The audience coming to hear Junot Diaz, the award-winning writer of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her, had filled every seat 45 minutes before the program started, yet more people kept streaming through the South End library's Tremont Street doors. The South End Writes author series fielded large crowds before, (Jack Beattie, Jamaica Kincaid, Chris Kimbal, Police Officer John Sacco, Dennis Lehane, Joanne Chang, Edith Pearlman, Bessel Van Der Kolk and Steve Kurkjian) but this January 10 event felt different. More as if a prophet had arrived who also happened to be a literary icon, someone who might speak to the sense of political foreboding many in the audience expressed, days removed from a controversial new President's inauguration. "Are you worried?" asked Diaz, holding a cup of coffee mid-drink, scanning the audience that stood layers deep in the stairwell, moving into the middle of the community room so all could hear him. Many affirmative sounds and groans ensued.
Before launching into audience existential anxiety, Diaz eloquently expressed his deep gratitude for libraries. "I am a creature of the library," he said. It gives you access to everything poverty strips you of. Poverty is profoundly undemocratic. It narrows your world. The library's ethos is fundamentally democratic, fundamentally contemplative, a place that itself is concerned with citizenship and civic good--everything that poverty tends to strip from people's minds," he suggested. "I wonder if it had not been for libraries, would there have been anything left from the childhoods some of us have had?" Diaz, who reportedly often walked four miles to his public library to borrow books when he was growing up in a poor immigrant family in New Jersey, emphasized that "we are born in these places and certainly the part of me that led me here to this moment was born in my public library under the tutelage of my librarian."
Introduced by author and poet Pablo Medina (Cubob City Blues), Diaz was described as one of the very few writers who use a particular voice to distinguish themselves from everyone else, much like Mark Twain, Toni Morrison and Faulkner did. “He opened a voice and way of life that had not been explored before and brought Latino life into the mainstream,” Medina said. Diaz, winner of numerous awards and honors including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, commented that the strange thing about being known as a writer in any way is that you are "standing in for better artists who haven't been given the acclaim they deserve," and thanked Medina and his contemporaries for the enormous influence and genius he received from them.
Turning back to the moment of political gloom, Diaz asked what people in the audience themselves were doing about it. “I wanna know what are you gonna do,” said Diaz, who is active in the Dominican American community.“I’ve been doing my community work forever. If you feel you've been hit by a Mac truck, you can appreciate the life that many of us artists have been reporting, and the diabolical forces in American society that have plagued us and made us miserable for so long." He said he is “intentionally activist" and not interested in his work as an artist taking the place of his civic responsibility. "Being an artist doesn’t excuse you from your civic responsibility,“ he said, observing that artists are "more inclined to the febrile excuse of ‘my art is my politics.' Investment bankers," he added, "not so much. You see them volunteering in soup kitchens."
Answering several questions about his writing, Diaz, who is the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT, described himself as a very slow writer, very 'avoidant,' 'wildly rewarded,' and having come of age reading giants of African-American literature like Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed as well as Sandra Cisneros, Scott Momaday, Oscar Hijuelos, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Families are great inspiration "for the spectrum of behavior,” he said but cautioned that stories have minds of their own. “You can have wild ideas about stories,” he said, “but the stories themselves have other ideas. They happen at the levels of the unconscious. The story is the boss. It is an enormous amount of work to decipher what the unconscious wants. Every draft brings you closer and closer to the mysterious story. Every version sucks."
With that, he picked up a copy of This Is How You Lose Her, and read a richly descriptive passage from the story Nilda. When he was done, he patiently listened to, and talked with, his admirers waiting in a long line to be photographed with him and, with a cursive flair, signed all of their books. Within days, he and four other authors --Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead and Barbara Kingsolver-- would have lunch with then-President Obama, who admired them and described the writers as having helped him shape his presidency.