Friday, September 7, 2007

Thursday Evening at the Union Square Barnes & Noble: Junot Diaz

This post is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Friday, September 7, 2007:

Thursday Evening at the Union Square Barnes & Noble: Junot Diaz

I've just come from seeing Junot Diaz, probably my favorite American fiction writer under 40, at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. I would not be surprised if he is still in the store, signing books for the crowds that lined up after his reading, remarks, and the question-and-answer period. Not only is he a remarkable writer, but in person Diaz is enormously likable: completely unpretentious but self-possessed, very funny and spontaneous and also thoughtful and incredibly earnest about writing, literature and art.

When I first read his stories in The New Yorker in the mid-1990s, I was hooked by his voice and how seemless his fiction appeared. I've read his 1996 story collection Drown about seven times, and I've also taught it, the first time when I was a visiting professor of Legal Studies at Nova Southeastern University for the 1999-2000 school year. Although I mostly taught constitutional history, political and civil rights, and other legal studies subjects, I worked in the humanities division and asked to teach a section of the core curriculum called Other Voices, Other Visions: A Multicultural Perspective. I used Drown as part of what I turned into a course on then-recent American immigrant and minority literature, along with books by Sherman Alexie, Edwidge Danticat (the Haitian-American author I also adore -- and so does Diaz, who said he's read "Edwidge's new memoir" three times, although it just came out; both their books got side-by-side rave reviews from Michiko Kakutani in Tuesday's New York Times), Bharati Mukherjee, Gish Jen and others that term.

Since then I've taught the book again, as well as stories from it (including the hysterically funny and poignant "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie" even to kids at Phoenix's Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School).

All of us who loved his stories were waiting for Diaz's long-awaited novel, and now we're rewarded with what sounds like something worth the eleven year hiatus, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

I got to Barnes and Noble by 6:25 p.m. for the 7:00 p.m. reading and already most of the 250 or so seats on the store's fourth floor had been taken. Even downstairs I could see his devoted fans looking through the books on sale, quoting passages to each other. It looked as if about 50 people were left standing behind the ropes once every folding chair in the audience was taken.

A couple of minutes before 7:00 p.m., after a B&N staff member had given us the usual drill about getting books signed, taking photos, shutting off cell phones, etc., I heard spontaneous applause, and I looked back (I was sitting on the aisle on the east side of the store) and saw Diaz walking to the front of the room. He wore a white guyabera and black jeans and was followed by (nobody seemed to mention this), Walter Moseley (in black shirt, pants and hat) and a few others.

Maria, the B&N events coordinator, said from the podium, "Junot Diaz, it's been a long, long, long time" as the applause got louder and louder. She then gave a formal introduction: born in the Dominican Republic, raised in New Jersey, his acclaimed stories and first collection, his numerous awards, and now this "novel that brought Michiko Kakutani to her knees," etc.

Diaz seemed kind of taken aback by the welcome, thanked everyone for coming, said as he walked up to the podium he'd seen "people I haven't seen in ten years and shit..."

"So how you guys doin'?" he asked. Lots of applause. "Lots of young heads here," Diaz said, and then he mentioned that the youngest was Kayla, only nine years old, daughter of his friends "who shouldn't even be here...Kayla, I'm sorry I dragged your family out and shit."

He said he'd do the standard thing: we'd hear a short reading, have a Q & A session and then get drunk: "Well, some of us will get drunk afterward."

And he began by reading a "footnote," not something by himself but by J.R.R. Tolkien ("Wish I could do a good British accent"):

'I am the Elder king: Melkor, first and mightiest of all the Valar, who was before the world, and made it. The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.'

"I just wanted to hear that said aloud," Diaz said, and then mentioned that on his way to the store a street person had taught him a new word, meaning "the study of evil." He even called a friend who checked it out online, and the street dude was correct. Diaz asked if anyone in the audience knew the word. No one did.

"It's ponerology," Diaz said, then spelled it out and said it's weird that "nobody in the United States knows that goddam word, knowing how familar we are with evil."

Then he began reading an early passage from Oscar Wao: the narrator, Yunior, a Rutgers student, gets jumped on the streets of New Brunswick and beaten badly: "laid...the fuck out." The next day, hurting so bad he vomits when he stands up, he finds that only one friend will stay with him and take care of him till he gets better (just after the beating, he refuses a good samaritan's offer to drive him to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital because Yunior distrusts doctors after his brother's death from leukemia): Lola, an odd-looking but strangely charismatic sorority president and SALSA head, who -- unlike Yunior -- speaks "perfect stuck-up Spanish." There's a great scene of Lola sponge-washing Yunior's back as part of her ministrations to "sew...his balls back on" and get him better.

Then Yunior relates his history with Lola, how their brief affair ended when guilt made her feel horrible about cheating on her boyfriend. Like many in the audience, I thought the passage Diaz read was riveting; he got incredible applause, said a few words, got even more applause.

"You motherfuckas are so funny," he said. "If I do anything, you'll applaud." He hoped, he said, we were at least more discriminating than the previous night's live audience on The Tonight Show, who applauded everything "that new dude running for President" -- Fred Thompson -- said, even when he stated, "I don't feel I should apologize for anything America does."

"Oh shit," Diaz said about that. "Oh man, that is wild. That's some shit to teach kids: cold-stab your teacher and it's fucking good." He said most of the Presidential candidates were asking us to vote for their blind spots and urged the audience to see the Thompson clips on YouTube. (Diaz claimed he watched Jay Leno only because Agent of Love wasn't on.)

Then he brought things back to ponerology, the study of evil, before beginning his reading of a later passage in the book, when Yunior is rooming at Rutgers with Lola's brother Oscar, who's enormously fat and speaks Elvish ("A lot of my students speak Elvish," said Diaz.)

Diaz interrupted himself to ask if anyone in the audience went to Rutgers, and a few people called out enthusiastically. "That's really just three people," Diaz said, laughing. To them, he said, "They treat us so bad and we love them so much." He asked all the Rutgers alumni which dorms they lived in and while saying the school was "so bizarre," he made it clear that it played an important role in his development as an artist and a person and noted that "it's got a women's studies department the size of many colleges."

In the second passage Diaz read, Yunior -- a character who appears in many of Diaz's stories and who, one must assume, is sort of a stand-in for the author (there's a brief mention that Yunior writes stories -- like all college playboys around the beginning of October, gets bopped by his girlfriend after she catches him slutting around. She plays a tape of their phone call around campus, and Yunior is basically fucked for a while (if you think he's going to check into booty rehab, Yunior notes, "you don't know any Dominican men") -- giving him time to concentrate on changing the life of his roommate Oscar, Lola's obese, sf-obsessed, ungainly brother who uses words as huge as he is.

After they've watched This Island Earth, Project A and other weird movies Oscar's picked out, Yunior embarks on remaking his roommate, focusing on "something redemptive and easy."

(When Diaz interrupts the narrative, he gets back to it by briefly summarizing and then saying "blah blah blah" -- he's probably the funniest young novelist I've ever heard read.)

Oscar admits to Yunior he'd like to change but "nothing ameliorative" has worked so far. Yunior asks Oscar to put himself in Yunior's hands and Oscar says, "I swear an oath of obedience to you, my lord."

So at 6 a.m. the next day Yunior kicks Oscar's bed, tossing him sneakers, saying, "This is the first day of your new life." He forces Oscar (who admits he's "lacking in pulchritude") to, among other things, stop going up to random females with embarrassing conversation and run every morning (despite catcalls and one little girl saying, "Look, Mom, that guy's taking his planet out for a run").

Soon Oscar stops spending 24/7 at his computer writing sf and stops going up to girls and talking crap to them without ever touching one, though he's still prone to talk to Yunior about whether if they were Orcs, would real cool women still imagine him to be an elf.

Anyway, Oscar manages to get to the point where Yunior can take him out for a drink -- with a crowd, though, so he's not so obvious -- but finally the guy just stops running one morning and says he'll never shake his big black knees that way again: "I will run again no more." And from then on he bartlebys Yunior with "I'd rather not" at every suggestion to improve his status till eventually, in frustration, Yunior pushes his roommate to the point where he crashes against the wall, hard.

Lola, now in Spain, wakes Yunior up a few days later with a phone call: "What the fuck's your problem?"

"Go fuck yourself," Yunior says.

"Fuck you, Yunior," Lola says and hangs up.

"Motherfucker," Yunior screams and throws the phone at the window.

--Wow. Diaz's reading ends with a moment of silence, then lots of clappping.

Then he takes a few question from the audience. It's hard to hear the first question, but Diaz says, "Thank you," and then repeats it. A young man has asked how Diaz manages to come up with a perfect title.

"'Cause I couldn't come up with a better one," the author says. "All the way up to the end I was trying new titles." Sipping from a bottle of water, he says usually he likes one-word titles and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was basically his "surrogate title" all along.

Question 2: Does he worry about alienating readers with all the Spanglish and Spanish in the book.

Diaz said his biggest fear is that people will get mad at him because of this or that in a book or story, but that ultimately he can't worry about that. A number of his friends, he said, don't like his use of big words in the novel; others are offended by so much science fiction stuff because "that's not Dominican...we always knew you really weren't." Another friend complained: "You're using Cuban words, you dumbass."

To that, Diaz says: "Look, guys, I can't say it enough" -- at this point he spots a familiar face in the audience and shouts, "Amy!" -- "Fuck [the people who criticize your work]."

And then: "It bears repeating: when you spend a long time on an artistic project, you have to trust that product eventually. Whether people respond is not so important as taking risks... You're an artist -- the most important thing: take risks."

And then if your friends are pissed off by your using a French word, it doesn't matter because "if you can trust the damn thing, the rest won't matter... If you throw your heart out, some people -- even some little nerd, she's somewhere in southern New Jersey -- will like it."

Question 3 is the usual one about his literary influences and what he's reading now. Diaz mentions "being obsessed with" Patrick Chamoiseau's novel Texaco. "You've got to steal from stuff," he says. He mentions Edward P. Jones, "the greatest writer," saying he'd stolen the structure of his last book from Jones' Lost in the City. "Steal from people better than you."

He said he's also reading the "nightmare," World Without Oil as well as The Unnatural History of the Sea.

As far as literary stuff, he expressed extreme admiration for "Edwidge's memoir" (Brother, I'm Dying), which he's already read three times even though it just came out.

And then: "Guys, this is a hard gig, being a writer, even if you're one of those who knock out a book a year." It's the "tremendous comforting space" of "the company of other books" that "talk to you and teach you."

"Read as much as humanly possible," Diaz says finally.

The next questioner asks how long the characters in the novel have "been with" Diaz.

"However long something is," he says, "I'm strongly connected with it," then estimates that the characters have been with him for about seven years. He still "can't shake off" a couple of characters.

Then Diaz says that as a writer, you occasionally have to transform yourself into different characters, that it isn't enough to "just imagine" them" because your own limitations will prevent you from presenting the characters correctly.

He says that through writing some characters, he's had to learn to be more consiento or compassionate, and this "personal transfromation" has enabled him to write certain characters.

"Your imagination is not as strong as your humanism," Diaz says. Sensing that's a fine place to end, he tells the audience, "Thank you for coming," and after the applause finally dies down, the B&N staff explain the drill for the autographing sessions: being called up one row at a time, yes he will personalize the books (not all authors do), but no photos of yourself with Diaz -- you can take pictures before and after you leave the podium if you don't blind him with the flash, etc.

According to this excellent account at devour books. poop words, not just of the reading but of Angelle's encounter with Diaz -- "the nicest, most personable author I've ever met -- when he signed her book, Diaz stayed at the Union Square bookstore a really long time. I'm sure his fans appreciated it.

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