This evening I trotted along to Foyles for an author event with Junot Diaz. I was definitely excited – Foyles is one of my favourite places in London (in a kryptonitey, oh please don’t empty my bank account, kind of a way) and Diaz is one of those literary stars who kind of creates a buzz. But I didn’t necessarily expect to leave so bowled over with enthusiasm. So for the uninitiated, five reasons to love Junot Diaz:
1: He’s funny
Author readings can be kind of awkward, but Diaz had it down perfect. A very charming public persona, and an excellent (and well judged in terms of length) reading. His writing is razor sharp (“I had a third world childhood and all I got was this shitty attitude”) and his anecdotes are self-deprecating without dipping too far into self-pity (he regaled us with how he got fanmail addressed to “Dear Cameron Diaz”). He also was genuinely very warm and friendly, responding to the audience and being really sweet when I went to get my book signed. (For my part I managed to avoid falling apart in the dorkiest manner possible, which is a big improvement on previous book signings I’ve been to).
2: He’s serious about (his) art
It can sound hokey to talk with passion and seriously about art: to speak about art without irony. We’re conditioned to shrug our shoulders, to denigrate it as something to indulge in. Diaz avoids this and is really utterly inspiring on the subject of the necessity for art that reflects us: he spoke movingly about how (post)colonial cultures are starved of art, are left “at a buffet with only two choices to feed the whole soul.” I also utterly respect him for discussing his fundamental questioning of his form – his doubts about whether the written word is the medium that best performs the tasks he wants it to. Here is a man who is really considering what he does, thinking seriously, engaging and asking others to engage with him. He’s like the utter antithesis of dumbing down.
3: He believes “you can be good at things you find difficult”
Here’s the bit where the aspiring writer in me sat up and listened. It took Junot Diaz 11 years to write his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He’s been working on his current collection for sixteen years. Writing does not come easily to Diaz. But, he tells us, it isn’t the case that you can’t be good at things you find difficult – that there is value in working at things over time – that you gain a different perspective on things by doing them slowly. This really resonated with me.
4: He’s a feminist
Oh guys, I have been burned by so many so-called male feminists in the past, mansplainers the lot of them. But I buy Diaz as the real deal: not only does he think people of colour lack art that reflects them, but he spoke about how women also suffer from this (“I look at the media and I don’t understand how women just aren’t going mad”). He talked about going to university in the 1980s and working alongside politically radical feminists and how this energised him to think about the world. He talked about patriarchy and male privilege and his efforts to understand the place of himself (and his culture) within them. He talked about his search to find a way to contribute to a feminist project through his literature, and concluded that the best he could do was to explore the complexities and interiorities of masculinity, in the hope that this would go some way to contributing to a discourse that challenges patriarchal structures. Men who can talk sensitively and intelligently about feminist issues without sounding like they have a hidden agenda or are just looking for praise? Few and far between.
5: He’s super smart
He gave such lucid and fluid answers to questions of kind of intimidating complexity: he grappled with big ideas with ease. I loved hearing him speak about simultaneity: how our culture wants us to be one thing, to cut off our psychic limbs to fit ourselves into a box, to constantly over-simplify. How the key to happiness is avoiding limiting ourselves, to avoid placing our various facets in hierarchies, to accept our complexities and contradictions. His other piece of advice was to live with compassion, for ourselves as flawed beings, for others: he talked about how we can all explain spotify, and facebook, but how many people can define compassion, can talk about it in a practical and pragmatic way?
If you hadn’t guessed by now, this is what it looks like when I’m giving someone a rave review – kind of incoherent but – ohmygodIwanteveryonetolovehim. I feel so passionate and enthused and ready to sit down and work at my writing now! And that’s just such a warm and generous gift for Diaz to have given his audience – especially as he seemed to be in some quite serious back pain. Absolutely blown away by him.