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