A Brief Wondrous Talk from Junot Diaz


Slight trigger warning: mention of rape, colonialism

Wednesday night my volunteer shift was during Junot Diaz‘s reading and Q&A session (followed by signing). I’d never heard of him before then — apparently a lot of Canada hasn’t, even though he’s fairly well known in the States. For me, I think it’s just because I tend to know authors within a certain genre — speculative fiction — and I don’t really pay attention to what’s called ‘mainstream’ fiction.

But I fell in love with him during his talk.

He talked about how science fiction and comic books are the genres he read, because things that were unrealistic were the only way to explain his life as a Dominican immigrant living in New Jersey. How the life of oppressed people is spoken to not through ‘mainstream’ fiction, but through the fantastic, the strange, because when you live with society’s great boot on your neck life doesn’t add up according to the master narrative. His book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has a quote from The Fantastic Four on the epigraph page.

He talked about white privilege and said ‘motherfucker’ so many times I lost count. He talked about how he’s fascinated with how we privilege masculinity and the invisible power that goes with growing up a man, yet how that gets diluted if you’re not masculine enough; he talked about the history of colonialism and rape within the Caribbean — how do you form loving intimate relationships when your ancestral line was raped into existence? — and how the “exoticism” and “unbridled sexuality” of Caribbean and African-American women as viewed by mainstream society is directly linked to that. How do you admit centuries of rape and conquest without actually admitting it? Well, just say they’re naturally very sexual people. (See: the sexualizing of Native Women.)

I was writing down some of the things he said because they were so true, I wanted to get as exact quotes as I could. (I’m not a fast writer, however, so some errors will occur.)

On his political views and how they blend into his work:

Anyone who’s a reader knows no book is not a political act.

On the exclusivity of literature:

The biggest strength of any work is its stupendous particularity.

On the difference between religious works and literary ones:

The Bible and the Koran make universal claims that freeze people out. Literature, in its stupendous particularity, invites […] people in.

He spoke about how, as writers, we must work hard at the parts we’re really shit at — which is why he wrote a story entirely in second-person viewpoint. He says it took him 11 years to write his first book and 16 to write his second, and that’s because writing is really difficult for him — and that there needs to be space for people for whom things that they’re good at take a long time. We have this idea that if someone is good at something, it should come quickly and easily to them — but that’s not always true.

I got to meet him afterwards, when I went to get his book [that I’d picked up as soon as the reading was over] signed. He was incredibly sweet; he gave me a hug and a kiss on each cheek, and was totally unassuming. I told him I’d never heard of him before that night — “It’s ok, sweetie, no one has” — but that I loved him already — “Aw, thank you.” He thanked me personally for volunteering, and he’d said thank you to all the volunteers during his talk.

I’m now the very proud owner of a copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, signed to me.

I’m glad I got to see him speak, because he confirmed what I’d thought for a while: you can still be a successful writer and be political on your social media accounts, your blog, in public. We get told, as indie authors, to leave politics and religion out of it, that it has nothing to do with our books.

My book is about political turmoil and revolution. It’s about warring goddesses and the mortal chess pieces they move across the board. It’s a feminist writing experiment with using female-centric language in a matriarchal society.  How can religion and politics not have anything to do with my book? And if writing about politics on my blog or my Facebook or my Twitter turns people off from me as an author, then that’s their loss. I do not apologize.

My politics are an intrinsic part of who I am, and you will find just as many posts about them here as you will find posts about what I ate for breakfast or my hilarious conversations with my boyfriend. You will find fewer posts about my religion, because I have an entire blog for that elsewhere — but I will never shy away from admitting that yes, I am a deeply religious person, and no, that’s not incompatible with paganism, nor is it incompatible with supporting science or rational thought or evolution or anything else that tends to get held up as mutually exclusive with religion. And my religion does deeply inform my writing, so no — I will not hide it. Not here.

Junot Diaz reminded me that what’s important to me is never not relevant to my writing career. He re-sparked my desire to be political on this blog and my social media accounts. He helped me remember why I write in the first place: because a book can change the world, one person at a time.