On Friday, April 20th, I had the opportunity to attend a discussion and book signing for Junot Díaz. The event was put together by the Just Buffalo Literary Center as part of their BABEL series, in which they bring world-renowned and award-winning writers to Buffalo. Past seasons have included Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Amy Tan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marlon James, and Toni Morrison. Not many writers come to Buffalo, so I was especially excited to attend my first BABEL event.
Díaz began by speaking about immigration, specifically the many traumas an immigrant in the United States faces. He continued with a discussion on gratitude while addressing his frustration with the, “If you don’t like it, go back to your own country” trope. Díaz shared that Americans expect immigrants to be grateful, but it is really the Americans who need to be grateful because they are the ones who benefit from an immigrant’s hardships.
Next, Díaz answered some questions from the audience. On the subject of writing, Díaz claimed, “I don’t seek answers, I seek the next question,” and when asked if he considered THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO to be magical realism, Díaz said no, it was not his intention, and, perhaps in a nod to Gabriel García Márquez, said people only think that because of the “z” in his name!
When asked what it is like to teach creative writing at M.I.T., a highly technical school, Díaz responded, rather bluntly, “It’s like being an artist in America.” He continued by saying that M.I.T., like the majority of America, values making money over making art. This thought certainly got a chuckle from the audience members, who ranged from young, beanie-clad hipsters to classy older folks seeking literary enlightenment.
All of these wonderful thoughts aside, the sentiment that will perhaps stay with me the most is when Díaz was asked about the use of Spanish/Spanglish in THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, which some readers found frustrating. He said, “We only understand fifteen percent of what we hear, and that’s in our own f***ing language…” He expressed that it’s alright if you don’t understand everything in his book, because some parts will go over your head but other parts will resonate with you. As a reader, it can be upsetting when I don’t fully comprehend an idea an author presents in their work, so Díaz’s statement was well-said and comforting.
Later, after the lecture and discussion, I waited in line (for more than an hour!) to meet Díaz and get my book signed. In person, he was kind and down-to-earth, not to mention hilarious. He said our handwriting as similar, because our H’s look like K’s, and he said my parents must be so proud of me for being in school.
It was my first time meeting an author and having a book signed, and I loved every minute of it.