Sunday, July 24, 2016

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.