At their New Yorker Festival reading on Friday, Junot Diaz and recent MacArthur Genius Grant winner Edwidge Danticat talked about writing with kids, being marginalized as a "nerd of color," and why it's so hard to change the world.
But first they read. Danticat picked an excerpt from her story "Ghosts," in which an aspiring radio journalist dreams of starting a program on his violence-wracked Haiti neighborhood. She read,
He would open with a discussion of how many people in Bel Air had lost limbs. Then he would go from limbs to souls, to the number of people who had lost family-siblings, parents, children-and friends. These were the real ghosts, he would say, the phantom limbs, phantom minds, phantom loves that haunt us, because they were used, then abandoned, because they were desolate, because they were violent, because they were merciless, because they were out of choices, because they did not want to be driven away, because they were poor.
Diaz (author of Drown and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) read from a personal essay about his dad, and it's a testament to his command of both humor and pain that his father's favorite insult — "when you grow up, I am going to find you in an alley somewhere, and I am going to shoot you" — got a huge laugh. After they finished reading, and after a discussion of their long-standing friendship (which Danticat said was about "more life things than writing things"), a listener asked Diaz about the science fiction references in Oscar Wao. Diaz said he'd been pilloried in the mainstream nerd press (only sort of an oxymoron) in a way that smacked of racism. He then made a point about scifi that doesn't get made often enough:
If it wasn't for people of color's experiences and women's experiences, the genre wouldn't exist.
Scifi frequently gets portrayed as a refuge for socially awkward white boys, but everything from Isaac Asimov to Battlestar Galactica is permeated with issues of otherness, or, as Diaz puts it, "questions of alien contact." Stories of new worlds and interspecies warfare can be a way of representing the experiences of immigrants — or of people whose bodies, for reasons of race or gender or size or shape or ability — don't conform to the established norm. People who write about scifi are starting to accept this — female science fiction and fantasy writers are getting more attention, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay brought the related issue of sexual orientation in superhero comics to the fore. But the nerd backlash against Oscar Wao shows how eager some marginalized groups are to marginalize others, especially in the literary world, and how jealously (and dumbly) geeks sometimes guard their geek fiefdoms against those who could be allies.
Despite his experience with the nerd police, Diaz also advanced the somewhat debatable point that reading teaches compassion. He said reading a book was "one of the clearest ways to come into communion with another subjectivity," and that, moreover, the process of writing forced him to be a better person. "When I come up short as a writer," he added, "there's always a shortcoming in my character." Danticat responded that becoming a mother (that's her and her daughter above) had changed her as a writer — "when your life is layered in a certain way," she said, "you have more in your soul to go to." She got in a little dig at the Hemingway school of "life experience," in which the way to broaden yourself as a writer is to "go shoot animals," and her words were a powerful response to the idea that women can't both have families and make great art. But does making great art really require you to be a good person? And does it make good people of those who consume it?
Later in the conversation, Diaz said, "this life makes it so difficult to engage in civic- and justice-minded projects." By "this life," I assumed he meant American life, with its relative comfort and its myriad distractions, but it's also true that a life spent writing fiction — or reading it — invites escape into fictional worlds. I'm not a fan of the notion, popular when I was in grad school, that the best writers are assholes and the best fiction speaks to what is most evil in the reader's soul — both because I think it's a limiting view of literature and because, as a writer, I like having friends. And I believe that reading and writing do teach a willingness to explore other kinds of lives. But they also teach absorption in the mind and not in the world, and while this isn't always a bad thing, it doesn't necessarily lead to social change. Of the racist new Dominican Constitution and of injustice the world over, Diaz said, "everybody in every place in every way they can has to find a way to resist." And while reading fiction is many things, it's not (at least in America) active resistance.