded at The Abbey this Friday night, El Museo del Barrio at 105th and 5th hosted a reading and conversation with acclaimed novelist Junot Díaz in support of his latest book, This Is How You Lose Her. Avid Díaz enthusiast Emma Bogler jumped (literally) at the chance to see him and was in attendance.
Junot Díaz is the literary flavor of the month right now. His 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won him a Pulitzer in 2008 and last year he was named a MacArthur Fellow for his work in fiction. His latest book, a collection of short stories entitled This Is How You Lose Her, might just be the best thing I read all summer (The Iliad notwithstanding, obvz), so I was stoked to hop across Central Park to see him this Friday.
Although the event was supposed to begin at 6:30, Díaz took the stage in the museum’s beautifully restored theater at 6:55, to much applause from the crowd. He thanked the night’s organizers, noting that “any event like this, with an artist who represents a community, is really just a way for the community to celebrate and support itself.” To the audience he was genuinely grateful, thanking us all for coming out to spend our Friday night “listening to some Dominican nerd. Seriously,” he went on, congratulating us for our dedication to “the defense of literary culture, especially in a country […] that’s going to have absolutely no problem in bombing the shit out of somewhere else in a couple weeks’ time.”
Díaz seemed reluctant to start the actual reading portion of the event and impatient to get it over with. Flipping to a story called “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars,” he read a few pages, paused to skip ahead, read a few more pages, then snapped the book shut with a terse thanks and opened the floor for questions. However brief it was, the reading still managed to be engaging, albeit in a different way than I had expected. Díaz’s speaking style is a weird mix of beat poet, literature professor, standup comic, and hood gangsta; one minute he sounds like a PBS voiceover and the next he’s swearing at you in Spanish.
Yunior, the protagonist from This Is How You Lose Her, is a young Dominican man and an inveterate womanizer who always gets caught with his pants down. Throughout the book we jump backwards and forwards in his life as he narrates his childhood immigration to America, the death of his brother, and a number of his failed relationships.
The audience brought up Yunior first, and though Díaz had made fun of him during the reading he was now sympathetic. “Yunior,” he said, “is not of this age… He’s smart, way smarter than me, but he’s not interested in anyone knowing he’s smart.” The discussion then moved on to issues of race and immigration. Díaz stressed the importance of writing race into culture, saying that “reading a novel without race [is like] opening up a physics textbook and seeing it doesn’t talk about gravity.” He went on to talk about whiteness, describing it as a global addiction, “a public health catastrophe,” and “the pervasive default of our collective moment.”
Asked whether he felt the Spanish phrases he embeds into his prose could intimidate or deter some readers, Díaz spoke eloquently about the irrepressibility of language. “We learn to read in such a punitive environment, but if you just gave up on everything you didn’t understand, you would never, ever have learned in the first place,” he said, adding that “books are read individually but understood collectively.”
From the back of the theater, way up in the balcony, someone asked what Díaz expected us, his readers, to get out of his work. “As a Dominican kid, as an African-Caribbean kid, I grew up a ghost. I guess if I can find some other person like that, who’s growing up as a ghost and make them less of a ghost, then that’s what I want.”
Junot Díaz portrait via Wikimedia.