Sunday, July 24, 2016

An Interview with T. S. Chaudry about The Queen of Sparta

If you’re into historical fiction and have a penchant for the ancient world and classical history, The Queen of Sparta is an excellent account of the Persian Wars from the view of the formidable Spartan Queen Gorgo. I recently had the opportunity to interview the author, T. S. Chaudhry, about the book, and the meticulous research that makes this portrayal so rich. 

Out of all the figures who are described in the works of Herodotus, what was it about Gorgo that inspired you to focus on her?
The whole idea behind the Queen of Sparta came to me when I first read Herodotus. I read his Histories as a teenager when I was preparing to take my ‘A’ level exams in England. Herodotus paints a vivid and romantic picture of how a relatively small number of Greeks managed to defeat a two million-strong Persian invasion. However, he provides us with no direct answers as to how the Greek resistance was organized and by whom. Leonidas could have been a candidate for this but he dies relatively early in the struggle. The Athenians Themistocles or Aristeides could have organized it but the former is shown by Herodotus as a brilliant tactical trickster rather than a strategic genius and the latter is, at the time, a discredited politician who carries little weight in his native Athens, let alone the rest of Greece. And there was no other significant male personality to lead the Greeks. So it had to be a woman, and in a patriarchal Greece, she had to play her role behind the scenes. And Herodotus provides us with ample clues about her: the little girl who prevented her father from making a blunder by warning him against the temptations being offered by a Miletan tyrant; and the young Queen who could find a secret message where the brightest in minds in Sparta could not – a woman who clearly impressed Herodotus.  The Persians could have still won the war but they did not because someone was orchestrating the resistance.  Reading in between the lines of Herodotus, I had no doubt that that person could have been none other than Queen Gorgo.

What were the defining moments in describing Gorgo in the story that helped you conceptualize her as a character?  
 In the history of the Persian Wars there are key events like the Ionian Revolt, the battle of Marathon, and the Persian invasions, where the Spartans behaved in certain, some might even say peculiar, ways. They refused to support the Ionian Greeks in their revolt even though a generation earlier they liked to portray themselves as their allies and protectors. The Spartans delayed their arrival at Marathon at a time when shying away from any battle was considered characteristically un-Spartan. And then whole sequence of how the Persians were slowed down, split up and finally defeated presented more questions than answers. And for me the only explanation to all these recorded historic moments was Gorgo. I conceptionalized her as person who did things a little unorthodoxly, especially in a place like Sparta where strict conformity was the rule, if not the only rule. Her non-conformity comes out both in her personality and in her physical appearance.  

Today, we would call Gorgo a person who thinks outside the box and the box in Sparta was pretty solid and confining.  By thinking outside the box she her save Greece, she challenges long-held Spartan attitude towards their Helot slaves, and appreciates Sherzada’s viewpoints.  Even though she can be ruthless, she has a strong moral fibre that makes her stand up for what she thinks is right. She is at her best in moments of crisis, when her back was against the wall; and becomes the very picture of grace under pressure. That is the image I hope the readers will also see.

The meticulous research is evident throughout the novel, and in particular, the detail on ancient warfare is excellent. One of the biggest challenges in writing historical fiction is integrating research with the plot and the characters. How do you achieve that balance?

The most difficult part of writing this novel was that the plot had largely been defined by history. I could not tell a credible story about a real Spartan Queen without deviating too much from what history had recorded about Gorgo and her times. And, indeed, initially the plot was so restrictive that some of those who read the earlier versions of the manuscript encouraged me to drop the entire project. But the more I read the history of the period, the more I became aware of the many gaps in our historical knowledge. This enabled me to narrate a story without actually changing any of the historical facts. For example, there is no record of what happens to Gorgo and her son after the defeat of the Persians allowing me sufficient scope to develop the story the way I wanted to.

The vast majority of the characters in the novel are indeed non-fictional and I had to restrict myself largely to their respective historical roles and stories. But again, gaps in recorded history enabled me to create a few entirely fictional characters, especially the main male protagonist, Sherzada. Some of my readers might find him unbelievable but he was not at all anachronistic. Modern historical research and evidence supports the notion of travel and contacts between peoples over vast geographical distances.  Herodotus himself attests to long distance contacts. In fact, Sherzada’s journey to the Baltics is largely based on Herodotus’ own description – werewolf included.

Contacts between South Asia and Greece in particular were not unusual. People born in the Indus Valley died fighting for the Persian Empire in the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. and in later battle against the Greeks as they were to die fighting for the British Empire in the Battle of the Marne in 1918 and both the World Wars.  Nor is the character of Sherzada out of sync with the times. His character is very typical of a warrior of his time.

So the plot emerged through a crazy combination – partly determined by straight-jacket imposed by recorded history and elsewhere from the very large gaps our historical knowledge of the period has left for us.  I am not at all claiming that this story is historically accurate, but it is certainly plausible and it is a story that has not been told before.

In the notes about the book, you cite a quote by Aeschylus: “In war, truth is the first casualty” in reference to your choice of providing a view of both sides of the war. At what point in crafting the novel did you decide to develop Sherzada’s character to more evenly balance the points of view?

In fact, Aeschylus makes a cameo appearance in the novel, more as comic relief than anything else, which is ironic because he was more famous in his lifetime for his tragedies.

But you have hit the nail on the head but describing this as an underlying theme of the novel. There are essential two factors which led to the development of Sherzada’s character.

The first goes back to my first reading of Herodotus as a teenager where I saw the whole account of the Persian invasion as being largely one-sided.  To be fair, Herodotus tried to be balanced wherever he could to the extent that another famous historian Plutarch accused him of being a “Barbarian lover.” But I did not see it that way. Though I have been raised partly in the West, I am a Pakistani who is no stranger to subtle ethnocentricities which come out even when Western writers try to be even-handed and objective. So I wanted to be the first non-Western writer to give a non-Western viewpoint to what was a core event in Western history –  perhaps opening myself to the very same criticism in the process.  Initially, the entire story was going to be presented by Sherzada’s point of view but I was sensibly advised that it would be more interesting to have both Gorgo’s and Sherzada’s viewpoints presented in the novel side by side. But then I again, I also wanted to blur the lines between “East” and “West.” That is why I underscore the Greek links with India in the beginning to make the point that Ancient Greek history is as relevant and important to Asia as it is to Europe.

The second factor comes from my personal experience as a scholar and diplomat who had dealt with real life conflicts.  In war zones throughout the world, the veracity of Aeschylus’ quote has been impressed upon time and again. There are rarely conflicts which are black and white. Most conflicts are characterized by (no pun intended) multiple shades of grey. I have worked on peace processes in South Asia, the Balkans, and Africa and I have seen no conflict in which truth has not been the first casualty and no war in which every side, rightly or wrongly, felt they were in the right.  And each side always has its story.  In this case, I felt that another side of the story—though not necessarily a Persian version—needed to be told and the writing of history—even in fictional form—need not always be the prerogative of the victors.

You present an interesting concept with Gorgo’s father—rather than being cast as a mad king, he is transformed as a visionary who practices realpolitik. What inspired this unique portrayal?  
 Throughout history men of vision have been condemned as madmen or worse, the treatment of Galileo being but one example.  I too would have relegated him to the status of a madman, had I noted the amount of ink Herodotus invested in King Cleomenes. For any apparently insignificant, and supposedly mad Spartan King, Herodotus devotes a disproportional number of pages to his exploits. So he was clearly a man our historian took very seriously.  Sparta is not a major power in Greece before Cleomenes, rather it is seen a local rival of Argos.  After Cleomenes, it is suddenly one of the most important states in Greece, if not the most important. So Cleomenes must have done something to make that happen.

Modern research also supports the view that there was more to Cleomenes than what met the eye, though historians even now continue to debate which side of the line dividing genius and madness he was really on. To me, Cleomenes was an eccentric; a weird and wonderful politician who could cut through the fluff and see the reality for what it was. It was not that he was a nice person, in large part he was not. Yet, like many Machiavellian characters he knew how to play the game of realpolitik to deliver the best possible outcome for Sparta.  

What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?
I am currently writing the “prequel” to the Queen of Sparta called “Fennel Field.” It describes the events leading up to the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. (roughly a decade before the period covered in the Queen of Sparta). “Fennel Field” is the literal English translation of the Greek word “Marathon.” Many of the characters of the Queen of Sparta make an appearance in Fennel Field with some of the minor ones playing the major roles and vice versa.

“Fennel Field” is a story of a half a dozen or so individuals, including at least one woman, who are caught up in a chain of events that they cannot control and yet inadvertently end up contributing to the outcome of what has been called by many historians as the first decisive battle in Western history.

The book can be found on Amazon.

(post originally published June 25, 2014) 

The (Wine-Fueled) Journey of a Book Cover

My Muse and I haven’t been on great terms for the past few weeks. With the release of the Shadows of a Fading World anthology and the novelette Captured Possessions, I foundered, even though the third novel is well underway. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to resurface from this artistic void and finish the story. Maybe it was time to move on to something else? I wiled away the hours playing Oblivion and thought about working on other stories. As my husband and mom both pointed out, even Hemingway took a break from time to time. After all, I work full-time, am involved in a number of volunteer activities, and am running the PR for my own imprint. Finally, the characters of the third novel came back to me, even stronger than before. 

In recent weeks, I’ve appeared on Wendy Van Camp’s No Wasted Ink blog, and have become hooked on searching for my family tree on What began as a trip to the town where my great-grandmother grew up has sprouted into a new novel, and while I’m still in early stages of research, it’s brought me a lot closer to my family history—something I didn’t pay much attention to before. 

To be fair to the Muse of Words, in order to release Captured Possessions, I had to come up with a cover, so the Muse of Graphic Design had to take center stage for a while. I had long envisioned a certain image as I worked on the story: Eyes of flame looming in the clouds above a dark sea—either becalmed before or after a storm. I was so certain of this image that I bought the images from a stock photo site. However, when I got around to working with them in PhotoShop, the cover looked nowhere near as good as I had hoped. 
What followed was a lot of silly mayhem. I tested and bought numerous images—some were ridiculous but I couldn’t resist trying them out. Then a new vision struck: at first, I saw a close-up of a galleon’s rigging, the words emblazoned around it. I found several excellent images of galleons from the time of Spain’s war with England. Just as I was about to give up (it being after 1:00 a.m. and there was enough pinot noir to knock out a sailor)—the perfect image appeared. It spoke to the lead character and how alone she felt throughout the journey north to England, as well as showing the abandonment of the ship she was on after it was severely damaged after an explosion from a nearby ship within the armada itself. 
Here’s the story of how I got there: 

If you design book covers, what’s your process like? How drastically different are the covers that come to mind, or do you stick with one image and see it through no matter what? Do you share your ideas out on social media channels to gauge interest (or have contests to help decide), or do you rely on your inner circle of people who know your writing best? Which book covers have you found to be the most striking, and why? 

(post originally published February 23, 2014) 

Archiving Literary History, Then and Now

(post originally published October 20, 2012) 

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has become an amazing place. It serves as a hub for collaborative projects that span Harvard University, and all disciplines, from humanities to the sciences, are explored in a variety of symposia and events. I seem to be going there a lot lately. I missed the Julia Child celebration, but fortunately, all of the panel discussions are available online

This week, I attended an event hosted by Radcliffe and Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, entitled From Author’s Hand to Printer’s Mind: When and Why Do Literary Manuscripts Survive?—A Lecture and 20 Questions with Roger Chartier. I really didn’t know what to expect, except that it has to do with books, and of course I’ll attend any event about literature and publishing. The topic dovetailed nicely with the stellar Why Books? conference from two years ago and the Take Note conference. 

Roger Chartier spoke about archiving literary manuscripts, generally focusing on 1750 onward. Much has been lost before 1750, but he did discuss the Shakespeare folios and how literary historians try to piece together a biography of not only the author, but the works themselves, by collecting drafts, revisions, notes, letters, anecdotes, and anything that will help piece together the history of a play or novel. Much ado was given to the “genetic perspective” of a text—and the importance of being able to study the creative process. The various challenges of literature throughout history were also presented: the restrictive effects of the Licensing Act of 1737, which sought to control the content of plays. After a manuscript was approved, the printer had to send a copy back to the licensing office to ensure no offensive or seditious material made its way in. A major theme was authenticity. Interesting questions arose: in the nineteenth century, when serialized fiction was popular, there was a distinction between the individual chapters printed in the magazines and the final, collected novel. Charles Dickens had to be concerned about deadlines and space constraints for the serialized works—so when the entire story was compiled and he had the opportunity to revise, which is more “authentic,” the original pieces from the magazine, or the entire novel as he intended it to be in one piece? 

Out of the many topics that went deep into the realm of literary research, a common theme kept coming up: How does it relate to today’s method of archiving literature? Consider the popular writing software Scrivener. In it, I can make countless annotations, compile my research, keep a history of my revisions, all in one place. One need only archive my hard drive to compile a biography of my writing history. 

When someone posed the question about self-publishing, and how literature was “written for the general public, but is now written by the general public,” and is this democratization of publishing a good thing, I waited, poised to jump in to defend indie publishing. Not a single person spoke out against it. Roger Chartier even compared today’s indie publishing movement to the age before literary agents and big corporate interests. Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard Library, champions the Digital Public Library of America, spoke about copyright and how the laws are being used a foils by lobbying groups and has a negative impact on the digitalization of works. That could have been a symposia topic of its own. But it isn’t new. Authors such as Diderot and Milton railed against monopolies and what is truly in the best interest of the artist. 

All in all, it was a fascinating discussion. I was amazed at how much information was packed into two hours. My favorite bit was summing up an author’s creative work as a “unity of hand, heart, and mind.” And I’m glad to see the abundance of interest in preserving it as best as our society can. 

Suffering for Your Art and the Question of the MFA Degree

It’s an old line. You must suffer for your art. It’s been said by famous artists and struggling students alike. Is it true? It can be. For me, the moment that was suffering on what felt like a cataclysmic level occurred in the summer of 2004. I was recently divorced, and was just settling into my own place. I loved living alone, and I spent every minute I could on my novel, The Veiled Mirror. It started out in first person, as it is now. But while listening to my classmates in a creative writing workshop a year before, I let another student’s comment get to me: “Women in medieval times had nothing to say. This won’t be interesting in the first person. Women didn’t do anything back then.” It was an ignorant thing to say, but I let the insecurity get to me, so after more than 200 pages, I scrapped it and started over.

More than 300 pages into the third-person version, I submitted an excerpt of it to a workshop in the summer of 2004. The author running it, Stratis Haviaras, was a brilliant and wise teacher, but the class sometimes turned into a shark tank. A lot of the writers were young, inexperienced, and petty. They tore each other up frequently. My novel had gotten very dark and violent in the third person, and I wasn’t feeling it in my soul. Something wasn’t right, and I knew it. But the take-down in class was devastating and vicious. I cried all the way home.

In the next class, as the shark tank filled with someone else’s blood, the first line of The Veiled Mirror came to me: “It started with fire.” The epiphany felt divine. Later, when I stormed through Harvard Yard to meet Haviaras for a one-to-one meeting and give him  a piece of my mind for letting the other students be so mean, he stood at the top of the steps of one of the old buildings, smoking a cigarette. When he saw me, he took off his hat and greeted me with a sweeping bow. He had a glimmer in his eye that told me he knew I had learned something important. Instantly charmed, I settled down, but our meeting was rather quiet. Our meetings often had been through the term. He said something about how we don’t talk much, and I told him about the divorce. He became Jedi-like, looking at me with a compassionate wisdom. “Ah, yes, I know. Well, we must suffer for our art.” But he also told me he truly believed this novel would be published. He was also shocked to the core that I let that stupid comment get to me, and take my novel in the wrong direction by bringing it into the third person. He was ready to go track that person down and give them a piece of his mind.

The novel practically wrote itself after that. Sure, there were moments of suffering. In 2005, when traveling through Romania, I suffered. No sleep due to the hundreds of barking, feral dogs in the town. No food, because the organization running the retreat seemed to always be losing the money to run the trip. I suffered after the novel was done, with a stream of form rejection letters from literary agents. Then I took charge of my own destiny and published independently, and I haven’t looked back.

Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. The Veiled Mirror was the focus of my studies when I worked on my master’s. It went through at least five workshops. The response was overwhelmingly positive a vast majority of the time. And I learned from the criticism as well. It made me work harder, and made me a more focused writer. Some people say that trying to institutionalize art programs make people less creative and more conformist. It’s all about what you put into it, and learn from it. I strongly recommend MFA programs to prospective students because it gives you the discipline to stay focused and keep working. 

Eastern philosophers have been known to say that artists in the West “suffer for their art” because Western artists make it all about material success, rather than mystical and inspirational art that comes from the soul. I’ve studied a lot about Sufism, Taoism, and I tend to agree with the Eastern view these days. Sure, there is some suffering for your art, as there is suffering in life. But don’t let it become an excuse. I’ve heard too much of that as well in classes. “Oh, writing is so hard! I just can’t make myself do it!” In order to be an artist of any kind, you have to practice your art. Just follow your heart, your Muse, and liberate the creativity to its own free realm. 

(post originally published February 26, 2011) 

The Hidden Magic: Research

“In endeavoring to estimate a remarkable writer who aimed at more than temporary influence, we have to first consider what his individual contribution to the spiritual wealth of mankind. Had he a new conception? Did he animate long-known but neglected truths with new vigor, and cast fresh light on their relation to other admitted truths?” —George Eliot

The last thing I ever expected to write about was Middlemarch. I’ve long had a difficult relationship with this book, but round three with it taught me new appreciation for it, particularly when I got to the end. And I don’t mean because I think I’ve read it for the final time, but because I finally read the back matter of the Norton Critical Edition, where the notes and essays on literary criticism are. It was there I discovered something rarely seen: an author’s own notes on a novel. The thought process, the crafting behind the magic, was revealed. 

Titled “Quarry for Middlemarch,” these intricate notes offer a behind-the-scenes view into how George Eliot researched the novel. Eliot details political decisions that influenced nineteenth-century English society; the university exam periods at Oxford and Cambridge; and a tremendous amount of scientific research about cholera, the history and treatment of delirium tremens, and numerous excerpts from The Lancet, which was a relatively new publication in Eliot’s time. 

I was riveted. Reading “Quarry for Middlemarch,” I felt like I was viewing a magician’s secrets. How often does one get to see this kind of thing? Which other expanded and annotated versions of other novels reveal the research behind the novel? I have an annotated Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and I actually took courses on Tolkien’s medieval resources and the languages he developed, but I want more. Something about having access to the research informs me as a writer. What stays in the notebook and what takes off in the story and gives it life—the magical essence that makes readers hold onto it? Medieval alchemists rarely, if ever, shared their secrets. One theory of the history behind the word “gibberish” makes the claim it was based on eighth-century alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, whose name in Latin became “Geber.” He was so paranoid about others stealing his secrets he created his own writing system and Geber eventually transformed into gibberish. As I read “Quarry,” I felt like I could finally dissect Middlemarch, and my appreciation for it was far higher than ever before. George Eliot wanted to examine marriage, science, and massive change, primarily in the form of the burgeoning Industrial Age, new scientific research, and politics impacting the very structure of society. 

I’m addicted to research. Notes from dozens of history books are compiled into binders, one for each novel I plan to write. For stories where worldbuilding is necessary, I’ve created my own languages, maps, and world histories. The good news is that most of my research is done for the next few novels. The bad(?) news is that I always find more excellent history books to read and add to my notes. But after having spied into the creative mind of George Eliot, it made me wonder: who, if anyone, is going to go through my research after I’m long gone? If my stories make an impact and last, will “Quarry for Dark Lady of Doona” appear in the back matter of some annotated version of the book? Will some grad student, teacher, or writer find something of value there? Well, here’s a note to future researchers, if they care to know: seek out the original opening to Dark Lady of Doona. It had a certain rhythm to it that set the narrative tone, even though it “told” more than it “showed.” 

(post originally published February 24, 2013) 

Jane Franklin's Spectacles

(originally published December 30, 2013) 

How does one reconstruct a biography of a person mostly lost to history?

Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker, addressed this question last week at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Titled “Jane Franklin’s Spectacles, or, the Education of Benjamin Franklin’s Sister,” the lecture provided a fascinating portrait of the founding father’s little known sister, with whom he was very close. 

The lore of Ben Franklin is well-known. An innovator and self-made man, he wrote the prototype for what would become the format for the autobiography. Too poor to go to Harvard, he was an avid reader who passed along the love of reading to his sister. Few books were in their home, but both Ben and Jane read Plutarch’s Lives and were also influenced by Daniel Defoe, who was an advocate for the education of women at a time when many women were illiterate. In 1731, Ben Franklin founded the first lending library in the US. He also invented bifocals, and helped his sister with selecting her own spectacles by sending her a set of lenses with instructions on how to test her sight.

Spectacles were at the heart of the lecture. An emblem of intellect, they were used as a prop in many portraits painted at the time. He preferred to wear them during the painting (rather than simply hold them in his hand, like many other subjects of contemporaneous paintings), showing his love of reading and learning. In sad contrast, Professor Lepore said she found only two eighteenth-century portraits of women with spectacles. The quest to learn as much as she could about Jane Franklin led Lepore to find a pair of her own replica spectacles, which she hoped, in a magical-thinking worldview, would lend insight into Jane’s life. Jane’s writing is in the form of a sixteen-page pamphlet she called “The Book of Ages,” in which she chronicles the births and deaths of family members. Most of the pages are blank. One cannot help but wonder what she may have said to lend more details about her life.

Jane’s writing did exist. She wrote many letters to her brother. Yet, as old patriarchal society would have it, they were not deemed relevant by Harvard history professor (and later president of the College), Jared Sparks, so he destroyed them while reading Ben’s letters in preparation for writing his biography. As whispered epithets flew about me, I cringed at this notion, hoping I had misheard the remark. I didn’t.

As someone who primarily writes historical fiction, I attended this lecture because I too delve into writing projects where there is a dearth of information as I gather research. I’m accustomed to scouring online journals, libraries, and querying professors around the world about obscure women in history. I wasn’t surprised to learn that few details are known about the only queen on the Sumerian king list—but I was shocked, shocked, to hear that in a well-documented era such as the eighteenth-century, a recording of a life could be cast away so dismissively. To me, all knowledge is sacred and worth having. As I imagined Jared Sparks tossing letters so precious to Benjamin Franklin into the fireplace, I wondered what else has been lost over time. Maybe there was indeed a cuneiform tablet explaining the life of Queen Kubau, but some archaeologist chucked it back into a pit, now paved over as a parking lot in Baghdad, because the contents weren’t deemed worthy of archiving—simply because she was a woman.

Professor Lepore made an interesting parallel between the Franklins and author Virginia Woolf. Lepore speculated that Virginia Woolf saw the listing for Jane’s letters in a 1928 auction catalog from Sotheby’s. Woolf then imagined a story about a fictitious character, Judith Shakespeare, sister to her famous brother William. Was she inspired by Jane Franklin? Could be so, and the way Professor Lepore described it made it all that more intriguing.

The biography, The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, was an engrossing read. I tried to savor each chapter at a leisurely pace, wanting to highlight and take notes for my own purposes, though I have no plans on writing a novel about this topic—yet—I devoured the book all too fast in my enthusiasm. Definitely one to return to at a later date. Highly recommended! 

Entering Silences

(originally published Sept. 12, 2013)

I wish Junot Díaz had been my writing instructor at some point. That’s not to say my instructors weren’t great—they were—but I got so much insight out of Junot Díaz’s talk at the Brattle Theater (via Harvard Book Store), that it took me days to process what he said. Much ado has already been published about perceptions of his treatment of gender and race. Suffice to say, he likes to write about deeply flawed characters, and many readers don’t see the nuances—some take it at face value as his opinion, and nothing could be further from the truth he’s trying to portray. An article from the Atlantic last year goes into this in more detail, particularly in regard to gender. If you follow him on Facebook, he often shares articles that help explain his point of view, such as the portrayal of young men in today’s society.

The evening began casually. He tossed a lot of questions to the audience: how many students were there, how many faculty, where everyone was from—ultimately making it feel like a really big creative writing workshop—informal and conversational. Realizing he had forgotten his own copy of the featured book, This Is How You Lose Her, he asked to borrow a copy from someone in the audience. Paging through, he shook his head and sighed, announcing he’d read a piece that was one of his least favorites. Later, when asked why he made the comment, Díaz explained that there are just some stories that are just good enough, “the best you can do” as an artist, like some people knot ties well, and others, well, tie them as best they can. This was one of those stories. Despite his self-criticism, it was a great piece, describing his ever-present narrator Yunior, who appears in all of his works, and how he destroys a relationship with a Sonic Youth-loving girl who discovers his diary in which he describes having an affair. Yunior thinks he’s more mature and enlightened than he is. The question is, how will he evolve in future works?

People ask him how much of his fiction is autobiographical. He responded by saying that while there are always elements, there is an “alchemy of fiction,” which combines lies in order to produce a truth. For him, relationships are lexicons of things not said, and by exploring relationships of all kinds—family, romantic, racial/by gender—he paves the way to delve into spaces many people prefer to pretend do not exist. He likes delving into those stereotypes and perceptions, not to reinforce them, but to offer up questions—how groups maligned by imperial attitudes can add to the stereotypes about themselves by using these distortions as a means to describe each other and themselves; how people domesticate and tame a maligned group by ridiculing them, making clowns of them so they are no longer a threat, but are still clearly subordinate. He then asked how many women can say they have male mentors—hands went up. Yet, when men are asked if they’ve had a female mentor, he’s yet to see a hand go up. In one thread of conversation, he made a comment about the common imperial circuitry enforcing the idea that women aren’t fully human, and through his characterization, he shows the negativity of holding on to these patriarchal ideas. Through his thoughtful narrative style, Junot Díaz addresses an array of difficult notions our society often tries to sweep under the rug or treat through generalizations. He referred to it as “entering silences.” The result is powerful.

In a cultural comparison, he acknowledged the pervasive tendency to portray graphic violence and such in today’s literature and film. Yet, for him, comic artist Charles Schultz presented a harsher reality than stories such as The Hunger Games. Some characters never see success. Charlie Brown never kicks that football, Díaz pointed out, and that perpetual failure forces people to think about flaws, limitations, and disappointments—a thing far harsher than gratuitous violence, in his opinion. It takes more courage to admit the glass is half full than to call it a full glass and praise it as such.

By the end of the event, I wanted to go back and read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao all over again. It’s very different from the kinds of books I usually read. I loved his writing style, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the narrative structure. I look forward to catching up on his other works as well. With any luck, he’ll be a presenter at the Boston Book Festival in October, and will offer more insight on how he achieves such a multi-layered narrative: great stories, interesting voices, and barriers of silence broken.