by Beatrice Paez in Toronto
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz owes his early literary education to the two local librarians who nurtured his love for reading.
The all-too-familiar story of unsupportive Dominican immigrant parents equating success with being a doctor applied to him, too, he said.
Diaz attended public school in a poor community in New Jersey, staffed by overworked teachers with little guidance to spare. He struck an unlikely friendship with two local librarians, though, who handpicked books that they thought he would enjoy.
“I didn’t receive the traditional mentorship,” Diaz said, addressing a diverse crowd at Mind the Gap: Crossing Imaginary Lines at the Toronto Reference Library.
Paying it forward
As part of Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue 2016 series, Diaz engaged in a lively discussion with Sri Lankan-American novelist and fiction writer Sunil Yapa about a writer’s relationship with readers and family, the notion of privilege, and their own upbringing.
“I did have very close relationships with my librarians, who introduced me to the things that mattered most,” he said. “They meant the world to me.”
Indebted to the librarians who broadened his outlook, Diaz said he decided years ago to pay-it-forward by helping to create space for other writers of colour in his work as a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and through activism.
“There were folks who had even less than I did. I found myself wanting to be helpful because part of me was dreaming of that for myself,” he said. “You still feel the debt you owe the world is enormous – even coming from an immigrant family.”
Resolving conflict in writing
Family was a natural point of conversation between Yapa and Diaz, who each had their own anxieties about being seen as different.
For Yapa, it was his dad’s inability to accurately pronounce the expression, “Hunky dory,” which describes something that is satisfactory. Diaz said he grew up “hating all that is Black,” even though he was well aware of his origins.
That much of his work revolves around family, as Yapa notes, is not lost on Diaz.
“Families are an evergreen subject,” he said. “We are attracted to the machinations of family because this is the vernacular we speak best.”
In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, about an overweight, nerdy boy obsessed with science fiction, Diaz mined the familial conflict in his own family by exploring the fraught relationship between mother and daughter in his characters.
“I had to first imagine not only my sister’s deep problematic relationship with my mother, but I actually had to figure out how they might figure out a way to gain compassion for each other,” he said.
He added that it was largely a way for him to reconcile his own relationship with his sisters, who had borne the brunt of their mother’s excessive discipline, which he escaped because he was a boy.
His sisters were punished for coming home at ungodly hours, while he wasn’t. Even as he witnessed this, he said he didn't grasp how it had affected their relationships until he realized he had failed to sympathize with them.
“It was important to me to maintain the innocence of my privilege,” he said. “People always insist on their innocence when they’re guilty.”
A family of readers
Still broaching the concept of family, Yapa asked whether Diaz was forced to create his own literary family in the absence of one that supported his pursuit of writing. Diaz said unlike most writers, his “natural community” is other readers.
This is partly because he considers himself a reader before a writer, and partly because he said an author’s most important audience is readers, not other writers.
“If I have any secret to my artistry, it’s that when I close my eyes, all I see is readers,” he said.
As a writer, he writes with readers in mind – people who he said are an author’s fiercest defenders and who embrace a book despite its flaws.
Diaz later fielded questions from the audience – fans and writers alike – wrestling with issues of identity and writing from the margins.
One woman asked how he contends with the “pressure to get it right” on behalf of his community and other minorities, to which he bluntly responded: “Why torment yourself with this idea that there’s this enormous group of people who need you to get it right? . . . Our work is not going to sing less, it’s not going to right injustice.”
For writers hoping to use their work to gain their parents’ acceptance, he had this to say: “Know that perhaps it can’t do anything there, but that there may be another young person wrestling with the same question who awaits you. That’s perhaps the family you may save . . . Because I was saved by artists who had never imagined themselves saving me.”
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