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November 18, 2013

Junot Diaz: Fueling the Imaginary


Hundreds of fans --- mostly in their 20s --- gathered to hear Junot Diaz (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of DROWN, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, and THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER) interviewed by Publishers Weekly and PW Comics editor Calvin Reid on Friday night in New York City. The gorgeous United Palace in Washington Heights hosted the event, which was sponsored by community bookshop Word Up.

While the audience may have been primarily young (a wonderfully encouraging sign of the passion that Diaz, fiction editor for the Boston Review and writing professor for MIT, inspires in younger readers), it was inclusive of all ages and ethnicities. As an author, Diaz speaks to a wide range of cultures. (“How many people here are Hispanic?” he asked at the beginning of the program. “How many are Dominican? How many are of African descent? I’m going to name all the groups who can claim me….”) He makes a habit of speaking of “the imaginary” in each culture, because it’s important to him. Are you represented in the imaginary (books, TV, movies) that surrounds you? Do you see yourself in the characters and do you see your friends, family, and neighbors?

The question was explored in-depth as Diaz celebrated the release of the illustrated version of THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER from Riverhead Books. This new edition features stunning drawings from indie-comics legend Jaime Hernandez, who, along with his brother Gilbert, revolutionized the graphic world in the 1980s with LOVE AND ROCKETS. Even though LOVE AND ROCKETS was an exploration of Mexican culture in California, Diaz --- who grew up in New Jersey --- found much to relate to in the book. It was the first time, he said, that he found people like him and his family represented without being a criminal. It was 1985. Diaz was still in his teens. And he had discovered a comic series that would become incredibly important to him.

Today, we have come much, much further in our media representations of various cultures than we had in the ’80s, but it would be hard to argue that we’ve come far enough. Certainly Diaz would challenge any such notion. “When they’ve made a movie about every white vampire, every white werewolf, every white wizard,” he noted, that’s when they’ll get around to making movies that truly represent the diaspora of cultures.

Where is our “imaginary”? The question from Diaz is thought-provoking. Are we embracing the cultures, the subcultures, the minorities and “others” who permeate our society? If you belong to a minority group, how is the truth of your world and your community presented through media to those who are outside of that group?

Diaz is a writer who speaks his own truth unequivocally, which is often challenging to readers, and he certainly doesn’t curtail that truth when he’s on stage. When a member of the audience told Diaz that her mother couldn’t finish his latest book because of the language used, Diaz --- who likes to use expletives quite freely and frequently --- explained why these words are important to him. “Your mother,” he told the woman, “comes from that generation where literature had to be beautiful and poetic. But sometimes the truth isn’t pretty.” We need, he argued, the ugly, foul-mouthed truth in our art…or at least in his art. Without it, we turn away from the things we need to confront.

The best art is slow art, Diaz maintained, remarking on his own writing pace. It was a sentiment that was not lost on this audience, seemingly made up of quite a few aspiring writers (at one point, Diaz asked for a show of hands from the various writers and artists in the group). While a large part of Friday night’s discussion focused on LOVE AND ROCKETS and the series’ impact on Diaz and comics culture in general, it was clear the audience wanted to move into the political arena and the cultural one. Questions about the Dominican Republic’s recent law stripping hundreds of thousands of Haitians of their Dominican citizenship (Diaz vigorously opposes the law and drew strong applause when he voiced his disdain for it). On the cultural front, several members of the audience were writers themselves who wanted to pick Diaz’s brain for tips --- and for advice on navigating MFA programs. Suffice to say, Diaz is no fan of MFA writing courses, for a number of reasons. For one, he noted his opposition to he easily and casually the art of writing has been monetized. (“No way would I go into debt for that,” he remarked.) Worse, though, is the “economy of prejudice” he notices in those programs (“Why are you buying their books” --- meaning the professors and teachers at these schools --- “when they won’t buy yours?”). Even the advice of your fellow students in these programs is suspect, he said. What up-and-coming writer is going to give you unbiased advice and feedback? Write for the people who are going to buy and appreciate your voice, your art, your truth. Those people are not going to be surrounding you in your MFA program, Diaz said, and all you’re going to end up with for your trouble is a mountain of debt. Instead, he recommended, surround yourself with a group of peers. “Where are your sisters of color?” he asked one woman who had asked for some writing advice. “Meet with them at least once a week,” he said, in order to build a community that propels and supports your art.

Clearly, Diaz has built that community, and it loves him. Watching him speak for 90 minutes on the issues of his art, that much was clear. And it was obvious the audience didn’t want the night to end. But that’s the effect of art that touches the soul and resonates.