A Look Inside the Mind of Junot Díaz

On October 9th, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Junot Díaz graced the stage of Kenyon College’s very own Rosse Hall. The crowd in Rosse was filled to the brim with Kenyon students and faculty, various members of the community, a group of students from the Ohio State University, a mother and daughter pair from West Virginia, and even an alum who flew in all the way from Texas. So to say the least, people were excited to see the author of This is How You Lose Her, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Drown.

 

Not all heroes wear capes...

Gripping the microphone with both hands, Díaz walked out onto the platform clad in a grey zip-up hoodie and a pair of dark washed jeans. The revolutionary idea that an internationally-renowned author could wear such similar articles of clothing to you and I suddenly made him appear so much more human, and the room seemingly let out a collective sigh of relief when seeing him. Well, at least that’s how I felt in that moment after eagerly awaiting his arrival for weeks. The face of that intangible name that runs across the front of so many of our favorite books had suddenly become tangible. It had materialized right in front of us and all of a sudden that name became much more than a name. Thus, our evening with Junot Díaz began and I don’t think one person in that room could have possibly predicted what was to unfold in the following moments.

Unlike most readings, Díaz began the night with a portion that he deemed the time “when a community shows its quality:” Q&As. However, Díaz did not ask for questions from just anyone. After looking out at the predominantly white room before him, Díaz asked that the first round of questions be from women of African descent. The whole room immediately fell silent. My eyes searched the room and the number of women of color, like myself, was scarce.

What Díaz did, called progressive stacking, took many in the room aback. It’s a technique used with the intent to give marginalized groups in society a greater chance to sound their voices, such as asking for questions specifically from women of African descent as Díaz had in this case. It is a very important and intentional decision a person in authority, such as Díaz, can make because it uses that authoritative position to help shine a light on those that are often left in the dark in conversations and discouraged from speaking.

The questions that were to follow opened up the room to a conversation on identity; questions on race, authenticity, free speech and more. Díaz spoke to us freely and candidly about what was going on in his mind in these “disturbing and profoundly unsurprising political times” from everything from the current presidential administration to zombies. Yes, zombies. He explained to us his interpretation on fantastical figures depicting a race war. More simply, at the center of most zombie and many fantasy tales (i.e. The Walking Dead, the X-Men franchise, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, etc.) lies a white narrative fighting against a highly racialized “other.” In a world threatened by the “other” more publicly now than in recent previous years, these narratives perpetuate the negative instinct to fight against all that feels foreign to us. Díaz also discussed racial identity as a whole; what it means to be black, white, or anywhere in between, especially what it means to Latinx. Here, it allowed Díaz to discuss the complexity of identity. He pointed out how we must not only acknowledge but also tolerate one another’s complexities in our identities. People are “so busy performing caricatures of themselves” and if each one of us “put down their masks...all of us would be in a different place.”

 

Authenticity goes a long way.

There are many authors that grace my list of favorites, and one of the reasons why Díaz makes an appearance on this list was reinforced by this evening: Díaz is authentic. He is not solely authentically Dominican, nor American, nor Dominican-American. He is authentically him. Often being one of, if not, the only brown person in the room, I find myself being thrown questions about racial and ethnic diversity, such as questions about what is politically correct in regards to race. However, Díaz writes unapologetically; he’ll use a Spanish word in his text and will not include a glossary or footnotes to explain the meaning to his readers, which reminds me that is it isn’t his job to explain every detail of his identity to others, why should it be mine?

In the United States, the cis-white-male narrative of conquest and conquering (and zombies) infests our mainstream world. It’s what sells. What is so important about Díaz’s voice is that his widespread success opens the door for other members of marginalized groups to break through into the world of literature as well. If you take a renowned Latino author and put him on a stage, people will listen to him. Just by existing he reminds mainstream America that there is not one traditional style of creative writing and that there is not one to speak “American.” At the very least, he empowers writers all over; Latinx, bilingual, immigrants, and first-generation writers. This is what he has done for me.

Immediately after the talk, a peer of mine turned to me and said that he wished Díaz spoke more about his writing. And while, yes I would’ve loved to have had many more hours with Díaz to talk about everything under the sun, but I can google interviews and find countless hours of him discussing his writing and his process. But to get inside Díaz’s candid consciousness like we just had? Now, that is priceless. And it was what the room needed.

Díaz is not the voice for the Latinx community, though his voice has become important to many of us. I understand that he is only one voice, but seeing him on the stage of Rosse Hall was empowering because I will most likely never see a speaker sharing my Dominican ethnicity on that stage again. At the end of the reading, Díaz stayed for a signing, in which I somehow managed to be first in line for. And somehow without fumbling over my words, I managed to say, “From one Dominican author to another, thank you.” So again, thank you, Junot Díaz, for giving the Kenyon College community a night many of us will never forget. Until then, I’m just trying to figure out how to take his class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2

 

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