Distant Voices


Write Me A Letter...


Dear Fred


diaz friend lindsey

Having been simultaneously inspired by your editorial encouraging letter-writing and Brenda M. Greene’s review of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I feel compelled to write you regarding my own experience with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. While studying in Argentina this past spring, I had the opportunity to attend the 35th annual Buenos Aires Book Fair, during which Díaz held a seminar entitled “From Santo Domingo to New York: The American Immigrant Experience.” The question-and-answer format of the seminar was fairly generic – the topics covered, the questions asked, and the author himself, however, were not in the slightest.

As I’ve spent a good part of my college education studying Spanish literature, I prepared myself for a pedantic discourse on the Caribbean-American diaspora. What I got was a lively, often humorous interactive discussion of the dangers (physically, emotionally, and linguistically) of growing up hardly one generation and one ocean away from one of the most horrific and secretive genocides in the western hemisphere’s recent history. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, he handled the topic as deftly in life as he did in the novel - with wit, humor, and a bit of street smarts. It must be said: Junot Díaz is a riot.

What is it about these guys? In my own childhood, my best girlfriend and I had a regular summer ritual that consisted of playing softball with the boys, then the two of us beating up a certain neighborhood nerd named Howard. We weren’t tough girls or anything; we just beat up Howard because we could.

The seminar was conducted entirely in Spanish, which threw into relief Díaz’s nimble Spanglish, a linguistic tic that features prominently in his novel. When confronted with a particularly in-depth question, he would animatedly shout, “¡Diablo!” and chuckle before responding. He seemed genuinely touched and heartened by the audience’s passion for and connection to the book, even a year after its release and 5000 miles away from its origin.

Many of the audience-fielded questions revolved around his relationship to the main characters in the novel – where he drew his inspiration from, and to what degree the book was autobiographical. Díaz sheepishly admitted that he identifies most closely to the closeted nerdiness of the narrator Yunior, but that the novel is driven by and built around the female characters, whose irrepressible and often demented love for country, tradition and especially family is what renders the fearsome events described in the novel more bearable and ultimately relatable. “It is a book about love,” he said. “I loved the idea of writing a book about a family, about a group of people who carry in their hearts this terrible love that the world… well, that has no place in this world. A love that can never find a worthy complement.”

This idea of love in the face of brutality was tragically familiar to many of the older Argentines present at the conference. Argentina’s first truly democratic government was established only in 1982, following centuries of political and economic turmoil, and a government best known for its ability to make dissenters disappear, a situation that unfortunately mirrors not only that of the Dominican Republic, but of Latin America as a whole during the postwar period. Aware of this shared history, Díaz spent some time explaining how the novel navigates two contrasting time periods: “Each one of the characters has a future that is never separate from his or her past. In this way I had a narrative helix – a double narrative – where every chapter in the present had its partner in the past.”

After the seminar, Díaz took some time to sign books and meet with the audience. I and my friend were towards the end of the line, which actually proved to be an advantage, as he had time to stay and chat with us for a few minutes. “Ah yes, Americans!” he cried when he saw us. Since all of us had grown up in the tristate area, albeit from entirely different backgrounds (and, he admitted begrudgingly, different decades), we talked about our experience as students in New York. We exchanged insults about our respective home states - Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey - and he made sure to poke fun at my Connecticut hometown, where he used to deliver pool tables to make ends meet during college. He is unbelievably gracious and charming, and intent on keeping things informal - he is never Mr. Díaz, just Junot, and prefers a hello kiss to a handshake. He curses like a sailor, both in English and Spanish, but is as much of a master conversationalist as he is an author, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall in love with him and the novel all over again that day.

After the seminar, Díaz took some time to sign books and meet with the audience. I and my friend were towards the end of the line, which actually proved to be an advantage, as he had time to stay and chat with us for a few minutes. “Ah yes, Americans!” he cried when he saw us. Since all of us had grown up in the tristate area, albeit from entirely different backgrounds (and, he admitted begrudgingly, different decades), we talked about our experience as students in New York. We exchanged insults about our respective home states - Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey - and he made sure to poke fun at my Connecticut hometown, where he used to deliver pool tables to make ends meet during college. He is unbelievably gracious and charming, and intent on keeping things informal - he is never Mr. Díaz, just Junot, and prefers a hello kiss to a handshake. He curses like a sailor, both in English and Spanish, but is as much of a master conversationalist as he is an author, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall in love with him and the novel all over again that day.

Lindsey Peckham

Lindsey Peckham is entering her last semester at New York University and is pursuing degrees in Spanish and French Literature and Culture and Business.



Return to home page