Junot Díaz at Barnes & Noble (Jack London Square)

The only thing better than a reading/Q&A that effectively teaches about the literature process is a reading/Q&A that informs about how tapping into one’s own humanity aids the literature process (as writer and reader). Junot Díaz’s reading in Oakland covered a lot about novel writing and contemporary American literature, but it also spoke volumes on how being a real person and staying true to your community can help crash the wall between the authoritative narrative and true storytelling.

Junot started the reading with some introductions (Big shout outs went out to Elmaz Abinader and the VONA alumni in the house), friendly banter (More shouts to the Bay Area and its non-suckitude), family histories (How the courage of his sisters helped shaped and define his perceptions of personal courage), and then jumped into the reading of his Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He read from the opening of “Wildwood,” where his narrator, in the second person (“A pain in the ass form,” Díaz described it), discovers a lump in her mother’s breast. This discovery changes the narrator’s life and leads to her running away from her Jersey home which doesn’t last for long as we find out when Díaz hops over to the middle section of this chapter and details how the narrator, Lola, is pulled back home. To make time for more Q&A, Junot selected two brief passages but they both delivered great impact and highlighted his mix of accessible human themes laid out in the distinct backdrop of NYC/NJ with English, Spanish, and Nerd as the lingua franca.

On to the Q&A as Díaz was happy and open to answer a variety of questions, even ones that didn’t have to do with the book. I started off by asking about how writing his novel over an extended time period (Junot’s last work, the acclaimed short story collection Drown, was published in 1996) affected his relationship with the characters in Oscar Wao. Junot credited a strong internal narrator that always maintained a stable fixed position to the characters and their own development for helping keep a lock on where his narrative traveled.

Elmaz then asked if he was starting a footnote trend to which Díaz noted that he picked up the use of footnotes from Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco: A Novel. He also commented on how the footnote typically reinforces the narrator’s authority but he uses it as a kind of literary bonchinche machine that seeks to undermine the narrative.

Another question revolved around his use of Spanglish. “There is no Spanglish in this book,” Díaz answered, “but you will find a lot of code-switching, which is the great American idiom.” Junot also mentioned that he does monitor his use of code-switching to make sure that the language of the novel never dissolves down to the point a reader will zone out.

The topics then bounced from nerd culture (It is some of the most marginalized text out there and the text that speaks the truest to our human condition), to the impact of the Pulitzer (Other than doing more readings, not much of an impact, but it does get the novel in more hands), to getting people to talk about living through a dictatorial regime (My family’s background and position helped. So did my male privilege.), to the different Spanish versions (There is an American Latino version, Iberian version, and Dominican version. The one that best follows the language of the original is the Dominican one. It’s bananas.), his families thoughts on his novel (My family ran out to buy the Dominican language version and then asked, “Who are these people?” That’s because this novel is complete fiction.)

The theme of writing as a human being became a theme throughout the Q&A. Díaz noted that the act of reading requires not just empathy, the reader putting themselves in the character’s shoes, it also requires compassion—the desire to have a character’s fate be better. And if we want the reader to feel compassion, then the author must write with compassion and never use the truth as an act of aggression. Díaz says he threw away whole chapters because he knew he was using the “truth” about his community against them and that even in his highest disdain for parts of his Dominican-American upbringing he still loves the family that raised him. Bringing that love out in his work is a high priority for a writer like Díaz, “People will read your stuff and they will know if you hate your community.”

“I’ve never thought of my life as a line in a book. How little would I understand if I wrote stuff down,” Junot notes when making the division between being a writer and a community member. And that act of putting the pen down and really listening to the stories around you to get to the truth of a community is what made Drown such a powerful read. I haven’t read The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao yet but I am anticipating it to be an even stronger read filled with true nerdiness, rich code-switching, and a narrator that puts people before story.

More Junot Díaz:
The author’s website
Interview at identitytheory.com
Podcast interview at mercurynews.com