Intellectual street language
"One must maintain a committed relationship with the arts. The arts can be devil, can confuse; it can bore you to death," is how artist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz greeted the Open VISIONS Forum audience Monday evening, Oct. 26, at Fairfield University's Quick Center. "The arts almost unlike every other component in our culture and society can never make you less human."
Of all the lecturers who have spoken before the Open VISIONS Forum audiences none has been more appreciative nor given more accolades to those who make the lectures possible. He drew attention to each and every one, from the president of Fairfield University, Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, to Prof. Philip Eliasoph, founder of Open VISIONS Forum, to the producer, Elizabeth Hastings, the various dedicated professors on the faculty, the backstage crew, the lighting and sound engineers, video operators and volunteers who usher and even to the audience who come faithfully as subscribers and students. It was a well-deserved tribute as shown by the applause. That is Junot Diaz: an appreciative man.
He refers to himself as an "artist" -- avoiding the word "writer," saying that what a writer produces is art. He feels strongly about those who appreciate the arts because he said most people say, "F*** the arts."
Never vulgar, but rather familiar and relaxed is his way. Words flow with an intellectual prowess that are enhanced by the ease and naturalness of street language.
Diaz said that the evening would be a sort of marathon of events. First he said he would read a couple of sections from his book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, then "the reading will finish and you will wake up and clap, then we shall share questions with our learned faculty. This is the best part," he said, "because if I f*** up the Q&A with the faculty in front of their president, Rev. von Arx, oh man, you know it will be funny."
He said he was interested in the "gaps of stories, the places where there isn't a story." If there is a four or five months' gap in a person's life time or nothing is written about some period in history, that is what pulls him in and grabs his attention. It was with that in mind that drove him to write about the Trujillo period in his native land, the Dominican Republic, where everyone talked about the dictator and the terrible time, but when no one really said anything, but, "Oh that was during Trujillo."
He read from the beginning of the second chapter, titled "Wildwood -- 1982-1985," that introduces the reader to 12-year-old Lola, Oscar's sister and their mother Beli.
"It's never the changes we want that change everything. This is how it all starts: with your mother calling you into the bathroom. You will remember what you were doing at the precise moment for the rest of your life: You were reading Watership Down and the rabbits and their does were making their dash for the boat and you didn't want to stop reading, the book has to go back to your brother tomorrow, but then she called you again, louder, in her I'm-not-f***ing-around voice, and you mumbled irritably, Si, señora.'"
The section tells of Lola seeing her mother standing in the bathroom with her breast exposed, telling her to stop starring and feel the lump and glands which are to be removed because they are cancerous. Lola felt the breast and said she could feel something and what she felt was more than the lump. As her mother changed after her breast was removed and her hair fell out, Lola changed, "not right away but it happens, and it's in that bathroom where it all begins. Where you begin."
Diaz noted that later in the chapter, because of the relationship with her mother which has never been good, Lola decides to run away to Wildwood, N.J. Wildwood, he said, represents so much to people because it is like Las Vegas and Cancun all together. We learn from the reading that Lola's running away, didn't turn out to be what she thought it would be. Diaz said, "She is feeling kinda bad, so she decides to call home for the first time in a couple months to speak to her brother, mostly because she is lonely and it is where we meet her."
Continuing to read we learn that Lola asked Oscar to meet her in a drug store and bring her some clothes and money from where her mother kept it. The next day they met and they hugged for a long time as Oscar whispered into her ear, "I am so sorry." When she looked up, there was her mother and two of her aunts. Lola screamed and then her mother said, "Muchacha del diablo." At that, Lola started to run down the boardwalk until she heard her mother fall. Her red wig flew off and she was bawling like a baby. Lola didn't want to stop but knowing she was dying, "I reached down to help her she clamped on to me with both hands. That was when I realized she hadn't been crying at all. She'd been faking? Her smile was like a lion's. Ya re tengo, she said, jumping triumphantly to her feet. Te tengo."
With that, Diaz sat down with Eliasoph, Candelario, assistant professor of Spanish, and Edrik Lopez, assistant professor of English. Throughout the book are a number of footnotes and Candelario asked about them in a typical academic and circumlocutory manner, to which Diaz in his delightful way, expressed a long: "Uuuuuuw, and that's the first question? What's going on in Fairfield? You guys. What the f***? Whew! Wow! I grew up very Catholic, with the typical Catholic terror of the Jesuits and their institutions," which brought the house down. Taking a breath, he answered the question by pointing out that society, by which he meant New Jersey or the academic body and faculty "predisposes us to give authority a certain kind of narrative. ... We're predisposed to give authority to history, to learned discourse from experts, to commentary from our politicians. We all claim that our politicians lie, but every time they lie we fall for it. Most of us are more apt to believe an official lie than a frivolous truth."
Diaz said that because it took him so many years to write the book that he created a game for himself and the reader. Because of the book's Dominican history and cultural anthropological insights to which he thinks a lot people pay attention, because they are trained to so, his footnotes give it authority. He knew readers would ignore all the comic book and science fiction references, "Not every reader -- just your average reader, just like in a dictatorship -- not everybody buys it, but enough people do.
He feels that those who pay attention to the cultural and political history and to the footnotes, may learn about the Dominican Republic, but they are not going to learn anything about the book.
Lopez asked by using Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick as novels that do fantastic things with language if Diaz believed that at the "heart of American literature there has been an array of multiple dialects, accents and languages. And, if so, how does he see his own work which is referred to as `Spanglish,' participating in that act of mixing discourse."
Diaz said he feels that any attempt to characterize a national literature just reveals how little the person characterizing it has read. He said there is a tremendous diversity in what we call literature and "an incredibly strong strand in American literature tradition of very little mixing whatsoever." He exemplified that one need not read very far from Ralph Emerson or Nathaniel Hawthorne to see that Emerson and Hawthorne are not the same "demonic tradition that Melville is in." He believes there are many strategies of our "infinite heterogeneity."
He agreed that it is one of the projects, but not the "defining project or even the majority project." He identified more with what he called "the Melville mold and Pequod mold." He is enthralled with the idea that there are all the cultures languages, references and ideas "on this one ship of literature chasing after that damned whale." He pointed out that is it hardly is the New England whaling and whalers with whom readers can identify.
At the core of Moby Dick or any great literature, Diaz says is the particularity of each of the character's lives. His book deals with the particularity of a teenage Dominican nerd living in New Jersey and it is through the many voices of the men and women that we come away with universal truths about them and about class.