Junot Díaz was at Ohio State University yesterday giving a reading and answering questions. Having written about his book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in my dissertation (in terms of magical realism as literary activism in the post-Cold War era) and read his first collection of short stories called Drown, you can imagine how excited I was about this event.
I was not disappointed.
In fact, I will undoubtedly be posting on his new collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, very soon.
First off, the readings. I really enjoyed Díaz’s reading style. His pace is unrushed and his tone is playful. He reads with character and it was a lot of fun to hear him perform his short story “Alma” and a section from Oscar Wao.
Then, the Q&A. He said so many interesting things, but there was one question that prompted a particularly intriguing answer from him. A young woman asked him why he uses profanity in his works, admitting that she enjoyed it in the novel and was simply curious about the choice. His response made me feel like the things I was picking up on in Oscar Wao were not of my own invention — that the politics of that work were really everything I was imagining they were. I think my favorite part of his answer came when he talked about what he called the “culture of respectability.” He said:
In what we call ‘polite discourse,’ or how the culture of respectability frames what we talk about — you know, the culture of respectability uses force on any society, on any group that says there’s certain things that we can talk about, and certain things we cannot. What I discovered very quickly is that the culture of respectability distorts our willingness and even our language in how we approach and what we say, and it creates certain silences.
He went on to explain that subjects like violence, rape, and racism are among those being silenced by the “forcefield” of the culture of respectability. He contrasted the culture of respectability’s use of “official language” (and the popular perception that “truth” only comes in certain languages — namely, those that sound official and do not use cursing) with how he writes, explaining that this is why he uses profanity: to break the silence created by the culture of respectability. [Click on the link to listen to Junot Díaz on cursing and the culture of respectability.]
Overall, this was a really enjoyable reading. Junot Díaz was down to earth, intelligent, kind, and funny. He had an endearing habit of referring to young question-askers as “Young Person” and he was simultaneously quiet and energetic. If you ever get the chance to attend a reading of his, take it!