It speaks volumes of the personality of Junot Diaz that his response to winning a Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," is this:
“It was swell, but I prefer more the work than the celebration of the work.”
Diaz will be reading from his latest book, “This is How You Lose Her,” at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas Union. The reading is part of the Hall Center for the Humanities Lecture Series.
A New York Times Best Seller and National Book Award finalist, “This is How You Lose Her” illustrates the impossible power of love through a collection of characters’ relationship stories. At the heart of the action is Yunior, a recurring Diaz character who narrated parts of "Oscar Wao" and "Drown," the author's debut short story collection.
Diaz immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was 6, and the Dominican diaspora is a central theme in many of his works. He is currently the fiction editor of Boston Review and a professor of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ahead of his reading, Diaz spoke to the Journal-World about identity, writing and reading:
In an excerpt from "This is How You Lose Her," you address a man cheating on his fiancee, but you do so in a humorous manner. Why did you decide to speak on this heartbreak in such a way?
Diaz: "One has to give the full nuance of the world, and I think that, in my aesthetic, even in our worst situations, there’s humor. And even in our most humorous situations, there’s pain. I just tried to blend it. This is a book about love and intimacy. I’m not sure it’s always about love, but it’s always about intimacy."
Much of your work centers on your Dominican-American heritage. How important is your ethnicity to your identity as a writer?
Diaz: "It’s just part of who I am. It’s sort of like asking a person how important their finger is. You might not notice it, it might be like a tiny thing in comparison to your liver or your lungs, but when you’re missing it, you’ll certainly pay attention. You’ll certainly mourn it. I don’t know if there is a ranking system from one to 100, but certainly it’s a profound part of who I am.
"The core of my projects is the Dominican diasporic experience. But I’m not sure I’m writing precisely autobiography, which I think some people confuse that with. ... And I don’t write memoir."
Do people often ask you about your work in that manner?
Diaz: "It’s just one of those things. I think generally folks want to talk about the writer instead of talk about the book. So I sort of steer them back to connotations of the book because that’s the only reason we’re chatting, it’s the only reason anyone’s interested in me. They are not interested in me because of my life."
Since you will be speaking to some young writers at KU, what is some advice you’d give students who love writing, but don’t necessarily think they will ever be published?
Diaz: "Chances are they won’t be published authors. That’s the nature of the business. It’s grim out there. It’s super grim. But I think if you’re interested in being an artist, if you’re interested in the work, the reality of it is you’re driven by your sort of commitment to be an artist above and beyond you having any success with it.
"Chances are you might be incredibly frustrated. The majority of artists get no attention and don’t see the recognition they are worth or that they merit. I always say to people, if you want to be an artist, chances are it’s going to be a tough road. But what makes it survivable, what makes it bearable, what makes it worthy or worthwhile is that we’re committed to our art. Today people might not flock, but God knows what will happen in the future. Stick with it."
How do you feel about the reading culture in college, as far as students taking the initiative to read outside class material?
Diaz: "I just think on every level we’re not a culture that really encourages reading the way perhaps we should. You’re much more likely to ask me “How do you inspire a writer?” than you are to ask me “How do you inspire a reader?” Even at the level of literary culture, we fetishize the author in ways that erase the real heroes of this enterprise. I don’t think reading gets its just deserts, and I think what one must do is what seems to be the most successful, is to encourage reading in the general and main and then of course to curate for people books as best as you can. Hand-to-hand combat: put books in people’s hands. I’m sure there are other ways to do it, but my imagination isn’t good enough."