Dream a little dream with Junot Diaz

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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.

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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