Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

This Is How You Keep Him – One on One with Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz seemed poised to make an impression, his wiry frame hanging to the edge of his seat due to a back ailment, with a mischievous gleam marking his eyes; he is the very avatar of both coiled tension and quiet ease. The crowd in the audience is both packed and eclectic; a personal delight is in seeing so many young writers of colour whom Díaz has tirelessly championed. Adrian Harewood is the anchor in the carousing range of issues that Díaz freely ranged to and fro across. The casual eloquence, relentlessly peppered with obscenities, projected a trust: I am not a brand, I am a person rooted in my experiences.


Alexander McCall Smith, writing in his Introduction to an Everyman's Library collection of the famed Indian novelist R.K. Narayan, wistfully recalls the extra year that Narayan had to simply read when he failed his university entrance exam at his first attempt: “To the modern mind, with our insistence on parcelling out of time, a year of reading seems an almost unattainable luxury, redolent of the simpler, less-hurried world which we have now lost.” Díaz affirms this luxury when he half-jested that he fell into his métier simply out of an ardent desire “to be a full-time reader.” In a later question from an audience member, a teacher, Díaz confirmed the perception that he reads a book for every page he writes as no mere exaggeration.


In this way, he touches on the role of an artist, in a way that lightens the darkness surrounding the insatiable curiosity of both practitioners and the reading public as to how one actually writes. When he says that “books are more interesting than writers,” even though the sparkling world of the famed The Paris Review interviews refute that notion, we get a certain sense of the yearning for permanence we all feel. This is the sense we get when James Salter states, “I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible.” But to get to this stage requires work. And the best work, contrary to all the hype surrounding open-office concepts, often occur when someone hunt their monsters in solitude. Simply because this is hard work, and requires a wrestling with silences, it isn’t glamorous or something that can be rushed. Díaz pointed out that nearly a decade passed between the success of his debut collection Drown in 1997 and the runaway success of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao —our generation’s Invisible Man —in 2008, there was just the banal toil of a craftsman labouring over a keyboard, away from the limelight with no surety of success. Years his accolades today can never restore, however fulfilling its emolument. We catch a glimpse of his ferocious work ethic, the bequest of most immigrant communities, as Díaz describes putting himself through college while working a full-time job delivering pool tables.


He extends this metaphor to the practice of living when he concludes, “family is incredibly hard work.” When Harewood broaches the subject of abandonment of Díaz’s father, who left behind his wife and five children, Díaz doesn’t mince the failure that desertion is. In a later related discussion on masculinity and failure, Díaz expands a lot on how patriarchy—like White Supremacy (his unadorned term for racism)—is an immersive reality. There is a lot to admire in his desire to explore the unexamined topics of intimacy and love, as his latest collection This Is How You Lose Her does, particularly because it stems from an enforced childhood ethic of violence and sexual conquest masquerading as masculinity. Yet the picture Díaz paints is not just of a triumphant patriarchy but an enfeebled and enabled one, with women as co-conspirators, where men (who were once boys) abscond, flail, and wither at alarming rates, especially in poor communities where the preservation of dignity is overwhelmingly a matriarchal realization and cultural inequality is just as corrosive as economic disparities.


Perhaps this is fodder for art (even if it beggars happiness in real life). As Díaz notes, “literature does not thrive on happily adjusted people.” He likens his characters’ traits as someone exercising the free right to vote, while he as the author just arranges the vote rather than rig it. There is much more that Díaz expressed regarding race and hegemony that is beyond the scope of this space to dissect.


The most indelible impression, in my opinion, that Díaz made is in his insistence on the greatest of all social liberties: dissent. He playfully chided the question posed by Harewood on the criticism of Michael Eric Dyson on Cornel West’s scathing pronouncement on Obama, by emphasizing that Obama can handle the battering, occupying the peak position of privilege. He dismissed the idea that inner denouncement lends fuel to the greater opponents who hate the President no-matter-what, that it is more crucial to practice the art of criticism, even within our circles, and let the intransigents rage. As Lars Vilks—in hiding from death threats by Islamists—tells Cal Fussman in the current edition of Esquire: “The best thing for a work of art is argumentation.” Amen.