Students in jackets and purple sweatshirts passed me on the darkening sidewalk as I made my way along Sheridan Road carrying my copy of This Is How You Lose Her with a ticket tucked in its pages. I was headed for Cahn Auditorium, housed in a 73-year-old ivy-covered Gothic-style building on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. The Chicago Humanities Festival was hosting an hour-long discussion with Junot Díaz, and I arrived well before the 6 p.m. start time to make sure I got a good seat.
I’m sure anyone visiting this site knows Díaz as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as well as the MIT professor and 2012 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” I know him as one of the most relevant and exciting writers in America today. Relevant to me, of course. But probably to many of you too.
If I had to guess, I’d say less than 10 percent of the people there were Latino. There might’ve been more than that, but there also might’ve been way less. Mostly the people were white and north of 50. There were Asians and black people too, and I’m not saying it was weird that they were there, because Díaz’s work should and frequently is appreciated by a whole range of people from different backgrounds. All I’m saying is that, despite the Latino’s name on the billing, the event wasn’t a Latino thing.
The doors opened 30 minutes before and I sat in preparation of the glory I expected to wash over me when I saw one of my living idols. Listening to audience members around me (I have both staring and hearing problems), I could tell a lot of them were there to see Díaz like Chicagoans go to the Shedd Aquarium to see the beluga whales. They plan the whole day out, buy the tickets, see the whales, and say, “Oh, neat!” Then they forget all about the whales until next summer, or even two summers after that. A lot of the white people in attendance (I’m too scared to say “most”) were only there to say, “I saw a Pulitzer Prize-wining author on Sunday,” though they couldn’t have cared less about what he actually had to say.
The auditorium had a little more than a thousand seats divided between a lower level and a balcony level, and a small orchestra pit separated the audience from the stage where two purple armchairs sat on either end of a rectangular table with two glasses of water and a shelf with books underneath that were just for show. A man stepped to the podium on the right-side of the stage just in front of me and began thanking everyone for coming and thanking the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, among others, for sponsoring the event. Then, after introducing Mr. Díaz and special guest moderator Peter Sagal, there he was.
Díaz walked out onstage like a deer being led out into the open. He scanned the audience wide-eyed and then sat straight-backed on the edge of the chair, which is how he sat for the whole hour, until it was time to answer questions from the audience, at which point he stood toward the front of the stage. He was funny and cerebral, talking like the cool professor on campus does. His sentences were well thought out but flowed steadily without hardly a pause or stutter. He displayed a wide vocabulary and talked with a street accent, peppered with “fuck” and “shit” and “man.”
The tone of the night was much more political, much more far left, than I was expecting. I’ve read every word in all three of Díaz’s books to date, but somehow I thought he was the kind of artist who avoided the overtly political in favor of the covertly political. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As the night went on, Díaz become more and more animated and talked at length about white supremacy in American culture, the marginalization of immigrant experiences in the American mainstream, and several crises threatening the American education system.
When he talked about the dominance of white narratives in American society (“Imagine if for one day white people just shut the fuck up”), audience members, almost all of them white students, laughed and clapped awkwardly. When he described male privilege, they laughed as though it were an inside joke. When he told them that public education was being threatened by America’s corporate mindset and that boys of color were being failed by a system that viewed them as disposable, they clapped like they were at an Obama rally circa 2008. A few times he tried quieting the audience by waving his hand and nodding his head. Finally he said, “Save your fucking clapping for your stupid politicians.” No one dared laugh or clap after that.
Whether despite or because of all this, he received a standing ovation from much of the audience at the end. About half were noticeably annoyed. I heard one old white lady behind me say to another, “Why did he have to make it so political?” This was the same old white lady who huffed when a Cuban American in the audience was describing issues relating to his immigrant background, telling her little friend, “I can’t stand it.”
I headed straight to the basement where the book signing was to be held, thinking I’d wind up near the front of the line since I wasn’t lollygagging in the lobby like the rest of these fools were. But when I got downstairs the line was already snaking its way along the wall, out a door and into a hallway, then back in again. I’d have to wait at least half an hour to shake hands with the man I’d come to shake hands with. Walking Dead premiere be damned.
Having gone to the event alone, I decided to make friends with my line neighbors. I chatted up these two white high-school girls who were there with a middle-aged white woman wearing a silk scarf who gleefully dropped Spanish words into her sentences with an inescapable Anglo accent. The two girls were very friendly and just as bright, talking to me about their favorite books and their favorite authors, and even delving into the important distinction between craft and art. They blushed when they both admitted to me that they were hoping to study English in college. I guess they thought I’d laugh at them and say they were ridiculous. But I admitted to them that, if I’d been braver back in my college days, I would’ve studied English or taken up some creative art too. I talked to them about the work I did with Gozamos and the RedEye, plus the stories I’d lately been submitting to different publications, and they told me they were looking forward to reading some of my stuff.
Then the middle-aged woman with the scarf, who was one of the girls’ mom and had been chatting with another middle-aged lady, noticed me talking to the two girls and shot me a cold stare. Undaunted, I began talking to her too. It wasn’t much. Just when we were nearing the spot where Díaz was standing and signing books, I said to her and the girls (but mainly to her),“I feel like we’ve come a long way since we got in line. I think we’ve matured.” She and the girls laughed a bit, and I seized on the opportunity to put her at ease by asking her where she was from. She smiled and said, “Buenos Aires,” in a faux-Spanish accent. When I began telling her how my grandma had visited Argentina on a recent trip, she rolled her eyes, slowly blinked, and abruptly turned away and asked the other middle-aged lady an unrelated question.
I stood in silence the rest of the time, moving a couple of feet whenever the line advanced and seething with anger at coming so close to someone so intently racist. Being an optimist and a humanist, at first I thought the encounter might’ve had nothing to do with race. Maybe she was being icy toward me because I was ten years older than her daughter and her friend. Then I thought of how things might’ve been had I been a white guy, even a white Latino guy. What if I had been my regular ol’ smart and charming self, except with dirty blonde hair and light brown eyes? Call me a pessimist, call me overly sensitive, but I don’t think she would’ve minded my company as much as she seemed to at the moment.
And then, to top off my enchanting evening, two white women who both looked to be in their mid-thirties began talking about how American literature shouldn’t focus so much on immigrant experiences. “This is America,” one of them said. “American literature should be about the American experience.” I can quote her directly because the narrow-mindedness of her statement was etched onto my soul.
By the time I reached the front of the line and was getting ready to introduce myself to Mr. Díaz, I was already deflated. “Hi, I’m Junot,” the man said, and I murmured my name as we shook hands. I gave him a Gozamos sticker and asked him if he’d be willing to do an interview for the site, and he told me to email him. (He has since agreed to the interview, so be on the lookout for that.) When he’d signed my book, I thanked him, patted him on the shoulder, and walked away.
Outside on the dark street my meeting with the Junot Díaz was a blur. All I could think about was the people I’d met at the event, both gratefully and unfortunately. The girls gave me hope that racism might evaporate with time and successive generations of open-minded Americans, while the women I’d encountered and overheard reminded me of the long road still ahead.
I also walked away from the event with a new-found energy and assurance about my own work. We all have our part to play in this world, and as a writer, mine is to, as Díaz himself put it, “bring information to the people.” I’m convinced that people begin lifting their community first by lifting their voices. I hope that’s what my writing does. I hope I’m adding to the volume and helping drown out those who make the road ahead so long. I hope I’m telling outsiders about where I’m from and the people who live there, and letting insiders know they’re not alone, that we won’t only survive, but flourish.
We live in a pretty fucked up world these days, but it’s been that way for a long time. Humanity has made great strides along the way, and America has progressed and has opened up loads in its short history. Sure, there’s still tons wrong with it, still tons of issues that need fixing. But there’s still also tons of potential for further progress. There’s still tons of hope.
I thought my meeting Junot Díaz would be different, that I would feel different, that I’d feel pure bliss and inspiration. But in the end, I came away with even more conflicted.
Díaz is a hero of mine, not only because of how strong he writes, but because he’s a voice where there shouldn’t be one. Latinos shouldn’t be award-winning, best-selling authors, according to how things are supposed to go in America. And although he’s a singular figure, Díaz told the audience that he doesn’t want to be seen as a spokesman for the Latino community, or even the Dominican diasporic community. He simply wants to be “part of the conversation.” By rejecting the role of the spokesperson, he’s encouraging us all to be part of the conversations so important to our own experiences.
Junot Díaz is a writer, he’s a teacher, and for every male artist or intellectual of color, he’s also an ally.
This is how I met him.
[Photo: Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.]