Culture & Conversation

What We Talk About When We Talk About Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz

“Most of us f*cking feel you can’t grow up with African descent in this f*cking hemisphere and not be like [insert Diaz’s middle finger here].”

Junot Diaz’s let’s-get-real statements like this one roused and charmed a packed audience during his conversation with Montreal-based author Heather O’Neill on Thursday night at The Rialto Theatre, an event sponsored by Blue Metropolis and Librarie Drawn and Quarterly.

The Dominican American writer has published three books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and two short story collections, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. At the event, the room was the most charged when the Diaz discussed the ways weighty issues like white supremacy and sexism collide with his work. O’Neill kicked things off by asking Diaz about his choice to use the Spanish language in his predominantly English writing.

For Diaz, who spent the first 20 years of his life in a multilingual community (which he described as “the less murderous Pequod”), deploying the subtleties of the Spanish language in his fiction creates an emotional space that an immediate, direct translation would never be able to communicate, he said.

“When you’re on the Pequod, you are aware that simply shouting something in one language isn’t necessarily going to produce communication,” said Diaz, who is the recipient of this year’s Blue Metropolis Azul Prize. “It might seem funny, but I do think [where I grew up] had enormous impact in the way I thought about just even common places that most of us take for granted.”

Diaz said his fascination with his character Oscar Wao, the overweight, bullied, sci-fi nerd protagonist of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was produced not by autobiographical content, but by an enormous amount of “survivors guilt.” As a child, the self-proclaimed oddball of his family was protected from ridicule by his siblings’ street cred, an outcome of heteronormative masculine privilege, he said.

“I kind of grew up in a family [where], when it came to the masculine Olympics, we were kind of the winners,” he said. “… We were kind of the models in some way. My older brother was hyper violent, really tough, [someone who garnered] tons of respect, and in some ways it afforded me a measure of protection, a measure of breathing space.”

That wasn’t the case for other kids like him, who he constantly watched get tormented by their more macho peers.

Diaz also spoke about problems with contemporary masculinity. In a typical love story, boy meets girl, but in a Junot Diaz love story, O’Neill said, the story starts at “boy cheats on girl.” Diaz rebutted: if a reader counted to see how often infidelity shows up in his stories and chapters, “it’s not even half, you guys.”

Diaz explained that the character of Yunior, who reoccurs throughout Diaz’s work as a sexist, cheating and emotionally stunted individual, is representative of a real and prominent type of male.

“What does it mean that so many of the guys that I grew up with long for the very thing they seem to be illiterate at, which is intimacy?” Diaz asked. “What does that mean to all of us, what does it mean for the collective?”

By the end of the conversation, Diaz drove home the challenges that non-white and non-male authors face. An audience isn’t guaranteed, he said. Especially if you’re a person of color writing about people of color.

“It’s just not the way it works, and I think women writers feel the same way,” Diaz said. “They know the kinds of privileges that are afforded to white, straight men, [and the] bourgeois, it’s not the same. … My sense of my career is being informed by the history of people-of-color artists whose trajectories never follow the classic great white artist.”

When the microphones were turned over to the audience for a Q&A session, many of the questions focused on Diaz’s critiques of the Dominican treatment of Haitians and highly problematic immigration policies across the globe.

“What used to be called the first world made the reality of what is currently called the global south so unbearably inhuman that people are risking their lives in ways that would have been unimaginable a hundred years back,” he said.

The audience seemed grateful for Diaz’s honest take on a subject that many agreed needs to be a much larger, more forthright conversation.

“What’s wonderful about Junot Diaz is that his voice, his critiques and his experiences have been able to penetrate into arenas traditionally dominated by white, well-to-do men,” said audience member Malek Yalaoui, a poet and community organizer active in local struggles for migrant justice, women’s rights and racial equality.

Blue Metropolis opened on Monday, April 20th and runs until April 26th. 

Rebecca Fishow is a writer and visual artist living in Montreal. Her work has appeared in The Believer Logger, Necessary Fiction, the Fiddleback and elsewhere. She is the Interviews Editor for Cosmonauts Avenue.

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