Meeting Junot Díaz

Earlier this spring I went to see Pulitzer Prize-winning Junot Díaz at a local literary festival. We went to see my parents over Fred’s spring break and I cut short our trip home so I could see Junot Díaz in the flesh for the first time.

I love Junot Díaz.

I cannot explain well why I do, so I will use his words instead:

You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.

I adore and admire many writers, and I do so for different reasons. But I love Junot Díaz literally beyond words – that is, beyond the words in his books. I love him because of why he writes. His Facebook page also reflects this. Unlike other authors, Díaz rarely if ever promotes his books on his page. Instead he shares articles and essays (by other writers) that open our eyes and minds to the people we may not think about or understand well enough: people who are marginalized, who have no voice, who are invisible.

Díaz’s voice is one I never realized I was starving for until I read it. He’s of a different gender and culture from me but there is a universality in his stories about the struggles to find self and love amidst dysfunction and confusion. In his talk he said, “When I write, my default is that we are a descendant of slaves; society’s default is male, white, middle class.” I have nothing against male, white, middle class writers. But I’ve been reading them all my life. When I read Junot Díaz, I do, finally, see a reflection. Reading his books and knowing that he writes transform me from reader to participant: he makes me understand that I exist, that I take up space, that I am alive.

At the event he opened with an extensive Q&A before reading a passage from his latest book, the short story collection This is How You Lose Her. I was trying to both listen and pay attention while feverishly typing some notes on my iPhone with one finger. The following are my best attempts to paraphrase some of the quotes that stood out most to me:

On reading and writing:

How do we ask the questions that can open up our deep complexity?

The truth of who we are is best expressed in the fiction that we don’t pay attention to.

On love:

Nothing teaches more about love than its malfunction.

I am interested in [writing about] fidelity and what it does to children and the possibility of intimacy. When it comes to trauma, parents don’t talk about it but it’s the silence that passes down.

When you love someone you have to put your heart in someone else’s hands. A great way to defray intimacy is through cheating; it hurts less to give half your heart to one person and half to another.

We drag other people into our own fears.

Intimacy is so difficult – it demands more courage than we can imagine.

This is How You Lose Her is a collection of stories about his protagonist Yunior’s struggle to find and keep love. Díaz’s interest in this subject matter stems from his own experience growing up with an unfaithful father.

As a speaker he was thoughtful, engaging, articulate, self-deprecating, and funny. In front of an audience of 300 he pretty much talked the way he would talk to a buddy over beer.

Book signing came next and this is the part that got my nerves jangled for weeks. Max calls Junot Díaz my literary Justin Bieber. I honestly had no idea what to say to him and didn’t figure out something until halfway through his talk. It helps to get a flavor of the author’s personality and values first before deciding on what to say. I finally decided to just be honest when I talked to him.

I wasn’t in line long and when it was my turn, he reached out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Junot.” As if I didn’t know!

I shook his hand and handed him my books to sign. I then said to him, “I am so grateful that you write…I am so grateful for your voice.” And I shared something personal about my own immigrant experience at which point he stopped and looked at me and gave me a look of…sympathy or compassion or something along those lines. He asked me where I was from (Peru (though I’m Asian)) and when we were done he said something to me in Spanish which for the life of me I couldn’t catch.

The people managing the event requested that we wait for photos if we wanted to take photos. So ever the rule-abiding gal I was the one person who waited all the way to the very end (I had to wait for my ride anyway) and I finally got my photo taken with Junot. I kind of made a fool of myself at this point, because I told the young woman holding my phone to “take as many” as she could. After we were done he went off with his wife, some family friends, and writer Peter Straub.

I’m relieved to have survived this celebrity encounter. To be honest, in the days leading up to the talk I had actually contemplated not going. Of course I’m so glad I went. Now I’ll have to brace myself once again when I go see Khaled Hosseini in a couple of weeks. I have no idea what to say to him.

 

Q&A. Sorry, quite a bit blurry...

Q&A. Sorry, quite a bit blurry…

 

"Hi, I'm Junot." He said this to every reader.

“Hi, I’m Junot.” He said this to every reader and he signed his books standing up the whole time.

 

That's me on the left. I know, there's some irony in making myself invisible in a picture with the writer who makes me feel visible. Unfortunately, I looked terrible that day (why hadn't I chosen my outfit more carefully) and I'm also trying to remain somewhat anonymous on this blog.

That’s me on the left. I know, there’s some irony in making myself invisible in a photo with the writer who’s given me my reflection. Unfortunately, I looked terrible that day (why hadn’t I chosen my outfit more carefully) and I’m also trying to remain as anonymous as I can on this blog.

 

IMG_0407

 

Have you met any authors? Which author would you most like to meet? And what would you say to him or her?

24 comments on “Meeting Junot Díaz

  1. I am borderline obsessed with Junot Diaz. His thoughts, his interviews, his work, his writing, his passion, his tireless advocacy for voices of color! I want nothing more in my professional/aspirational life than to be in a class led by him. Nothing more, I tell you. NOTHING.

    • Cecilia says:

      I hear you, Alexandra! I am so envious of those students at MIT and I actually wondered if it would be appropriate for me to drop by during his office hours when I was in town this spring…you should check out his workshop in CA!

  2. rudrip says:

    Cecilia, I love your portrayal of Junot Diaz. He seems so humble and giving of his talent. I had no idea that he never promotes his books on his FB page. He strikes me as writer’s writer (Does that make sense?) Have you read Drown? Powerful short-story collection.

    I enjoy attending readings. I’ve had the privilege of meeting several authors. The writers that made an impression were: Anne Patchett (personable and gracious about her talent), Malcolm Gladwell (phenomenal speaker), Sandra Cisneros (kind and quirky) and Dani Shapiro (informative and encouraging).

    • Cecilia says:

      You’ve met some wonderful writers, Rudri! Wow, and you’ve gotten me intrigued by Malcolm Gladwell. Unfortunately we don’t get a lot of “big” writers coming our way but that seems to be changing recently.

      Yes, I’ve found Junot Diaz to be very giving – he has a mission to do greater good rather than promote his own name and fame. Maybe that is what sets him apart from many other writers in my mind.

  3. Emily J. says:

    He sounds amazing! I love the quote about monsters and reflections. That is so true. I haven’t read any of his work, but now it looks like I must. Thanks for this. :)

    • Cecilia says:

      As a heads up his language can be quite strong (profanity, sex)…an interesting blend of literary and street language. But I personally find it compelling! I’ll be curious to know what you think. :-)

  4. graceeting says:

    I’ve actually been wanting to read This is How You Lose Her since I love the title (also haven’t read anything by him since The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao).

    On a more general note, I always feel a sort of tension when it comes to the prospect of meeting an author, mirroring the way I approach a text with the anticipation of challenging its writer. I’ve been thinking that I need to come to terms with how I approach fiction. As a child, I simply soaked up everything like a sponge, but gradually I became more & more critical of “literature,” partly through my training as a literary scholar, but–even earlier–through my own realizations concerning how stories are structured, the certain amount of artifice involved, the structural injustices underlying why specific stories are elevated over others, etc. It’s because I do care that I cannot simply “admire” literature. I don’t even think of myself as *extremely* knowledgeable ever, but I get angry or irritated when I read author’s comments (in essays, newspapers, etc.), and they are egotistical, trite, ahistorical, etc. There are so many renowned authors I’ve read whose texts are racist, sexist, or ignorant in some other way. I wonder if there is a way for me to approach authors/texts with more compassion instead of inadvertently looking down upon the average fiction writer. Maybe it would be easier if I didn’t feel sometimes like I’m talking to a wall, since authors probably don’t expect pushback from scholars most of the time.

    For me, it’s always like I’m arming myself for battle in some way–trying to talk, but often being ignored, belittled, misunderstood. It’s a beautiful thing to have a text let you sense that you are, indeed, taking up space and alive. It’s sort of similar to how I feel when I meet another scholar, writer, or artist who speaks the language–like making a new friend.

    • Cecilia says:

      Ignorance is bliss, eh? I can totally see how your studies and, really, your career have made you much more critical of literature and rightly so. I am nowhere near your level, but after taking even one writing class a few years ago I noticed that I began reading fiction much more differently – I’d start looking at the writing style and devices whereas in the past I would just assess a book based on my enjoyment of it. This makes for both a richer and more frustrating experience. Is it very hard for you to read for fun?

      When you said that you feel like you are talking to a wall many times, or that you are ignored or belittled, is this during your studies or research (do you have many opportunities to speak with writers?)?

      • graceeting says:

        Thanks for your reply, Cecilia. Sorry, I get sorta rantish when certain topics come up. ^_^; Yes, I definitely have problems reading for fun, which is ironic since I research fiction that’s generally considered less serious & more fun. Ha. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy anything at all, but as I’m reading, part of my head is occupied with taking everything apart. What sort of writing class was it that you took? Did you write short stories or poetry? My writing professors at Wellesley were lovely.

        And I probably feel ignored, etc. when “talking” with not just real people, but also texts. When I read certain writers, it’s obvious that they expect the person reading to also be male, Japanese, straight, etc. As for real people, I met a Japanese author last fall, and she knew I was getting a Ph.D. and researching her work, but said, “oh, can you actually read my books in Japanese?!” I presented at a workshop, and faculty were a bit rude making assumptions about my lack of knowledge as a foreigner, etc. Maybe I loved reading fiction so much as a kid because it *didn’t* involve real people–it was a safe space where I could escape. ^_^;; Unfortunately, as you get older and read more broadly, this doesn’t seem to be possible anymore. Certain books will grate against you more even if you don’t become a researcher. What do you think? Not sure if it’s unusual that I had such an acute sense of this happening.

  5. Naomi says:

    What an amazing experience for you! I have still not read anything by him, but you have convinced me that I am missing out. I have actually had my eye on This is How You Lose Her since it came out. Is that a good one to start with, or would you suggest a different one?

    I have never been to an event or experience like this. The closest I have come to meeting an author who is relatively well-known (but probably only in Canada, and even then, only by avid readers of CanLit) is the few times I have seen Leo McKay walking his dog on my street. He lives in my town, but because he does, I feel even more nervous to meet him. Weird, I know.

    Let us know how your meeting with Khaled Hosseini goes! I wouldn’t know what to say, either, by the way. I would probably just smile and say thank you.

    • Cecilia says:

      Oh, I would feel nervous too, if an author lived in my town :-) It’s funny how we view even remotely public figures with such nervousness, as if they are different from us. A few years ago I finally met my on-line writing teacher (a successful published author, though not a big national name) at a literary festival and I told her I was so nervous, that I felt I was meeting a celebrity. She waved me off quickly in a “Oh, that’s nonsense” gesture ;-)

      I also started with This is How You Lose Her and then worked backwards and read Drown recently. A character named Yunior narrates the majority of the stories in both books, with Drown covering Yunior’s childhood through early adulthood and This is How You Lose Her focusing on Yunior’s young adult dating period. It wasn’t a problem for me to read in this order and I enjoyed This is How You Lose Her more, but if you want to go in order you may want to start with Drown.

      Will definitely write another post on Khaled Hosseini!

  6. How Exciting – What FUN! I have a few mystery writers I would love to meet and pick their brains. Thanks so much for sharing – Happy Thursday :)

  7. So excited for you to have this opportunity to meet a writer who means so much to you. I haven’t read any of his books, but I was struck by some of those quotes you chose.

    • Cecilia says:

      Thanks! I also had a chance to hear Khaled Hosseini talk last night (total stroke of luck that these 2 writers would be in town this spring) and so will post about that soon!

      • Amazing! You are so lucky and I can’t wait to read your post. I have And The Mountains Echoed on my list to read and I think the paperback is coming out, so maybe I’ll read it this summer.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!!! I would have been tongue-tied meeting Junot as well — in fact, I probably would not have said anything, as he has stated in previous interviews that “White people need to shut the f*** up.” All I can do is read the tremendous things that he writes and attempt to learn something from them.
    I was absolutely petrified when I met Ishmael Beah at the American Library Association conference, so I can relate. I thought that I was going to say something to him about how much his memoir affected me, but I couldn’t – so good for you for being brave and having an actual conversation with your literary idol!!!
    A final note: I love what Junot said about fidelity. I sometimes get… not made fun of, exactly, but looked at sideways, if that makes sense… because I am in a very solid, long-term relationship and there is absolutely nothing “new age” about it. I’m very liberal in politics but quite conservative when it comes to my relationships, I suppose! (Assuming that “fidelity” is indeed a conservative concept, in contrast with the sexual “liberty” that was promoted during third wave feminism).
    P.S. I don’t blame you for not putting up a photo of yourself on a bad wardrobe day! If I’m having a bad hair day or just generally feel disheveled, I will flat out refuse to be photographed, haha.

    • Cecilia says:

      Oh goodness, what an awful quote (“White people need to shut the f*** up.”). He is racially charged…I can see how that can be alienating or just difficult for many readers…but I love that you still love him.

      Well, I also met Khaled Hosseini yesterday!! I didn’t say anything except “Thank you so much for coming.” although I was starry-eyed after listening to him speak. He was much less engaging in the book sign-up than Junot Diaz was and things were moving quickly.

      That is weird that you might be looked at oddly because you believe in fidelity! I am the same as you – liberal politically but loyal to my family. To me they are two different things though I can see how some people might equate sexual freedom with liberalness. In that case we would need partners who have the same expectations!

      • Yes, it’s not the most—ahem—welcoming thing that Junot Díaz has ever said, but I think I understand at least partially where he is coming from. A lot of “diversity” and “inclusion” movements have been co-opted by precisely the institutions that they are attempting to change—I just think of my own University’s “diversity” initiatives, which are rather blatant attempts to increase the *perception* that there are more minority students at the school, without doing much to help minorities do better in classes or address the latent racism on the campus.
        Khaled Hosseini!! Look at you! I’ve read Kite Runner and Thousand Splendid Suns, and Mountains Echoed is next on my list. :)

  9. Lee-Anne says:

    What a terrific experience, Cecilia! I love the quotes you shared. I have never read any of Junot Diaz’s work, but it does sound intriguing. Thank you for posting about the reading.

    For a few years I managed independent bookshops in Kingston, Ontario and Victoria, British Columbia. The local authors would tend to shop there so we would get to know them casually which was a real treat. One of the perks of my job was getting to take visiting authors out for dinner before events. Some were writers like Pierre Berton, Timothy Findley, Mordecai Richler, Anne Rice, W.O. Mitchell, Barbara Gowdy, Diane Schoemperlen…mostly well-known Canadians, and others were people focusing on other careers who had written a book, like national anchorman Knowlton Nash (who died yesterday), or Olympic equestrian Ian Miller. My absolute favourite author to meet was broadcaster Stuart MacLean who hosts The Vinyl Cafe radio program on CBC and reads one of his short stories each week. He was a delight, and a gracious and generous person to spend time with. I did find it fascinating how anxious most authors were to appear in public. Some were terrified to have to promote their books to a crowd and way more nervous than the fans who were coming to meet them. I miss those days :)

    • Cecilia says:

      How wonderful that you had once managed independent bookstores! That would be a dream job for me though I don’t know if my nerves could withstand all those author meetings! It’s very interesting what you wrote about authors being nervous…I saw Khaled Hosseini in a talk yesterday and he seemed visibly nervous in the beginning, despite being in celebrity ranks. We often forget that writers are introverted people, which is why they write. Thanks for sharing your story :-)

  10. Carolyn O says:

    I just wanted you to know that this post made me go out and buy my first Junot Diaz book after I’d been meaning to for about a year and a half. Can’t wait!

  11. […] Junot Díaz earlier this spring, which I posted about here. Years ago when Memoirs of a Geisha came out I also had a chance to meet Arthur Golden at his […]

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