Despite his phenomenal literary achievements, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz was not always on the path to becoming a writer. "Most of the time, I thought it was going to be a night job," he told a crowd on Wednesday evening at BAMcafé. The featured speaker at BAM's most recent "Eat, Drink & Be Literary" event, Díaz trekked to Brooklyn – joking about how long it took him to get there from Manhattan – to deliver an animated and often uproarious reading from his latest book, "This is How You Lose Her."
Wednesday's event sold out months ago; Sandy Sawotka, BAM’s director of publicity, told Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “It was one of the first events [of the “Eat, Drink” series] to sell out.” The space at BAM was packed with a literary crowd of over 200 guests who enjoyed a pre-reading dinner buffet with wine, while serenaded by two cellists. In partnership with the National Book Awards, BAM’s literary series has hosted an exciting roster of participants in 2013, including Martin Amis and Jamaica Kincaid. Brooklyn-based writers Colson Whitehead and Nell Freudenberger have also been featured this year.
BAM's president, Karen Brooks Hopkins, introduced Wednesday’s event, and Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, moderated the discussion with the author.
Díaz, who recently won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, nonetheless displays a down-to-earth vibe. He thanked all of the people who did the “anonymous [and] invisible work” in coordinating the event, and of course, thanked his editors. “None of this s--t would’ve looked half as good if it weren’t for you guys,” he said.
As he opened his book to begin the reading, Díaz, who is known for his vulgar language, looked down at the page and had second thoughts. “This is actually a little too brutal to read...it’s dinner.” He turned instead to “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” – the final chapter in “This is How You Lose Her." He read deliberately and with a compassionate energy that allowed the audience to experience the story with an enchanting intimacy.
After the reading, Treisman joined Díaz on stage. She noted that earlier in the day, Díaz had spoken to middle and high school students. According to Díaz, the students seemed most fascinated by the fact that it takes him so long to write a book (his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” took him 11 years; "This is How You Lose Her” took 16). When Treisman asked Díaz if he had the opportunity as a young student to speak with writers, he quipped that while he was not visited by writers, he “had a lot of military recruiters coming."
Díaz, born in the Dominican Republic, noted that when he was in college, his “family encouraged more remunerative majors”: when he first mentioned his interest in becoming an artist, “they thought that was insane...the word ‘artista’ in Spanish had never been uttered,” he said. When he mentioned that he initially he thought he would end up as a lawyer, Treisman joked, “It’s not too late.”
Like his narrative voice, Díaz speaks with unflinching honesty. Talking about his father, he revealed to the audience, “I always was auditioning for his love”; when asked about the inception of Oscar Wao, Díaz acknowledged the inevitable autobiographical comparisons that his character invites. While he was not the victim of bullying in school, Díaz remembers feeling like a “little nerd” who was at times “sensitive, afraid, and terrified.” Still, Díaz said his classmates knew not to mess with him; he had “the complete fortune of [having] a family who would protect me.”
Díaz spoke openly about his connection to Yunior, a character who appears in many of his stories. “Yunior is an x-ray of who I was before I stopped pretending that I was hard,” he said. “Yunior is a specimen of someone who comes from a very familiar American tradition.”
When discussing the writers who have most influenced him, Díaz credited, among others, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, emphasizing in particular the impact that Asian American writers have had on his work.
Referring to people who might take offense at the cruder elements of his tone or content, Díaz joked, “I write so little that no one can be offended for very long.” The reason he takes so long to write, he contends, is that he tries to ignore his “desire for approval,” recognizing that such a desire can taint one’s writing.
As for what we might expect next from Díaz, he revealed that he is currently working on a science fiction novel, but this genre is new to him, and he suggests there is a steep learning curve. So perhaps his fans should not hold their collective breath – Díaz put the crowd on notice that if it takes him around 15 years to write a book in the style he’s accustomed to writing, his new project could take him 30 years.