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  • A brief and wondrous reading by Junot Díaz

    By Maxwell Price
    February 27, 2009
    Section: Arts, Etc.


     

     

    You could tell just by looking at the audience that something exciting was about to go down. Caribbean American college students, old ladies, and a Boston high school English class all mingled together, atwitter with the prospect of meeting the person behind the words they’d cherished, that starkly original, inventive spinner of tales about the immigrant experience.

    Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” spoke at Back Pages Books on Moody Street this Sunday, and as a result, you may never find a copy of the author’s books on the shelves in Waltham again. Mr. Díaz speaks with a rare mixture of streetwise humor, intellectual insight, and genuine human sincerity that shines through in his writing.

    The event took place in Boston University’s film school, across the street from the bookstore to accommodate the large, diverse crowd. He spent more time answering questions than he did reading, but his delivery provided clues to interpretation for the careful listener. He began by reading excerpts from a short story entitled, “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars,” which chronicles a young Dominican couple who decide to travel to Santo Domingo on vacation despite their impending breakup. His elocution was part kindergarten teacher, part Dominican Tony Soprano, adding emphasis to mark off his phrases like a poet. There was irony and dramatic perspective in his voice, bringing out colorful Hispanic phrases with relish.

    His candid, sometimes foul-mouthed commentaries on his texts ranged from hilarious asides to philosophical proclamations. One of the comments that seemed to hit home with audiences was a timely prophecy, especially to students at Brandeis. “As these hard times get harder,” he offered, “We will rediscover the importance of the arts. Although in response to hard times, the arts get jettisoned first.”

    Mr. Díaz, who is currently a professor at M.I.T., remained humble and down-to-earth despite his recent high profile accolades. He prefaced his reading with a simple, “So, uh, let’s just do this, yeah? You don’t gotta know much about this.”

    And indeed you don’t need to be familiar with Mr. Díaz’s subject matter, the inner lives of Hispanic immigrants, to appreciate his artistry. The prose leaps off the page (or in this case, the tongue) with lively descriptions, taut dialogue, and clever bilingual turns of a phrase. But beneath the narrative sparkle, there lurks a wry emotional poignance that uncovers the tensions underlying the immigrant experience.

    It’s not surprising that an author whose work evokes influences as disparate as Sandra Cisneros, J.R.R. Tolkien, and David Foster Wallace draws such a diverse readership. The range of questions from the audience was also a testament to the varying levels of interpretation in his work. A young Jamaican man wanted to know about the author’s portrayal of Caribbean unity. A middle aged white gentleman commented on the novel’s playful treatment of history. A high school English teacher inquired about bilingual communication.

    Díaz offered a window into his worldview, but he refrained from taking the work of interpretation away from his readers. “You’re a writer because you think you’re able to see something no one else can,” he explained. Seeing the man in person was only further proof that his vision cuts to the heart of the unexplored territory of American life.


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