Smile Politely

Hanging with Junot Díaz in Key West

Four months ago, before he won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz was hanging out in my hotel room in Key West. There were a number of us there — younger, aspiring writers, lounging on the teal sofa-bed and leaning against the Formica bar, listening to Díaz tell the story about a reading with V.S. Naipaul in Australia. (“Yo, that cat hates black people,” Díaz said of the former Nobel Prize winner, who had refused to read directly after Díaz and a Russian writer, and would only come on stage after the audience had left and tickets were collected a second time.)

Díaz said he liked us because we were, in his words, “the youth.” As youth went, we were pretty lame. Yes, we were the handful of attendees at the Key West Literary Seminar who were under 35, which meant we were willing to stay up long after midnight drinking beer and listening to Díaz talk at high speeds about living in Rome for the year or the devolution of New York City as it grew as tame as New Jersey, but we didn’t seem particularly fun or easygoing, at least not in the company of the man whose short stories most of us had admired since our first creative writing classes in college.

It’s fairly unusual for an established writer, let alone the most famous writer at a conference, to hang out with the young unknowns. Generally the big names spend their free time together in more upscale digs for reasons entirely practical: the literary world is small and conferences provide an opportunity to make connections and catch up with old friends.

But Díaz seemed to care little about hanging out with his peers. He wanted to be around the youth and we apparently were it. Or maybe that’s not right. Maybe it’s that Díaz is unaccustomed to having peers, not because he is so much better than everyone else (though one could argue convincingly that he is), but because he’s unique in the literary world.

First off, no other writer I’ve seen talks like Junot Díaz. He peppers his language with swearing and New York/New Jersey slang — most of his sentences start with “yo” (“Yo, I gotta call my girl or she’s gonna kill me”), he calls people “cat,” and he uses “mad” to modify his adjectives (“That new Chang Rae Lee novel is mad good”). In fact, the way he speaks reminds me of people I knew when I lived in Brooklyn, people whose language reflected the swagger and edge and creative intensity of the city.

Though Díaz came off as cooler than most every other writer at the conference (with the possible exception of Billy Collins and his wry sense of humor), he would have a hard time hiding what he would call “his nerdy side.” He proclaims his love of history and science fiction, interests for which the title character in his novel is constantly teased. But it’s this clash of worlds, of the nerdy and the street cool, of the Dominican Republic and the United States, of English and Spanish, of high literary themes and down-to-earth real-life shit that is characteristically Junot Díaz, in person and in his writing.

And it is his success at mixing all these elements into one fantastically textured, cohesive novel that won Díaz the Pulitzer Prize for fiction less than two weeks ago and makes Oscar Wao one of those books, like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, where the author not only tells the story of an individual, a family and a people, but creates a new language in the process.

All I can say — after seeing Díaz on a Key West stage addressing a crowd comprised primarily of white septuagenarians (many of them retired teachers and librarians) where he still spoke in the same manner as he had the night before in my hotel room, saying about something (I forget what), “That’s fucking bullshit, yo!” — is that Junot Díaz is an American writer ten times more iconoclastic than Tom Wolfe for all his white suits.

If Díaz manages to skip a few more nights hanging out with all the youth of the world to focus on his writing (in his own words the reason he took so long finishing Oscar Wao was because “[he] never met a party [he] didn’t like”) then we may see another great book from him without having to wait ten years for it.

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