The Morning After: Junot Díaz at Barnes & Noble

Junot Diaz
Junot: badass. Me: Gigantor McWhiteDude

Merely twenty-four hours after I said in my review that I would probably buy a hardcover copy of This is How You Lose Her, the new book by Junot Díaz, in order to attend a book signing, I have done just that. And it was glorious.

After posting my review, I cruised over to the B&N page for the Union Square store (which is the largest B&N in the world, so it gets all the major events). Lo! and behold, they were hosting the venerable Mr. Díaz that very night. There was absolutely no way I was going to pass that up. It was an absolute madhouse (this report is a little grandiose in calling it a near-riot, but there are great crowd shots), and after the reading/Q&A section was over it took almost three hours to get an autograph, but it was oh so very worth it. Check out that photo of me and my new buddy Junot. Insane, right?! The man is awesome. Just like in his fiction, he was funny and profound–and he seemed to genuinely enjoy having face-time with his fans. He must be an incredible professor, because he had the entire room engaged. I’ve been to a lot of book signings where the author does a reading, softballs a few questions, and mechanically signs some books with a few token gestures of appreciation. Not Díaz. First of all, he took questions before the reading even began. He insisted that the people in the back get equal opportunity to ask him something, and he really tried to address everything that was put to him. Even when a woman asked him if he’s a cheater, since Yunior (who is often believed to be a fictionalized version of Díaz) is a frequent cheater.* That’s right, shit got real.

He even responded well (I thought) when a female audience member took him to task for perpetuating a misogynistic point of view through characters like Yunior, Nilda (focal point of one of the stories in TiHYLH, which just happened to be the story he read from), and others. His response? That she was right, but only to a degree–that his actual aim through Yunior is to make people question his lifestyle, and, by association, any lifestyle that treats women as objects. Díaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic but raised in New Jersey, grew up seeing a lot of things that had become institutionalized in his culture–including adultery, rape, and molestation. The latter two topics are once he hasn’t really dealt with yet, but which he indicated are the focus of what he is working on right now, with the added bonus of a female point of view.

That was the overarching theme of what Díaz said last night: that there are voices that need to be heard, and stories that need to be told, in order to bring about change. Many audience members (the majority of whom were college-aged and of Caribbean descent) asked him for advice on how to get started writing, and this is where Díaz truly shone. He can relate, of course–getting words out and on paper, then sharing them with someone, is a terrifying process. Díaz said that the best thing they can do is push through the fear and, most importantly, accept that what they write will probably suck at first. Which is OK! Everything you write takes work–the important thing is to stick with it and not get discouraged if it doesn’t seem to be working. Voices from the margins are especially important. He was primarily speaking as an immigrant who grew up in a poor neighborhood, but nevertheless it really resonated with me, a guy who grew up gay in a pre-Ellen and Will and Grace world.

Anyway, when it came time for the actual signing, the dude actually forsook the requisite table in order to stand off to the side and interact with his fans–posing for pictures, giving hugs and handshakes and kissing women like Richard Dawson on an episode of Family Feud. I’ve never seen an author so enthusiastic to meet people–and this was the second largest book signing I’ve ever been to (number one was Tina Fey at the same B&N).

Now consider that the photo was taken halfway back in the seated area. To his enormous credit, Díaz was upbeat and enthusiastic the whole way through (I was among the last groups to make it up to him). I have a history of freezing when I meet authors I like, so I didn’t say anything other than “hi,” “thank you,” and a rushed “I’m-a-big-fan-your-work-is-tremendous.” But it was awesome. And I got a photo out of it. So all in all, it was a fantastic experience.

*If you’re interested, the answer was that he considers himself a “reformed cuero,” and that much like an alcoholic needs to work to avoid drink, it takes a lot of effort to move beyond the past.

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