Dream a little dream with Junot Diaz

The author's mission: to convince people 'art is essential in their lives.' And he leads by example.

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Author and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz talks about the best advice he was given and what he's most looking forward to in life.

(Paterson, N.J.) The other day Junot Diaz drove back to his home state. He had promised a college friend who teaches eighth grade here in this tattered, slate-colored, chain-link-fenced town, that he would make an appearance. And so he'd collected his rental car from the valet of his hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, placed an orthopedic pillow against the seat (he has nagging back problems) and, with his iPhone propped on his knee and set to Google Maps, drove slowly toward the George Washington Bridge, then New Jersey.

He leaned forward as he steered, the feminine, digital purr of the phone calling out left turns and forks in the road.

If you knew nothing of the 44-year-old Diaz but his resume and acclaim — heralded at 27 as the United States' first Dominican-American literary star upon the publication of "Drown," his breakout story collection; a Pulitzer winner a dozen years later for his novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"; his reputation as an original, exuberant voice of contemporary fiction rock-solid despite only three books in 20 years (the tour for his latest collection, "This is How You Lose Her," brings him to Evanston Sunday for a sold-out Chicago Humanities Festival event) — you might note the somberness that morning. It was the first day of October here that felt like autumn. Leaves were yellowing, and the sky, the hue of dirty drywall, blended in with the sidewalks.

About a half hour from New York, when he reached Paterson, he parked near Charles J. Riley School, which is gray and blue and hews to the popular image of oppressive-looking urban public schools anywhere. He met with Jennifer Ciocco, his friend from Rutgers University. They hugged, talked family and gentrification.

Then she led him to classroom 307.

You know that sound in a movie trailer of a needle scratching, to signal an abrupt change of tone? Diaz brightened at the two dozen or so students: "What's going on young people, yo!" he shouted.

They were 13, 14, had no idea who he was, but safe to say: They wouldn't hear this from J.K. Rowling.

They giggled at the bald, wiry, middle-aged man with Muppet eyebrows and large, delighted eyes.

"Yo, guys," he said, "my name is JOO-no, and I am a writer and an artist but first and foremost from the Dominican Republic. Anyone born anywhere outside the U.S.? OK, Puerto Rico … Colombia ….

"Well, I'm from Santo Domingo. My family came here when I was 6. We knew no English. We had five kids. We didn't have Internet or TV. I had no photographs of the United States, yo. I grew up in the kind of immigrant family that was familiar to most of my immigrant friends: I had a mother and father who all they did all day was work. I came up in a typical urban environment, with no money in the world, yo. Everybody was trying to do something to make money. My own parents expected me to be a doctor, a lawyer, something that made cash. I wanted to be an artist and writer, and it was a strange thing to want to be."

He paused.

"I came up in a neighborhood a lot of you would recognize," he continued. "Nobody was reading. Nobody knew anything. I remember a fight breaking out because someone made the mistake of saying there were three continents and someone else was, 'No, nine.' A fight started. When I would tell cats I wanted to be a writer, they would laugh: 'Who wants to read about Dominicans? We don't read, and who would want to read about us?' Meanwhile, my mom, didn't speak a word of English, was out there, working to make things happen for the family. I felt I owed her to go to college, get a job, make enough to help the family. But I also remember thinking at your age: Do you pursue the dream everyone else tells you to pursue? The dreams of your friends and parents, which are usually about becoming a professional? Or do you have your own dreams?"

He folded his hands, nodding for emphasis, pacing between desks. Whatever restlessness had been in the room a moment ago dialed back to zero in 60 seconds. The students sat in clusters, wearing maroon uniforms, books stacked before them, listening with widening smiles as they seemed to realize: Here was an adult who could be blunt and funny and unencumbered by the worry of having to watch what he says.

Why come to Jersey? a small voice asked.

"I'm from Jersey," Diaz said. "I was raised not far from here, outside Perth Amboy, went to a school a lot like this one. I do this, I talk to you guys, because when I was young, I had never met any artist. My entire life, no one said, 'Yo, I am an artist, this is hella what I do!' Which would have helped so much. What else you got?"

A girl asked: Do you make money off books?

"Hellllllll no," he said.

A boy asked: His favorite writers?

"I am a super nerd," Diaz said. "I read everything. I read 'Lord of the Rings.' I read the stuff you read now: First 'Hunger Games' book, super tight. Yeah, yeah. I was lucky. Your age, I had a brother who liked to fight. I could be a nerd in school. People were, 'Yo, that's Junot's brother. So don't (expletive) with him.'"

Hands shot to faces convulsing in giggles. Ciocco winced and shook her head, smiling privately.

Diaz, in public, before an audience, any audience, becomes the serious writer as serious stand-up. He becomes the words on his pages, full of slang and tragicomic, with whiplash earnestness — profundity bracketed by pop culture. His Dominican characters not unlike himself, down to their back problems.

He keeps a home in Harlem and a home in Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches in the creative writing program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The way he described the job earlier that day, it didn't sound so different from his grade-school visit: "My role at MIT is to convince them art is essential in their lives. Being around art, making art. I'm a voice in the wilderness. It's no different than the rest of the world."

Indeed, when one of Ciocco's students asked what Diaz was writing now, and he described a monster book — "What if monsters took over the Dominican Republic? You know how you see all these movies where the world ends? Zombies or whatever? It would be hee-larious if aliens and zombies invaded Santo Domingo. They'd be in for a surprise, dude! The neighborhood I grew up there? We would wrap zombies up in five minutes. ZAP! I tell my mom I'm writing about monsters, she's: 'So what?' My mom can kill animals, walk up to a goat, chop it up and have it to eat in like three minutes. My mom is not impressed by zombies." — they didn't know that Diaz's path to literary gravitas began with a love for science fiction, fantasy, genre.

Earlier, on the drive to Paterson, Diaz explained: "The worlds I loved the best were imaginary. I had already left one world and ended up in this new one and felt I had a bum ticket, you know?" He described his hometown of Parlin as a "super-low-income bedroom community" populated with transients, returning Vietnam vets, hippies. At MIT, he teaches a class in "world-building," narrative strategies for painting worlds inside of books, comics, video games. On that drive, and in that grade school, he was, in a way, doing this.

"What else you got?" he asked the Paterson class.

Drizzle smattered against the long classroom window.

A boy asked: Is writing hard?

"Good question! This is why people don't want to be artists! Takes forever, man! I was 27 when my first book came out, and, dude, I still had hair! My second book? Took 11 years. I know! Three books and I'm, like, old!"

He let that sink in.

"But!" Diaz continued. "It is possible to be super good at things that you find super hard! You go out and play basketball and that (expletive) is hard, and dudes are like 'You suck — like, you suck forever.' Most of us tend to give up quick. But it's not like you're Harry Potter with a lightning bolt on your head, being the chosen one. Not the way things work, man. If what you do is incredibly hard, that just makes you normal."

A boy asked if he's married.

He said (in Spanish) that he has a girlfriend and she thinks he's a bum. The students, a few of whom were immigrants themselves, many of whom were Latino, exploded in laughs. He said when he turned 11 his mother told him to use his brother's ID and get a paper route. More laughs. He said his mom didn't think much of his being a writer: "I'm happy, and happiness doesn't count for much in her world. But I don't live in her world." Fewer laughs. He said being an artist is a gift: "It can give you the world. Some jobs bring money. But I kind of wanted the world." Silence.

The period ended.

He walked next door, to a class that, though it was for eighth-graders as well, seemed older, more ironic than the last class. The teacher introduced herself and asked her students to greet "a real-life important writer." The students snapped their fingers with approval. Diaz grinned at the snapping and adjusted his opening pitch, describing himself as having been "the worst student you have ever met." The class didn't seem to buy it.

"No kidding," he said. "Do they still tell you something you do will go down on your 'permanent record'?"

Yes, the class groaned.

"Yo, you can get your permanent record at 18," he replied. "I got mine, and I sucked!"

"So, if you were, like, bad in school," a girl asked, "how did you get to a good college?"

"Yeah, yeah," Diaz said. "I was the kid in school who read all the time, then still failed …. I bombed out of high school. You guys are different than my generation. We had this thing, 'push graduation,' which was: 'Here's a diploma, we don't want to look at you anymore.' I was one of those. Never passed a math or science class. Not a C or D. All Fs. When I started working full-time, I was delivering pool tables. It was a job for an animal. I was an animal. And by that point I was visiting friends who were in college, at Rutgers, and these cats were chillin'. Class for three hours, rest of the time hanging out with girls. They were living better than me. So I took classes and became the biggest focused nerd because I had to get out of this crappy job."

The class went quiet.

A boy broke in and asked if Diaz knows famous people now that he's a big shot. Diaz said he had Thanksgiving at the home of Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz ("My man is like 8 feet tall, yo!") and met Elijah Wood once but didn't recognize him ("My boys were, 'You so stupid, son. That's Fro-do, yo!'") The room gasped, impressed. Above Diaz's head hung a banner: "Let the choices you make today be choices you can live with tomorrow."

"OK, we're done," Diaz said. "Anything else? Anything?"

"What's your favorite animal?" a boy asked, and the class giggled at the vague silliness of the question, but Diaz, matter-of-fact, ignoring the rustling, jumped in earnestly: "I can answer that easy, yo. Ever seen a mongoose? In Santo Domingo, these mongoose, they form like little armies and work together, and when I was a kid, my mom would tell me to watch the chickens.

"Once, a mongoose ran right up to me, stood up, looked at me hard. I was all like, 'Wow, a mongoose. Cool.' Then I turned and all the chickens were gone."

The class laughed.

"Yeah, yeah," Diaz said. "Mad tricksters. They distract your ass from what they're up to, yo."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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