Junot Diaz is much scrawnier in person than he appears on his book jacket. This is a positive sign for anyone that thinks contemporary authors need to be a triple threat: talented, well-spoken, buff. He is, of course, the first. And he is, I can confirm, the second. But alas, he’s as skinny and as scrawny as any of your nerdy friends from high school. Still, that didn’t impede him from releasing his third book and second collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her and embarking on a book tour.
There is no doubt initial disbelief when people discover that Junot is a professor at MIT, and it was peculiar to see him read in an auditorium designed for calculus lectures this past Thursday; but when an MIT student asked Diaz, “Why here?” he proved he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Indeed, he said he had, and he couldn’t get back to MIT fast enough. Obsessed with his department and his students, Diaz showed his love the way he knows best: dropping an affectionate curse word in nearly every sentence.
Familiar with Junot’s work, I suspected he was a master of manipulating language, able to change word meanings just by altering the inflection in his voice. And in fact, he is able to make even the most derogatory sentences void of any animosity, using curse words to propel his ideas eloquently. Hearing him speak in person made it that much easier to hear him speak in his stories. Not a person in the crowd – a crowd made up on MIT students, a few Emerson students like myself, MIT faculty, high school students and their teachers, and a large Dominican representation (Junot’s own heritage) – seemed offended or put off by his use of obscenities. Diaz’s flow was acknowledged and accepted, his curse words heard in a rhythmic way. Perhaps we, the audience, gave him pardon; after all, a writer with as much depth and talent as he has surely can be forgiven for his offensive language, but I think it was more than that. The audience was quick to acknowledge that sometimes the most sincere way to convey one’s passions and ideas is through honest language, and what’s more honest than the casual use of tabooed words?
Diaz only read a little, and only excerpts from the collection’s first story, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars.” He spent most of the reading answering questions about race, his family, and the fate of intergenerational relations. His audience was inquisitive and challenging. They perceived things within his past works - The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, most notably – that Diaz himself didn’t acknowledge as attention-grabbing. In regards to constant questions about what might be called “quiet” elements of Oscar Wao (questions about character development, etc), Diaz said, “I’m surprised people aren’t asking ‘Yo, why you got so much rape in your book?’ so I can say, ‘Yo, why you motherfuckers gotta rape so much?”
While reading the interview with Junot Diaz in this past Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine, I couldn’t help but notice how sterile the language seemed. Devoid of all obscenities – as The New York Times is notorious for its censorship of curses – the interview doesn’t sound like Diaz. It is dry and all too formal. It lacks some of the spunk that connects Diaz with the infamous Yunior, and it lacks the authenticity that was present in hearing him speak first hand. I think the lesson for me is that, no matter how much my mother discouraged cursing, even down to the use of “hate” and “freaking,” sometimes obscenities add more value to the sincerity of a message than any extensive vocabulary can.