Junot Díaz: “The Brief Wondrous Lives of Oscar Wao” | Talks at Google

Junot Díaz: “The Brief Wondrous Lives of Oscar Wao” | Talks at Google


>>presenter: I’m gonna keep the introduction
short because he’s a super interesting guy and I’d like to get him on the mic sooner.
But just briefly, he’s a Dominican American writer; he lived in Jersey after moving here
with his family around age six. Just from talking to him, I learned that he worked in
a steel mill and, I think, probably a lot of other things. If you haven’t checked out
his first short story collection, it’s called “Drown”. It’s super excellent. And his newest
novel, which hopefully you have a copy of, got rave review from Michiko Kakutani in The
New Yorker and an excerpt of it was illustrated by one of the Hernandez brothers–famous cartoonists.
He also wrote this really, I read this really great story in NPR’s, “This American Life”–
I thought it was hilarious– called “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or
Halfie” and he also teaches undergrad creative writing at MIT. And the last thing I’d like
to say is that if you open your book, the epigraph to the book is from The Fantastic
Four comic book: “Of what import are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus?” It’s probably
the best epigraph I’ve ever seen. Please welcome Junot Diaz.>>Diaz: Thank you. [applause] Guys, thanks so much for coming out here.
It’s kind of a cool thing and I really don’t know what the actual details of it are, but
it’s really kind of a wonderful thing that the, that they give you these kind of little
events, yeah? And for me, it’s just like– I’m always kind of astonished and humbled
when anybody will take any time from their lunch break to come talk to an artist or interact
with an artist or some kind of writer or anything like that. So, I find that to be extraordinarily
human and touching. So, thank you for taking a little bit of time. It’s hard to make any
time for anything, so this is like, I honestly just can’t believe it, so thanks so much.
And it’s sorta weird, I have this year off. I’m not teaching at my school; MIT. And so
I have these bizarre pangs when I’m walking around your campus because it’s like the same
architect who built the damn MIT and built this place? You know? It’s like, just the
numbered buildings and your signs don’t work. Which is like MIT. My students always change
all the signs. So, they’re like, “Building 41; it’ll actually be the opposite direction.”
So, I felt like, “Aww. God, this place is equally fucked up. I think it’s cool.” [laughter] So, thanks guys. And since we’re– I hope
you guys don’t mind, we’re like an intimate group, if I like talk more like I would normally
talk and not how I would talk with my students? Is that ok? Cause it takes a lot of energy
to pretend to be someone else, yeah? Which you have to when you’re at work, yeah? So,
at least we have to. But I’m sure other people do. Yeah, so I got asked here, what I was
gonna do was just a small reading and then probably we could have some questions to talk
about some things. By way of introduction, I’m a writer and I’m really interested in
probably the dumbest thing you could be interested in if you’re a writer. I’m like interested
in the gaps in stories, like the places where there isn’t a story. Like, if someone misses
four or five, if there’s like a four or five month gap in someone’s life, that’s what really
pulls me, yeah? If there’s a period of history where there’s no writing or there’s no records
about it; I’m absolutely fascinated. So, it’s like a bizarre thing because most writers
want to write about things where there’s a least some documentation. So, in some way,
this book was–I wanted to write a book about, you’re talking about the Galactus quote about
nameless lives. I wanted to write a book about this period in the island I came from, the
Dominican Republic, where everybody talks about this dictatorship, but nobody actually
says anything. It was like such a weird trauma that people would always say,”Oh, and the
time of Trujillo…” But then they won’t actually say anything. There’s no details. And I was
fascinated about how you can hide something in plain sight. It’s like the dictatorship
is hidden in plain sight. Everybody mentions it, but nobody dares actually give any details
about it. And I started doing this about ten years ago because my grandfather, he’s like
an old country guy, real funny dude. He belongs to that tradition, which he would like this,
because when he used to work in the Dominican Republic, they would have a lector, somebody
who would come and read while they were working. So, in his mind, this shit would be really
normal. He’d be like, “This is awesome!” Someone would always come in and usually read like
communist work, you know? And he told me this crazy story about during this dictatorship,
about how he was walking down the street and somebody was eating an orange and threw the
peel down. And at this time, they believed about 50% of the island were informants for
the dictatorship, which kinda makes East Germany look like normal. And somebody threw an orange
peel on the ground and the secret police came from all over and arrested the guy who threw
the orange peel and the three nearest people who didn’t stopped and apprehend the guy who
threw the orange peel and my grandfather was number four. And so, the guy in front of him
was arrested and he was like, “Yeah, had I been walking any faster I’d have been in prison
for ten years for an orange.” And he said this story and I have never, ever heard that
things were that crazy over there. So, part of this novel is about that, but part of it
is also about growing up in New Jersey, about kind of a big dork in New Jersey. Yeah, like
the huge nerds; ’80s was like the perfect time for nerds, you know? It was like, personal
computing, role playing games; comic books became really big. And like video games, yeah?
It was all this perfect storm of nerdery, so I wanted to write about that. So, I’m just
gonna read a small, little piece and then maybe some questions or some comments and
then we can take it from there. All right? The piece I’m gonna read is from, it’s called
“Sentimental Education”. There’s like a lot of voices in this book cause it’s– I always
say, “Have you guys read A Wrinkle in Time?” Anybody read “Wrinkle in Time?” Poor Madeleine
L’Engle just died recently. Yeah, “Wrinkle in Time” was like, I loved that book. Do you
remember who the bad guy was in “Wrinkle in Time?” Does anybody remember that? C’mon,
man, the bad guy was called either “the enemy” or he was called “it”. They were so afraid
to name him and anyway, for a kid who grew up in the shadow of a dictatorship, the “Wrinkle
in Time” really wigged me out because it was a dictatorship taken to the extreme. Cause
when the enemy had taken over a planet, do you remember what he did and how people acted?
Do you remember that all the kids would come out of their houses and bounce the basketball
at the same time? And I was like, “God.” And I’d always– for me, struck me, I was like,
“Fuck! That’s a dictatorship gone nuts.” So, there’s all these voices in this book because
it’s an attempt to get away from that single voice. And so, this is a kid talking about
his college life and how he meets, how he meets the– the biggest nerd in the world.
But first, he meets his beautiful sister who he falls in love with. And so the voice is
kinda college-like, in Spanish would be a “sucio”, I guess like a playboy. Dude’s got
like, 25 girlfriends, yeah. So, it starts like this: [reads] “Sentimental Education: 1988-1992 It started with me. The year before Oscar
fell; I’d suffered some nuttiness of my own. I got jumped as I was walking home from the
Roxy by this mess of New Brunswick townies; a bunch of funking morenos. Two AM and I was
on Joyce Kilmer Ave. For no good reason, alone and on foot. Why? Because I thought I was
hard; thought I would have no problems walking through the thicket of young dudes I saw on
the corner, which was a big mistake. I remember the smile on this one guys face the rest of
my fucking life, only second to his high school ring which plowed a nice furrow into my cheek.
Wish I could say I went down swinging, but these cats just laid me the fuck out. If it
hadn’t been for some Samaritan driving by, the motherfuckers would probably have killed
me. The old guy who saved me wanted to take me to Robertwood Johnson, but I didn’t have
any medical insurance and besides, ever since my brother had died of leukemia, I had not
been hot on doctors. So, of course, I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ And for having just gotten
my ass kicked, I actually felt pretty damn good. Until the next day when I felt like
I had died. So dizzy, I couldn’t stand up without puking; my guts feeling like they’d
been taken out of me, beaten with mallets and then reattached with paper clips. It was
pretty bad and all the friends I had, all my great, wonderful boys, of all of them only
Lola came through. She heard about the beat down from my boy, Melvin, and shot over ASAP.
Never so happy to see someone my whole life. Lola, with her big, innocent teeth. Lola,
who actually cried when she saw the state I was in. She was the one who took care of
my sorry ass; who cooked and cleaned and picked up my class work, got me medicine and even
made sure that I showered. In other words, she sewed my balls back on and not any woman
can do that for a guy, you know? Believe you me, I could barely stand my head hurt so bad,
but she would wash my back and that was what I remembered the most about this mess. Her
hand on that sponge and that sponge on me. Even though I had a girlfriend, it was Lola
who spent those nights with me combing her hair out, once, twice, thrice before folding
her long self into bed next to me. ‘No more night walking,’ she said, ‘Ok Mr. Kung Fu?’
At college, you’re not supposed to care about anything. You’re just supposed to fuck around
like crazy. But, believe it or not, I actually cared about Lola. She was a girl who was easy
to fall in love with. Lola, like the fucking opposite of the girls I usually went after.
Bitch was almost six feet tall and no chest at all and darker than your darkest grandmother
and she was like two girls in one: the skinniest upper body married to a pair of Cadillac hips
and an ill donkey. One of those over-achiever girls who runs all the organizations in college
and wears suits to student meetings. She was the president of her sorority, the head of
Salsa and co-chair of Take Back the Night and she spoke perfect, stuck-up Spanish. We’d
known each other since pre-freshman weekend, but it wasn’t until a year later, till sophomore
year, when her mother got sick again that we had our little fling. ‘Drive me home, Junot,’
was her opening line and a week later, things jumped off between us. I remember she was
wearing a pair of Douglas sweats and a tribe t-shirt. She took off the ring her boyfriend
had given her and then she kissed me. Her dark eyes never leaving mine. ‘You have great
lips,’ she said. And I ask you, how do you forget a girl like that? Only three nights
we were together before she got all guilty about her boyfriend and put an end to it.
And when Lola puts an end to something, she puts an end to it hard. Even those nights
after I got jumped, she wouldn’t let me steal on her ass for nothing. ‘So,’ I said, ‘you
can sleep in my bed, but you can’t sleep with me?’ And she laughed. ‘Junot,’ she said, ‘yo
soy brierta pero yo no soy bruta.’ Because she knew exactly what kind of sucio I was.
Two days after we kind of broke up, she saw me hitting on one of her line sisters at a
party and she turned her long back on me.” So, that’s it. It’s just a small entry, yeah?
So, I think the best thing to do is to read a little bit, yeah? And then maybe take some
questions and I’ll just finish off by reading something else. Or comments, yeah? You guys
can’t be any harder or meaner than my kids, so I figured anything you wanted to say or
talk about, that’d be cool. It spares you having to listen to me for another 15 minutes
of reading. So, we can save that for the end. Yeah? [pause] Am I blocking my–?>>presenter: No, no, no. I just forgot to
mention, anyone wants to ask a question if you can line up at the mic so we can get it
on the tape.>>Diaz: Oh, Lord.>>presenter: Yeah.>>Diaz: That’s even worse. I’m sorry, guys. [laughter] It would’ve been so much easier if you just
said some shit. Ok, we at least have one.>>member #1: Sure.>>Diaz: Hi.>>member #1: Just a quick question, I understand
that this is your first novel, but you’ve written fiction for The New Yorker. What inspired
you to, at this point in your life, to take this leap into writing a novel and this novel?>>Diaz: That’s a good question. I always was
a, I come from this immigrant, over-achiever family, my family–you know when you’re a
kid and you score well at anything? In my family, they were so fucking excited. They
were like, “We got one.” You know? They were like, “Ah, he’s gonna be a doctor, he’s gonna
be a scientist, he’s gonna be whatever.” And so, I was like really good at scoring those
damn tests that they give you as a kid. I was always scoring like the 99th percentile
at those stupid, little tests, but I loved to read. And I kind of screwed my poor parents
who wanted something more professional and I became an artist. I wanted to, I loved to
read and I wanted to be a writer like, probably since I got into high school, I thought writing
would be cool ’cause I liked to read so much and it was also kinda reacting to my old man.
My old man was like a military guy, he was like a boxer. It was like, he got a black
belt in Judo. Every Sunday, the pain in the ass would go take us to the rifle range, you
know? And I was like, I didn’t want to be anything that he kind of approved of in a
weird way. And so, being a writer seemed like a cool thing to do and I got pretty serious
about it ’cause, despite how much I wanna resist my parents, you have that immigrant
work ethic where if you don’t have three jobs you’re lazy. My mom would be like, 10 p.m.,
she’s like “Why aren’t you at work?” And the commercial would be on, “Do you know where
your children are?” My mom was like, “Oh, you better be working.” [laughter] So, probably from about college, I started
bringing that weird work ethic into writing and I’d been writing for awhile. It’s just
that the two books I published were the only ones that worked. I had written like, three
other books, but they were like really, really bad. So, it’s like, I’m telling you, if any
of you guys ever want to be artists, I’m a perfect encouragement. You can’t be farther
worse than me. [laughter] It’s like, three for two– that’s bad, guys.
So, it was a lot of that, but I think like more fundamentally, growing up, I mean, I’m
older than most of you guys here. It’s like you guys look like babies to me some of ya’ll,
you know? Like, little. But I grew up in the ’80s, yeah? And it was like a weird time to
be poor and Dominican and immigrant cause the ’80s was like, it was crack, it was AIDS,
it was genocidal wars in Central America, it was voodoo economics, where basically,
that was when they say, “We take all the money out of the system and we give it to the rich.
We promise you, it’ll trickle down to the poor.” Which, of course, didn’t work at all.
And so, all these things were happening and as a kid, I was really observant and there
was a part of me that felt that there was this vacuum in the historical record. I would
turn on the TV and all these things that I saw happening at once, nobody was talking
about. And so, of course, there was this desire to bear witness. It sounds like kind of lofty,
but as a kid I really did want, I felt like I was seeing shit that nobody wanted to talk
about. And there was this desire in me to know that and that was part of my writing.
I mean, first, all I ever wrote were like kinda news reports from my neighborhood; all
the shit that was happening that nobody would ever care about. It was really weird. So,
I think that was some of it. Yeah. Oh, Lord. This is a set-up. Sir, if you ask a question,
I’ll repeat it so you don’t have to get up.>>member #2: Great [inaudible]. So, based
on what you’ve said, what I’m reading here is has like, college in New Jersey. Well,
can you describe the relationship between the Trujillo regime and what’s the link between
that and this story.>>Diaz: Yeah, no that’s an excellent question
like just from what I was talking about. I was talking about a dictatorship and yet the
first thing I read to you is a story about being at Rutgers; just running around chasing
chicks. And the real question is that what happens when you’re a kid like me, who goes
to Rutgers and basically runs around and chase chicks and you’re, you visit a home where
your parents were like victims of a dictatorship. Do those histories ever meet and do they actually
ever influence each other? Does one speak to the other? Does the fact that I had all
this access to all this privilege– and I thought it was incredible privilege being
at a state school and learning all this stuff– did that impact my mom at all? And did the
sorta silence around her personal history did that have any influence on me? And in
some ways the book is about, I thought, was about the tyranny of the present. How the
present is such a strong force that it’s very hard to think about the past. It’s a lot of
historians talk about this term, “the tyranny of the present,” that it’s like the present
is such a force that people don’t even wanna see old movies; they’d rather see a remake
because they’re like, “I don’t want really to do anything with history. I don’t want
to think about the past.” And the problem is that it’s, we live not only in the present,
we also live in a historical moment. A lot of the things that have happened in the past
have very subtle influences on our choices and our decisions and part of what the book
was about was trying to run these two stories side by side and see if there was anything
that was happening between the two of them. Is it true that I always felt that even though
I was living in a real contemporary, Jersey, into baseball, into hip-hop, I always felt
the shadow of that past history; it was on us? Even though none of my siblings believed
it was. And yet, all of my siblings act the same way in some ways. I mean, you wouldn’t
have to be a super smart person to figure out that all of us are the children of victims
of a dictatorship. It’s like, kids who grew up in Jersey who seem completely normal, they
never speak in public. It’s like my parent’s ability to not to say anything incriminating.
Anybody calls the house, it’s like nobody’s ever home and you’ve got the wrong house.
When I got accepted to Cornell, it took them months to track me down because my mother
was like, “Who? Junot? No, he doesn’t live here.” Click. [laughter] And so, it seems really minor, but I do think
that there’s a tremendous amount of history that bleeds into the present and has an influence
on us that we don’t even understand. And so for me, I guess that was the point of the
question. How much of the present, or what we call the present, is made up of the past?
And even at an unconscious level, are we influenced by– they talk about the unconscious, it’s
like when somebody is cheating on you and you don’t know it; your kinda unconscious
knows it. And they say that that’s like real common for people’s unconscious to know that
somebody’s betraying them and their conscious not to know. And so I’ve always wondered how
that works. And I was very, very curious about the link between a pair of parents who grew
up disciplined in a dictatorship and then how do they raise their kids in their own
house? And yet, you know Rutgers? It seems so far away. When I was at Rutgers dancing
salsa, Santa Domingo and Secret Police, that seemed a million miles away. And yet, I would
go home and see my mom and my mom’s back would be all scarred and it would suddenly be right
there. And I was like, “Hmmm. Is it just that I’m pretending that the history’s not here?
Or is it really here? We’re making it all up.” And I’m not sure that the answer is more
about putting these pieces together and seeing if I could generate any conversation. Sir?>>member #3: Yeah, I had a question. The first
thing when I read your excerpt in The New Yorker that like jumped out at me was like,
“Oh, this character is talking about comics, he’s talking about video games, he’s talking
about all this stuff that I’m into.” And then, as I got into it, there’s this brutality and
sadness that comes over you, just in the excerpt even. And a lot of my friends were talking
about this. It kind of, there’s this thing that’s been happening where these writers
like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon are getting a lot of praise for breaking genre
and talking about comics as if they’re important, but a lot of my friends are second generation
immigrants and so they were like, “You have to read this. There’s a brown nerd in this
story. And I was just curious to hear like, it’s only one part of your book, but what
are your thoughts on that whole kind of like McSweeney’s meets Cosmopolitan comics are
a high art thing? That seems to be a lot about upper middle-class white dudes talking about
it and just how your book fits into that.>>Diaz: Hmm. That’s in interesting question.
Look, it’s, part of this whole thing– it’s only because the market is rewarding it that
you suddenly see all these “the white guys suddenly talking about comic books and stuff.”
I mean, there’s been white guys reading comic books for a zillion years, but it’s only now
the market’s beginning to reward those kind of books. For me, the real question isn’t
about whether, the real question is that it seems that the relationship between high literary
figures and, let’s say, comics is unidirectional. So that Michael Chabon and Lethem can turn
around and they’re literary figures even though Lethem started in a genre. He started as a
really cool science fiction writer. They can go and write comic books, but it’s sorta like
going slumming; they can always come home to that really great suburb called Literary
Fiction. So, they can go dance with the black girls down in Darkie Town and come back and
they still got their really nice zip code. And my thing is that I feel like things will
change when Michael Chabon is losing a Pulitzer Prize to the comic book writer of Spiderman.
In other words, it’s like the literary figures can go loot the genres all they want, but
they never have to worry about the people who are actually genre-practitioners challenging
their literary prerogatives so that the borrowing is unidirectional. I don’t know if that makes
any sense. I seem like I sound like I’m crazy. But it’s sorta like having an American passport
versus having a Third World passport. I feel like the genres, they have passports from
like, North Korea. So, you’re not allowed anywhere. Oh, American Academy of Arts? Sorry,
fool! You write what? Hulk? Nope. [laughter] But Michael Chabon can turn around and write
a Hulk novel and it’d be the best selling thing. And he’ll be like everywhere. And for
me, as a writer of color, one of what it did, what’s interesting is that in the United States,
if you’re a writer of color, no matter what you write about, you’re considered a genre
anyway. You’re never accepted in a real literary– you know, there’s always this bizarre question.
I went to do a book signing earlier and the owner of the bookstore said, “Hey, I heard
if you don’t speak Spanish you can actually read your book.” I’m like, “Well, it’s in
English, so I’m assuming you can fucking read the book.” [laughter] I’m just like, Jesus, I wonder how many people
who are like–anyway. So, there’s this sense that part of the joke for me was that being
a writer of color, you’re already considered as bizarrely marginalized. Your passport is
always being checked three times before you get let in. You’ll get let in, but boy oh
boy, they’ll run you through security for 20 minutes. And so, I felt part of the joke
was I can’t decide who’s more of a genre in this book. The parts about the Dominican Republic
and the parts about being a Dominican kid at Rutgers, or the parts about the science
fiction comic books? Like who gets the better passport? In fact, I feel like if you’re a
Dominican writer in the United States, you have a lot more in common with somebody writing
The Hulk than Michael Chabon has in common with anybody writing Superman. Because, in
the end, both me and the comic book guy, we go back to our crappy ass neighborhoods; sorta
the neighborhoods where you fit in the art. I mean, these are like generalizations, which,
again, if we had more time there’s way more nuanced ways to talk about this, but it’s
always like when you only have 30 minutes to talk, you end up having to try to get your
ideas across in the brute and never in the way that they really deserve to be crossed.
So, in my mind, I always was working in that joke. I always felt so separated from all
those dudes who were doing it and were gonna win the awards because I just felt like, historically,
writers of color in the United States have been even more marginalized than comic book
writers. I mean, I think about Joseph Campbell, No, excuse me, I think about that– Joseph
Campbell. God, I don’t know why it’s flying out of my name because remember the name of
the science fiction editor who basically put together the Silver Age Science Fiction? His
last name was Campbell, too. Anyway, he didn’t allow no black writers, Latino writers or
women. He refused to publish them. And if anyone wrote about a black character, he would
reject it. And so, for 40 years all of the main science fiction organs refused to publish
work by anybody of color or who had people of color in them. This was up to the ’70s.
So, I really was interested in that question as I was writing. It’s like, which is more
weird? So, yeah. Madam?>>woman #1: My question is–>>Diaz: Sorry. Yeah, no. My man got away with
it. [laughter] I like how you order, you order the youth
around. [laughter] Terrible, the tyranny.>>woman #1: My question is related to what
you were just talking about; writers of color, authors of color. And I find that a lot of
times authors of color or writers of color are sorta pigeon-holed to be the voice of
their people, right? So, do you find that people say, “Oh, Junot Diaz, he’s the voice
of the Dominican Republicans.” Or, “He’s the voice of Latinos.” Or, like I find that black
writers, Asian writers, they write a book and its like, “Oh my God, she’s the voice
of Asian Americans.” Or, do you ever, do you resist that characterization? Is that something
you find kind of offensive? Or, how do you feel about that? And if that’s something you
don’t like, how do you combat that and say, “This is a book that I’ve written. Take it
for its merit.” I’m not suddenly representing all the Dominicans
in the US or abroad or whatnot.>>Diaz: Thank you. It’s a really good question.
Yeah, I mean, it’s the weirdest thing. One of the things again, these are issues which
people tend to be not so comfortable about, but it’s kind of bizarre, man, that if you’re
a writer of color in the United States you’re always viewed as a collective. In other words,
you’re viewed as somehow an ambassador from this larger collective. But it’s at every
level, at a societal level. You’ll even see it amongst ourselves. I mean, how many people
will tell me they won’t date–, an entire group of guys– but always that group of guys
tends to be ethnic. It’s like, you’re much more likely to collectivize an ethnic group
cause assume they all share something really deeply in common. And I think that it’s something
that is part of the condition that we’re dealing with. It’s like, trying to be simultaneously
viewed as someone who belongs to a community, but also an individual, that’s a really good
thing, but most of us are usually viewed just as a part of a collective. And I am no more
the representative and the spokesperson for the Dominican community as I am to the New
Jersey community. I mean, if you wanna understand what the Dominican community is, you would
need about ten million novels and then you would only have the first pass. And I do think
that it’s, there’s a deep desire in American culture to have native informants; to have
people who are gonna translate something for you. Because it’s far easier to have a native
informant explaining to you a larger culture than it is for you to encounter the stupendous
complexity and diversity of that culture. Like, it’s so much nicer to boil down Japan
down to your one JA friend you know and that dude probably doesn’t like rice. But you’re
like, “Yeah, that’s Japanese culture.” [laughter] And everyone in Japan, you’re like, “Yeah,
yeah, he knows.” [laughter] And a lot of us fall into that because it,
it, it’s also a weird, we become complicitive in that. Cause I have a lot of friends of
mine who, they’re like the expert in all things Korean. I’m like, “Motherfucking, you never
been to Korea. How did you get an expert in this?” ‘Cause his parents are Korean, so I
feel it’s, there’s a double-sided, as in. As a writer, as an artist, what really matters
to me is that a piece of art is really, in some ways, a distillation of a single subjectivity
interacting with usually a very random and bizarre collective. And if you get the proportion
wrong, you in some way erase what’s important about a piece of work. If you see a piece
of work only as an example of a larger collective, you’ve erased that person, that individual
arches and whirls of the thumbprint of the artist who made it. But if you reduce someone
just as the individual, you lose the fact that this person came about in a context,
yeah? It’s like, Picasso doesn’t make sense, he does not make sense if you don’t understand
the context he came out of. There’s no way an individual makes sense without their context
’cause usually you’re reacting and interacting to it somehow. So, I think that both elements
are vitally important and often the stress is put on you to be, as a writer of color,
as an artist of color, more towards your collective. But then we take it too far sometimes where
some writers of color are like, “I am the supreme individual. I want nothing to do with
my community.” And that’s equally toxic and, I think, misleading. And it’s the hardest
thing for all of us is equilibrium. I know the gap while we get to the microphone. I have like, the whitest shoelaces. I’m like,
in envy of you. [laughter] It rocks, man.>>woman #2: I have a few things cause as you
were talking, I’m thinking once I heard Julia Alvarez speak about how she, her process and
she said something that I thought was very interesting. She said, “I feel in Spanish,
but I write in English.” And so, I was wondering, for you, is there a voice in one language
that comes easier than in another or are they– whenever I read anything you write, it just
seems like the Spanish comes out at the right time to convey something that is really, almost
as if you couldn’t say it in English. I don’t know if that’s my own interpretation, but
so that’s one question. And then I also wanted to know about your experience teaching at
MIT.>>Diaz: Cool. Thank you. I have this bizarre
thing with language. It’s like, typical immigrant, you come and you have to learn the damn language
and all my siblings learned it within six months and I had to get put in Special Education
because I couldn’t speak it. For some reason, English wouldn’t come out of my mouth. And
I learned to read English within a few months, but I couldn’t speak it for a very long time.
So, language has always been tricky in some ways and then typical adolescent reaction,
you’re like, you get that weird self-hate period where you hate everything that has
to do with your larger culture. So, I almost lost all my Spanish in my teens and then I
had to relearn it all. And the thing with me is not so much that I have either a Spanish
or an English voice, it’s more that I have those two voices running through my head at
the same time. And sometimes, I’m in my English self, my English dominant self in a complete
Spanish setting. And so, people are speaking in Spanish and I’m translating the Spanish
from my English self. And sometimes, I’m in my Spanish dominant self in an English setting
and I’m sitting there listening to everybody speaking English and I’m just like, “Oh, brother.”
And I’m translating the English to my Spanish self and the best parts are when my languages
actually coincide. ‘Cause it’s just whatever frame of mind you’re in and sometimes you
encounter these worlds. And for me, it’s like I feel both languages are running simultaneously
and they’ll cross at weird moments and when I’m writing, I tend to have both of them running
through my head and the one that bullies through the most, because English is what I write
in, but Spanish and English are what I think and speak in. And so, in my head, Spanish
will always like seize control. It’s like the really angry driver, like passenger, who
grabs the wheel. So, anytime I’m writing in English and Spanish is like, “Enough!” Yeah,
[speaking in Spanish] Suddenly, it just, it comes in. But it’s also a process of rewriting.
I don’t want you to think that it’s completely this intuitive bizarre relationship to the
linguistics. When you’re rewriting, different languages begin to help out. Sometimes, I’ll
be reading a sentence in English and it’s not until I read it from the Spanish frame
of mind that I’ll understand the way the sentence works. So, a lot of times I’m doing all of
that and teaching at MIT is really great. I mean, I dunno guys, being an artist– to
get medical insurance. [laughter] Guys, I’m not kidding. I didn’t have medical
insurance at the steel mill. So, I was like, it’s awesome, but also I still have the energy
to work with young people, which means you can put up with a lot of ridicule and being
completely irrelevant to them. And that requires a certain kind of constitution and I still
have that and MIT students tend to be like people who, they tend to be like anyone who’s
superlative. You’ve basically sacrificed a huge chunk of your childhood to get to this
place, but you didn’t get to MIT because you went, you got drunk two nights in a row. That
didn’t fuckin happen. [laughter] You know what I’m saying? You didn’t do what
I did when I was in high school and got into MIT. You didn’t skip a week of school to watch
the play-offs. Like, that just didn’t happen. These kids sacrifice an enormous amount of
their childhoods just to get there and so, part of what’s really cool about it is you’re
teaching what everybody teaches at a university. It’s how to be more critical minded. Beyond
just the subject you’re teaching, if you’re teaching literature, if you’re teaching high
energy physics, you’re also teaching that component of how to be critical minded. But
the second thing at a place like MIT what you’re teaching is compassion. It sounds really
like kissy smoochy softy, but those kids have like, no compassion. You didn’t get into a
top select college because you were a compassionate person. You’re like, “Oh, you failed. I forgive
you.” That wasn’t you. You got in there because you got a B. “You fucking suck!” [laughter] And so, one of the weirdest things that I
learned at MIT was that, beyond just teaching them what I had to teach them, compassion,
which I normally never thought about I had to learn how to teach it. Because I would
have kids who, if they would make one error, they would just be like, you know? I would
be like, “Whoa.” You know as an artist, you know that errors are the fountain of your
inspiration. It’s completely unlike the academic process. In an academic process, if you make
a mistake, you’re punished whether it’s through low grade or through, “You don’t get the little
golden sticker.” But as an artist, your mistakes, that’s the foundation of your work because
you can’t explore without making mistakes and exploration is the root of all artistic
endeavor. You’re taking chances and you’re messing things up. And you mess things up
and that leads you into another direction. But in an academic setting, too many mistakes
and you’re getting kicked the fuck out. And so, it’s this weird thing that you’re involved
with as a teacher. You’re involved with attempting to make the student know the material, make
them more critical minded, this other aspect, which is compassion and then trying to teach
the ethos of exploration, which is quite different from the ethos of approval. Exploration and
approval tend to be two entirely different things. So, there’s one more question, yeah?
Or, someone, anyone? Sir? You guys are so good, I’m telling you. In
fact, I make my students come with me sometimes to do stuff and they are like, so pissed at
me.>>man #4: You touched earlier on this issue
of high culture and low culture with the literary fiction writers kinda adopting comic books.
So, I wonder if you could speak to, I don’t know what the academic perception for your
work or other similar work has been, but I wonder if you could speak to the role of the
academy and disseminating this culture and what you think it’s doing to it? It’s sort
of the problem with the Ivory Tower, I guess.>>Diaz: Yeah, no, that’s a really nice question.
I’m, again, my awareness is really limited. There’s people who study academia as a subject,
like what’s happening at the select colleges, what’s happening at the university press level,
what’s happening at the level of the people who are getting tenure. And those people tend
to have a much more holistic longitudinal view of what’s going on. So, what I’m gonna
tell you now is completely provisional, episodic and reveals more of my narrow, my narrow exposure
of than probably any real significant knowledge. My sense is always that there’s a real tension
between readers– those of us who love to read– and the rest of the critical apparatus.
So that like, readers are a really big part of what makes this business roll; people who
just love to read. And reading is deeply anti-heirarchical. If you’ve ever met a reader, their bookshelves
tend to be wild. They tend to be like, “Yep, they’ve got Jude Deveraux right next to William
Gaddis.” Or, they’ll read like Drizzt, the crazy, dark elf, Dungeons and Dragons character
dude who has like, 80 novels. And the same, these same people will talk to you all fuckin
day about how important Tony Morrison is. Readers are very, very creolized in a way
that’s kind of interesting. And the problem with academy is not the problem, but its structural
limitation is that it has to create categories, it has to create canons and it has to create
hierarchy. There’s only so much time in a class you have to study. And I feel like in
there there’s already an implicit, an implicit opposition so, in a way, I’m always writing
for readers. Cause readers, I feel, are far more generous and far more likely to understand
that your work isn’t always there for you just to give it a decimal point value to it.
It’s like, the love you have for a piece of crap literature, is it more or less than the
love you have for Dickens? And can you tell? That’s what readers are about. They have this
love that’s really hard to quantify and the thing with canonical work is that it’s, I
mean, the thing with academic work is that if you’re a person that your work is being
picked up for dissertations, that you’re work is interesting for the current theoretical
apparatus, it’s all good. If you’re outside of that purvey, it can be problematic. And
so, there’s a sense in my mind that you’re really dealing with two kinds of legacies.
You’re dealing with your legacy among readers and you’re dealing with your critical legacy.
And both of them are dynamic, both of them are changeable, both of them are hard to predict
where they’re coming from and I’m always way more scared of the, I’m always way more scared
of the academic one. Not just because it’s some anti-intellectual streak in me, is that
there’s so much at stake in academia. There’s tenure, there’s your relationship with your
professor, what you’re getting published, what’s the current critical climate. While
readers tend not to have any of those considerations. They tend to be reading far more freely and
far more unencumbered. And so, currently, I’m like, as a writer, I could have a dozen
people writing dissertations on you, but it doesn’t mean much other than that you’re just,
you’re fitting, you’re fitting the profile of what the critics need right now. And yet,
if you’re not read, it doesn’t mean, either because most writers are writing for a future
audience. Few writers are writing for an audience that’s here now. Most of us are waiting for
an audience to assemble itself that can really interact with you. And so, I think they’re
both kind of sketchy, but I also don’t want anyone to get a sense that either one of them
is quite evil. I think they just have their advantages and disadvantages. But again, both
the academic and the standard reading audience are provisional. And as an artist, you’re
trying to engage, you’re trying to engage a kind of a collective over a long term in
an unpredictable way. And neither of those can really predict where your work is gonna
end up. So, guys, I thought I would just end, I was just gonna read a little footnote to
you cause there’s all these little footnotes in this book; very weird. Again, I, I, the
critics, a lot of the critical responses compared these footnotes to David Foster Wallace, which
is so weird because I like, openly and nakedly robbed the footnote technique in this book
from a writer from Martinique. His name is Patrick Chamoiseau, how do you pronounce that
name in French? Anybody? Chamoiseau? Anyway, he wrote this incredible novel called “Texaco”
and in “Texaco” he has the most astonishing footnotes, but unlike sorta the post-modern
white boy writers who use the footnotes to reinforce authority and reinforce erudition,
Chamoiseau used the footnotes to gossip, to get involved in an homonym attacks. To like,
undermine his own authority, he’ll be like, “Oh, oops. Four pages back I made a mistake.
You’re fucked.– [laughter] “But I don’t feel like changing it ’cause
it sounds cute.” [laughter] And he was the one, I’m telling you, go read
this novel “Texaco”. It’s one of the best novels I ever read. “Texaco” and then there’s
a fantasy novel called “The Etched City”. You guys ever read “The Etched City?” Yo,
“The Etched City” is bananas. It’s bananas. It’s like Cormac McCarthy wrote a love story.
You’ve gotta check it out. I was like, by the end of it, my military father would have
been ashamed. I was all tearing up. I was like [sniff, sniff]. “I can’t believe he fell
in love with the sphinx.” [laughter] This is bananas. Yeah. So, anyway, I just
wanted to read one small footnote and I thought I would recommend those two ’cause those are
like, those are really two cool, those are really two cool books. And if I can find this
damn thing, I’ll be there. So, in the book, does anybody speak Spanish? You guys know
what a criada is? What’s a criada, culturally? Sir, what’s a criada?>>man #5: A maid?>>Diaz: Yeah, like the maid. Yeah, a criada
in Santo Domingo there’s like a whole, you can tell we’re like, you’re asking a question
about history. The Dominican Republic the whole island, we had like 300 years of slavery
plus and there’s still a culture in the Dominican Republic in Haiti of Restavec, or criadas,
which are children who are given away by their families to other families to be the built-in
slave. So basically, maid for life. And their just given away. It’s usually your excess
child, your youngest child, and it’s fucking bananas. And it’s like, common. They believe
like, 20% of the United Nations that are studied, 20% of all children of the Dominican Republic
have lived in this situation at one time or another. And so, this is the narrator talking
about the criada. A criada, and it’s a footnote and the main, one of the main characters is
sold to be a servant by her step-parents and then the narrator breaks the narrative to
give this tiny footnote and he says, [reads] “I lived in Santo Domingo until I was nine
and even I knew criadas. Two of them lived in the Callejón behind our house and these
girls were the most demolished, overworked human beings I’d known at that time. One of
them, Sobetha, did all the cooking, all the cleaning, fetched all the water and took care
of two infants for a family of eight and the chicky was only seven years old. She never
went to school and if my brother’s first girlfriend, Johanna, hadn’t taken the time to teach her
ABCs, she would not have known nada. Every year, I came home from the states it was the
same thing. Quiet, hard working Sobetha would stop in for a few seconds to say a word to
my abuelo and my mother before running off to finish her next chores. I tried to talk
to her, of course, Mr. Community Activist, but she would skitter away from my questions,
from my stupid questions. “What can you two talk about?” my mother demanded. “La pobrecita
can’t even write her own name.” And then, when Sobetha was 15, one of the Callejón
idiots knocked her up and now, my mother tells me, her family has got her kid working for
them, too, bringing in water for his mother.” Thank you. Thanks so much for sharing this
time, guys. [applause]

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