I arrived at Dutton's late, sweating from a seven-blocks away parking meter sprint, assuming I'd missed the best of the night. I was wrong. I could hear his voice before I got to the door. As I crept in, I could see the snaking line of standing guests who were leaning against the shelves of books, heads raised in unison, listening to the rapturous voice of a man they could not see. That's how full it was. All the "reading seating" was full at Dutton's. And if you know Dutton's, you know that they have a lot of reading seating. The first aisle (A-F, I believe, or something close to it) of books was almost full of guests as well. They were standing or squatting or something in between, leaning forward or upward or both, just listening. They didn't need to see him, hearing him was enough.
Not for me.
I knew I'd never see his face if I didn't take my chances and move one book-aisle up. Somewhere amid the M's, I found I could get just close enough to both hear and see him. And my oh my was I glad I did. He spoke to me. Junot Diaz spoke to me. More on that later.
Even better, l liked him. He commanded the room. His voice and his energy filled it, stretched across the span of seating and many a book aisle and the open door and the vast courtyard. His energy was big and loud and boisterous and it worked. He, the professor. We, his students. He was full of advice and insight and wild abandon. He encouraged us to open our eyes wider, bigger, fuller. He wanted everyone to pursue their writing, their thinking, their living, to dig deeper. I've attended many readings in my day, but I've never seen a writer so full of exuberance, so thrilled to be sharing his work and his thoughts and his encouragement on how anyone in the audience might do the same.
This, I thought, is a man to have dinner with. And drinks. Every night for a week. Or more. Oh, the stories he could tell. I would eat them all up. Store them away for rainy days, sunny days, any days. After ten years and many re-readings of his short story collection Drown, I had no idea what to expect. Ten years is...well, a long time. I didn't know if he'd be a nut, a horrible bore, or something in between. Of all the things I might have imagined, this wasn't it. Were I lucky enough to have dinner with him, I know I'd never be able to keep up. He's smart and wickedly funny and terribly quick-witted. But oh the stories he must have locked within. It is only because of a wedding and a just-returned-from honeymoon that I haven't devoured The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao already. I intend to. Poste haste.
So what was he saying that packed the house and had everyone laughing before I even entered? Plenty:
- He spoke of the challenges one faces when writing in 2nd person. He said it has always been the most difficult for him, so he forces himself to write in 2nd person whenever he can. Parts of the novel are written in 2nd person for this reason.
- He then challenged the audience to raise their hand and share their experiences writing in 2nd person.
- When asked about the character Yunior in his novel, he said: Look, I'm always going for the penny solution. The cheapest, the easiest trick. I like to think of Yunior as a collective Yunior...bits of him reside in all of us.
- When asked if Yunior was an extension of characters in Drown, he spoke of not wanting to repeat himself. Of wanting to both write and read work that was original, that stretched both author and reader: You know in salsa? When you are dancing with someone who only knows two turns? You want to get off the dance floor as soon as possible.
- He did heaps of research for his book: historical research, tons of personal research, interviewing hundreds of people in Santo Domingo, even his grandparents.
He was so animated, so full of excitement for the craft of writing...it was a joy to be in his presence. He made you feel as if you were capable of anything. Anything. As long as you had the courage to try your hand at it. A treat. A delight.
But things really got interesting when he spoke about "authors of color." "Why is it that authors of color are always asked about authority?"
Why, indeed... More on that mid-week.
Until then, additional Diaz Resources:
Junot Diaz Wants You to Read These Books
Writer's Voice Junot Diaz podcast
Minnesota Public Radio Interview with Diaz
Kakutani's NYT Review
The Cornell Interview