Junot Díaz on writing about 11 Dominicans, getting ‘lunch money’ from Miramax, and the generosity of his readers

Junot Diaz. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Don’t worry so much about your readers, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Junot Díaz told a crowd of students last night. Those few people left reading, he said, are used to putting up with you.

“When it comes down to it, I think that most people forget that on average, readers are very generous,” Díaz said, responding to one student who asked whether it’s the writer’s job to make sure readers get the contexts writers present in fiction. “Which is to say, 99 percent of the planet doesn’t give a shit about reading. Most people don’t want to read, they don’t care about reading, but people who are readers are incredibly generous. They will stick through a book for a very long time.”

Díaz gave an informal reading and Q&A to an auditorium of students and fans at the New York City College of Technology in Downtown Brooklyn. It was the endnote of the school’s Literary Arts Festival, an annual celebration of student writing. 

His first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was almost universally well received when it was released in 2007; it's filled with pop culture references, footnotes and bilingual vernacular about a Dominican-New Jerseyan science-fiction nerd. And while Diaz debut book of short stories, Drown, got the ball rolling, it was the arguably unlikely success of Wao that turned Díaz into a widely read literary hero.

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But he told the room he wasn’t there as a professor, distinguished awardee or literary icon. Wearing a zip-up jacket and jeans, he instead told the students he was speaking as a fellow artist. The room was particularly receptive to a Pulitzer winner unafraid to be candid, and to curse, a lot.

Continuing on the subject of audience expectations, he said dense books would attract audiences willing to put up with something new and exciting. As an example, Díaz said people would continue reading the long, three-volume Lord of the Rings trilogy for generations, even though “half the damn book is Elvish.”

“I’m not worried about chasing people away," he said. "How many more people can we chase away by writing? Nobody reads. It’s not like I’m dropping an album, I’m like an M.C. and I’m like ‘Yo, I need all the beats to be polka beats.’ Okay, I might lose people, and there’s money involved. But there ain’t no money in this fucking game. If you get 2,000 readers, you’re good. You’re good. So you might as well do what your dream tells you to do and be happy that the people at the other end of the page are happy to see you.”

In September, Riverhead Books will release This is How You Lose Her, a volume of short stories that is Díaz's first release in the five years since Wao. (Some of his short stories have sprung up in The New Yorker in the interim, as recently as last week.) A student asked about an Oscar Wao film; back in 2007, Miramax bought the rights to it, but never made the film.

“You’ve gotta remember it’s about Dominicans in New Jersey so they paid like $500 for it,” he said to laughs. “No, I’m being honest. The shit wasn’t about werewolves, you know? Literally they paid, like, they paid me lunch money.”

Diaz said his family moved from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey and when he asked Dominicans and Caribbean students to raise their hands, half the room did so.

He read "Alma," previously published in The New Yorker, which will also appear in his new collection of short stories. Its last line is the inspiration for the book’s title. Though it’s about a character he calls a “crazy Dominican,” Díaz doesn’t want people to get the wrong idea about his attitude toward his countrymen and women.

“Guys, there’s a lot more kinds of Dominicans, so don’t be convinced," he said. "I’m just one artist. Like, I feel like people get their feelings hurt. Motherfucker, I wrote one book, you know? This ain’t about you.”

The crowd laughed as Díaz fended off arguments that his earlier fiction or soon-to-be-released stories reflect poorly on Dominican Americans.

“I always feel bad, man. I promise you there is no white writer out there, who when you read a book by a white person, and you hear other white people being like, ‘Yo this white book makes me look bad.’ I’ve never met a white writer who ever gets asked questions like, ‘Well, don’t you feel bad about the way you represent white people?’ Guys I’m not representing Dominicans, I’m representing one crazy set of like, what, 11 people? There’s like, what, 12 people in this book? There’s 10 million Dominicans, yo. I just happen to come from a family of crazy people and I think you should be allowed to write about crazy people.”

Between his New Jersey childhood and his current teaching gig at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he lived for some years in Brooklyn. He recounted trying to bring girls back to an unheated apartment he shared with a friend in the 1990s. Díaz’s Brooklyn experience stood as a counterpoint to that of the modern Brooklyn literary set.

“This is what a clown I was,” he said. “I still remember I would actually try to bring girls home to that apartment, and they would open the door, feel the cold and be like ‘motherfucker, you’re fucking crazy.’ No, but I think that’s more representative, for me, that’s always more emblematic of how stupid boys are. Like that was – what the fuck was I thinking? I can’t imagine. When I think about the heights of my dumbness, I think Brooklyn is where I was the dumbest.”

To improve their skills, he told would-be artists and writers to get outside, live life and get a bad job for a couple of years. To one student, whose conservative-leaning mother saw the student’s poetry on the computer, Díaz said offending people and making some people uncomfortable is okay, even preferable.

“If you’re doing something that gets people to tell you to stop, you’re doing something interesting,” he said. “I always think it’s a bad sign for an artist when everybody’s like ‘oh, we want more.’ That’s a bad sign. I know I’m okay when motherfuckers are like, ‘You suck.’ I’m on the right track.”

“But then,” he told the student. “What are you doing leaving your poems out so your mom can see them?”

The room laughed and he finished up, by reading an excerpt from Oscar Wao, which he borrowed from someone in the audience. Afterward, he stood in front for 20 minutes, signed books, posed for photos and spoke one-on-on fas a crowd of students surrounded him. Then the room was nearly empty before ran up the aisle to catching a plane ride back home.

“It made complete sense that you have to be in the world to actually be able to create a form of art with it,” said City Tech student Marian Alcoser, 23, the one who gave Díaz his copy of Wao to read from. “Because that’s where you get your inspiration. It’s not just sitting in your room or getting stuck in your studio.”