It was 6:17 on a hot September evening and I was already in the front row. In Houston, you don’t want to bet against the traffic. I had breezed by three girls sitting on the sidewalk waiting to get in—they didn’t have tickets for Junot Diaz, so they hoped for the best. There’s an article floating around about how Facebook makes you all depressed because your life isn’t as fabulous as the newsfeed you see everyday, but that’s ridiculous. Thanks to Facebook, I got my ticket to the reading at the Brazos Bookstore within minutes of them being on sale. So there I was, not depressed at all, armed with my copy of This is How You Lose Her.
I told my students all about Diaz, that he is a big deal, he teaches at MIT, and that he will probably never read in such a small, intimate venue again. As I told them this, they cocked their heads. They don’t doubt me. They know he has gotten a lot of press, but they wondered, I suspect, if he is worth it. I really wish that they wouldn’t cock their heads that way.
Junot Diaz arrived five minutes late, but he apologized. He comes from a military family and it is a terrible thing to be late. (Later, he messaged me on Facebook saying he was there at 6:59, and was apologizing for almost being late, and followed this with “Ha!”) But the audience was unconcerned—this is Houston, after all, and he came all the way from Austin. He walked through the glass doors in the most casual way, wearing dark pants and a kelly green t-shirt with a bicycle built for two on it. I wondered if this was some kind of environmental statement. But then I was distracted because he was smaller and thinner than I thought he would be. In my pre-reading imagination, he was super tall, with an accent from the Dominican Republic—none of these things are true.
He spent a few minutes thanking Brazos, said there is no “beleaguered an institute as a bookstore.” I wondered if he was going to just thank everyone for existing, but then he said bookstores are essential for artists “because many of us writers are not living on werewolves and mommy porn.”
Diaz didn’t mince words, which is refreshing. This is true of his characters, of course; one sabotages his relationship with his girlfriend in the most believable colloquial language, saying, in This Is How You Lose Her, “a lot of the time she Bartlebys me, says, No, I’d rather not.” He does not mind describing European travelers to the Dominican Republic as “budget Foucaults”—not nice!—in his story “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars.” No wonder the room was full.
Diaz asked if anyone in the audience was from the Caribbean, from New Jersey, from anywhere he has a geographical affiliation. His psychological portraits of the competing claims of modern masculinity may have bilingual narrators such Yunior in the This Is How You Lose Her stories, or in Oscar Wao, but they are not unique to Dominican culture. Diaz was casual one minute—he spoke Spanish with audience members, asked if there are any students in the audience, asked why they are here on a Tuesday night—and then serious. He said we will have an hour, that we’d have a Q&A, and then a brief reading, and then more Q&A, and then the signings. I wondered if he was like this in his creative writing classes at MIT, willing to exude warmth but then undercut it, as he did when he said he was godfather to six children, which meant that, in the event of a tragic accident, he had been selected to send the children to private school. But then of course he must be, as that is how his sentences are—the casual conversational start, and then the surprise ending.
People asked Diaz about inspiration, and it is clear in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that he wanted to bring to life the first generation of college students that were from Santo Domingo or the Dominican neighborhoods of New Jersey. Diaz went to Rutgers, and felt, he told us, the “distance between worlds” with his ostensible peers—many of whom had been to elite schools and never so much as held a part-time job. He told us he wanted to write about a generation coming out of an oppressive dictatorship, and how even though Dominicans “screw the whole formula up” for figuring out race—since Dominicans have African, Dutch, and French influences, yet are, unsatisfactorily, placed under the umbrella of Latino/Latina culture—the story of the super nerds who are from these neighborhoods is an American one. This was part of his enterprise of asking “How do certain histories live inside of us after their expiration?” One could see this, and agree that Diaz’s interest and studies in history have come in handy, and that the legacy of a dictatorship is not easily shed.
I asked Diaz a question: in This is How You Lose Her, to whom is the narrator speaking? (He’d already been asked what books he reads, which seemed to exasperate him.) He told me that his narrator Yunior is “too busy pretending he is not smart,” and said he wanted to produce “uncensored masculine cogitation”—which he did. But his confessional narratives of masculine victimhood reveal much of what Diaz sees in men who are unavailable in important ways, even if they are not wholly aware of why or how. He said the reader is the authority and must decide who the narrator’s audience is. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t believe him, that I thought that the listener is the next girlfriend that Yunior is reeling in, and that we’d all been that female listening to this male tale of woe, and fallen for it—and his prose-poem confession is just the ticket. Diaz knows what he is talking about; he cited the male who cries “I lost that game” when a relationship ends, but reminded us that the man often wasn’t even playing—wasn’t even really in the relationship in a meaningful way—but still laments its loss even as he romanticizes it in retrospect. Diaz cited male acquaintances who are “devils” in a relationship, but “sentimental once it is over.” By the time he finished up, I was certain Diaz should replace Dr. Phil or Freud. He just seemed correct.
Some of the questions were so shaggy that Diaz paused to lecture about how to ask a question (“pitch’em one at a time”) without, somehow, being condescending about it. He knew there were students in the room and was simply being helpful. Lots of the students, grad students, asked him questions that seem unbelievable. He even asked, “Are you grad students punching up the thesis?” He told us lots of stuff: His characters don’t speak Spanglish, but rather engage in code-switching; he is a reader, and “the emblem of a reader is a bookshelf”; that the gothic is central to much fiction; that his identity as a writer is not even in the top four components of his identity. He is fascinated with theory; he used footnotes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to undermine authority rather than reinforce it; he is teaching a course on how to build a world inside of a novel at MIT. He said some things about creative writing, and then asked, as he signed my book, not to quote him so that he won’t get hate mail. He said that “reading across the board is collapsing” and that “there is no one less authorized to talk about the text than the writer,” but I don’t believe him.
But that’s the thing about Junot Diaz: He writes the great confessional narratives that may allow men to reveal how they mess up relationships, but he reveals a truth about women that only his use of language can confirm—no matter what the accomplishment or transgression, characters like Yunior can speak to women because they understand the seduction of confession itself. Even Desdemona fell for Othello because he told her stories about himself; Dido falls for Aeneas after she makes him tell her his whole life story. Yunior may lose Magda, but he wins the reader, every time.
In his recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, Diaz was asked, “So how do you keep her?” His answer: “By being honest and vulnerable and human and by being humble and putting her happiness over yours and most importantly by being happy yourself. But then again, you SO don’t want advice from me.” But when I walked out of that bookstore, and into the circles of grad students puffing away on cigarettes, I really did want advice from him. I think it was the way he talked. But then I thought about these lines from This Is How You Lose Her: “And that’s when I know it’s over. As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.” So then I knew it was the way he wrote.
Doni M. Wilson is an Associate Professor of Literature at Houston Baptist University where she also blogs for Reflection and Choice. Photo of Junot Diaz appearing recently at the Jaipur Literature Festival by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.