Junot Díaz - A Reading of 'Drown’
HOST: I'll be very brief. I promise. On behalf of the Council for the arts at MIT, I'd like to welcome all of you here this evening. As Maureen said, the 1998 Eugene McDermott award was presented to Junot Diaz last November. And we're very fortunate to have him here with us this week for a short residency at MIT.
Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to the United States at the age of seven. Much of his fiction draws on this experience, as he writes about the clash and confluence of cultures, and that sense of dislocation, which is so much a part of the immigrant experience. His stories take us back and forth between the streets of Santa Domingo and the neighborhoods of New Jersey where he and his family settled.
Junot Diaz writes with a jeweler's eye for detail and an unsparing, honest voice. He confronts issues of racism and ethnic identity, sexuality, and family turmoil, while taking issue with the empty promises of the American dream. His first book of fiction titled Drown received unanimous praise from critics when it was published in 1996. He currently teaches creative writing at Syracuse University and has had his stories selected for the best American short stories, both in 1996 and in 1999. Just a week ago, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. So he has lots to celebrate. Please join me in welcoming Junot Diaz.
DIAZ: Thanks a lot.
HOST: Do you want to take a seat?
DIAZ: It's OK. Yo, wild and out up front. They immediately start laughing as soon as I walk over.
DIAZ: Oh, did I throw it. Actually, I want to thank y'all. Did I throw it? Was I bad? [? Thank. ?]
No, I feel like I sometimes fuck up in public. So I actually wanted to thank the council. I wanted to thank MIT, of course, for hosting me. And thank you all for coming out on-- and I look around. I know you guys work hard. So this means a lot for you all to come out for a little bit. So I wanted to thank you for that.
And also, I wanted to thank the Eugene McDermott people for giving me the prize that got me out of Syracuse for a couple days. As you know, we're getting pounded by snow so. So I'm kind of enjoying this little break. And I also wanted to thank Maureen. She drove me around all day. I know I've been busting her fucking hump. So she's been wonderful, you know? Because I'm really bad and mean. So she's put a really good face on it.
And Steve [? Alter ?] who came and got me today, he's been great too. He's been a real gentleman. And I actually want to say final words for my dear friend Anita Desai, who I don't think y'all-- I'm sure y'all don't appreciate her as much as one should. She's fucking brilliant, man. I love her. I really I wish that we had enough loot where I went to school so we could kidnap her. You guys wouldn't stand a chance. So she's been wonderful. And I love the gossip with Anita too. We like the same writers, so we get to gossip all the time.
And I'm not going to read long. I think it's always better to keep it short. So I'm just going to read two small stories, and then I'm going to just open up for just a couple of questions. There was a student I met earlier in a class from the Bronx. Is he here? Yeah. Well, you know what? After I left you, I remembered my [? man ?] street. It's called Manor.
I'm sure you know Manor, right? Do you? Well Manor, I fucked up, because I was saying it was called Mansion. And then I walked out. I'm like, oh, you shouldn't give somebody from the Bronx the wrong street name. I figured you went home and went, like, oh, that punk. So I just thought I'd clear that up.
And the first story I'm going to read is just from the book. And then I'm going to read a new story, which is sort of strange because it's kind of fragmented and impressionistic, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And this is just a real short one. And this story came about-- it actually came about from living in Brooklyn.
I lived in Brooklyn for-- like I first left New Jersey, I came and lived in Brooklyn for a few years. And Brooklyn's a weird place because just the rate it's being gentrified. So I remember when I moved into my street, it was like mad cool. It was just a nice street to live in. It looked like any place else. But then about a year later, every time somebody moved out of their apartment, they would build a wall down the apartment and make it to two apartments.
And then our street went from a normal street with young people. And then I remember one day we walked out and we saw kids outside skateboarding, which is the first sign in New York that you're being gentrified when you see white kids skateboarding. You know you're shit out of luck. So we had to move out in like six months. They raised the rent six times.
So it came out of that experience living in Brooklyn and from living in these apartments with really thin walls. I had a neighbor. I had this neighbor, these Dominican kids. And it was strange because we knew more about the boyfriend than the girlfriend did.
So they would be like all lovey dovey. We'd see them in the hallway. They'd be smooching and [SPANISH], and stuff like that. And then she would go away on a break. And the next day my man would have some girl up at his apartment. And we'd be like, oh, shit. And then two days later homegirl would come home and he'd be like, I missed you. And we could hear it through the walls.
So in honor of my man, I wrote this story called Boyfriend. And here it goes. I should have been careful. I should have been careful with the weed. Most people it just fucks up. Me, it makes me sleepwalk. And wouldn't you know, I woke up in the hallway of our building feeling like I'd been stepped on by my high school marching band.
My ass would have been there all night if the folks in the apartment below hadn't been having themselves a big old fight at 3:00 in the morning. I was too fried to move, at least right away. Boyfriend was trying to snake girlfriend saying he needed his space. And she was like, mother fucker, I'll give you all the space you need.
I knew boyfriend a little. I saw him at the bars, and saw some of the girls he used to bring home while she was away. He just needed more space to cheat. You can just come on in, guys. Don't even fuck with it.
He just needed more space to cheat. Fine, he said. But every time he went for the door, she got to crying and would be like, why are you doing this to me? They sounded a lot like me and my old girlfriend Loretta. But I swore to myself that I would stop thinking about her ass even though every Cleopatra looking Latina in the city made me stop and wish she would come back to me.
By the time boyfriend got himself into the hallway, I was already in my apartment. And girlfriend, girlfriend would not stop crying. Twice she tried. She must have heard me moving around right above her. And both times I held my breath until she started up again. I followed her into the bathroom, the two of us separated by a floor, wires, and some pipes. And she kept saying [SPEAKING SPANISH] and washed her face over and over again.
It would've broken my heart if it hadn't been so damn familiar. I guess I'd gotten used to that sort of thing. I had a heart leather like walruses got blubber. The next day I told my boy Harold what happened. And he said, too bad for her. And I said, I guess so. And he said, if I didn't have my own women problems, I'd say let's go comfort the widow. And I said, she ain't our type. And he said, the hell she ain't.
Homegirl, homegirl was too beautiful and too high class for a couple of knuckleheads like us. We never saw her in a t-shirt or without jewelry. And her boyfriend [INAUDIBLE], that nigga could have been a model. Hell, they both could have been models, which is what they probably were considering that I never heard word one passed between them about a job or a fucking boss.
People like these were untouchables to me, raised on some other planet and then transplanted into my general vicinity to remind me how bad I was living. What was worse was how much Spanish they shared. None of my girlfriends ever spoke Spanish, even Loretta of the Puerto Rican attitudes.
The closest thing for me was this black chick who spent three years in Italy. She liked to talk that shit in bed and said she'd gone with me because I reminded her of some of the Sicilian men she'd known, which was why I never called her again. Boyfriend-- boyfriend came around a couple more times that week for his things and I guess to finish the job.
He was a confident prick. He listened to what she had to say, arguments that had taken her hours to put together. And then she would sigh and say it didn't matter. He needed his space [SPEAKING SPANISH]. She let him fuck her every time, maybe hoping that it would make him stay. But, you know, once somebody gets a little escape velocity going, there ain't no play in the world that will keep them from going.
I would listen to them going at it, and I would be like, damn. Ain't nothing more shabby than those farewell fucks. I know. Me and Loretta had enough of those to go around. The difference was we never talked the way these two would about our days, not even when we were cool together. We'd lay there and listen to the world outside, to the loud boys, the cars, the pigeons. And back then, I didn't have a clue what she was thinking. But now I know what to pencil into all those empty thought bubbles, escape, escape.
These two though, these two had a thing about the bathroom. Each one of his visits ended up there, which was fine by me. It was where I could hear them the best. I don't know why I started following her life, but it seemed like a good thing to do. Most of the time, I thought people, even at their worst, were pretty fucking boring.
The bathroom, girlfriend talked a mile a minute about her day, how she saw a fistfight on the C train and how somebody liked her necklace. And boyfriend, with his smooth Barry White voice, just kept going, yeah, yeah, yeah. They'd shower together. And if she wasn't talking, she was going down on him. All you would hear down there was the water smacking the bottom of the tub and him going, yeah, yeah.
He wasn't sticking around though. That was obvious. He was one of those dark skin smooth-faced brothers that women kill for. And I knew for a fact having seen his ass in action at the local spots that he'd like to get over on the white girls. She did know nothing about his little Rico Suave routine. It would have wrecked her.
I used to think those were the barrio rules, Latinos and blacks in, whites out, a place we down cats weren't supposed to go. But love teaches you. It breaks your-- but love teaches you. It clears your head of any rules. Loretta's new boyfriend was Italian and worked on Wall Street. When she told me about him, we were still going out.
We were on the promenade, and she said to me, I like him. He's a hard worker. And no amount of heart leather could stop something like that from hurting. After one of their showers, boyfriend never came back, no phone calls, no nothing. She called a lot of her friends, ones she hadn't spoken to in the longest. I survived through my boys. I didn't have to call out for help.
It was easy for them to say forget her sellout ass. That's not the sort of woman you need. Look how light you are. No doubt she was already shopping for the lightest. Mostly, girlfriend spent her time crying, either in bathroom or in front of the TV. And I spent my time listening and calling around for a job, or smoking, or drinking a bottle of rum and two sixes of Presidente a week.
And one night, one night I got the [SPEAKING SPANISH] to ask her out for cafe, which was mighty manipulative of me. She hadn't had much human contact the whole month except with the delivery guy from the Japanese restaurant, a Colombian dude I always said hi to. So what the hell was she going to say to me? No?
She seemed glad to hear my name. And when she threw open the door, I was surprised to see her looking smart and watchful. She said she'd be right up. And when she sat down across from me at the kitchen table, she had on a makeup and a rose gold necklace. You have a lot more light in your apartment than I do, she said, which was a nice call about all I had in the apartment was light.
I played [SPEAKING SPANISH] for her. And then we drank a pot of cafe. El pico, I told her, nothing but the best. We didn't have much to talk about. She was depressed and tired. And I had the worst gas of my life. Twice, I had to excuse myself, twice in an hour.
She must have thought that bizarre as hell. But both times I came out of the bathroom she was staring deeply into her coffee the way the fortune tellers will do back on the island. Crying all the time had made her more beautiful. Grief will do that sometimes, not for me.
Loretta had been gone now for months, and I still look like shit. Having girlfriend in the apartment only made me feel shabbier. She picked up a cheeb seed from a crack in the table and she smiled. Do you smoke, I ask? It makes me break out, I said. It makes me sleepwalk.
Honey will stop that, she said. It's an old Caribbean cure. I had a deal who would sleepwalk, and one teaspoon a night took it out of him. I never tried the honey, and she never came back. Whenever I saw her on the stairs, we would trade hi's. But she's never slowed down to talk, never gave a smile, or any other kind of encouragement. I took that as a hint.
At the end of the month, she got her hair cut short, no more straighteners, no more science fiction combs. I liked that, I told her. I was coming back from the liquor store and she was on her way out with a woman friend. I like that. It makes you look fierce. She smiled. That's exactly what I wanted. Thank you.
I keep waiting for that boyfriend to write me a letter, you know, on the real though. I always think this takes longer. Then I look at my watch and realized oh, I must go on. So I used to go-- for all you prospective young writers, I used to go see other writers. You know, you would go to their readings. And the majority of them were absolutely unbearable because so many of them would read for 59 minutes. And you could feel your beard growing. So I had this thing. I always promised myself to keep it as short as possible.
This is a story. This is something. I was sort of working on this cycle of stories. Come on in. I was working on this cycle of stories. And it was kind of strange because, once again, I was sort of dealing with people dating and their relationship. And I was moving through this life of a fictional Dominican cat.
And it was sort of strange because I was moving through all the relationships this guy had in his entire life, from the time when he was in second grade, and some girl was like, me and my girlfriend want to date you, from the time where he's sort of telling his story from his mother's basement, and all his Romeo days are burnt out, and he's now living with his mother, you know, like so many men I know living with their moms.
So he's sort of down in the basement, like writing his little thing. And so this comes out of that section. And it's this-- and it was weird because in the book, it's like-- I don't know. I'm always just twisting the knife in brothers in a way because I'm one of them. And it's good to be-- so we're talking about the-- I grew up with Cubans.
And I love that term. I love that, almost that cultural pattern, [SPEAKING SPANISH], which so many of them bring from the island self-criticism. I adore that shit. So I was writing this thing about when we were young, my friends were young, and they were all-- my friends, we were all wild and out on white girls. There was this obsession. And all the cats thought they were better looking than sisters, you know? And so much of it was like weird ass self-hatred.
Well, maybe some of you don't know what I'm talking about. [LAUGHTER]
But fuck it. So I took this segment out of that kind of perverse stuff. And that's where it comes from. And it's a short called Flaca. And you'll have to bear with me because not only is only it something new, but I'm also working with a style where lately I've been like fragmenting shit, which means that it makes a lot sense less sense than it should. Good luck.
[? Flaca, ?] your left eye used to drift when you were tired or upset. It's looking for a way out, you used to say. And those days we saw each other, it fluttered, and rolled, and you had to put your finger over it to stop it. You were doing this when I woke up and found you on the edge of my chair. You were still in your teacher's uniform, but your jacket was off. And enough buttons were open on your blouse to show me the black bra that I had bought you and the freckles on your chest.
We didn't know it was the last days, but we should have. I just got here, you said. And I looked out where you'd parked your Saturn. Go roll up them windows, I said. I'm not going to be here long, you said. Someone's going to steal it. I'm almost ready to go. You stayed in your chair, and I knew better than to move closer.
You had an elaborate system that you thought would keep us out of bed. You sat on the other side of the room, you didn't let me crack your knuckles, and you never stayed more than 15 minutes. It never worked. I brought you guys some dinner, you said. I was making lasagna for my class, so I brought the leftovers. My
Room back then was small and hot. And you never wanted to be in there. It's like being inside of a sock, you said. And any time the boys were away, we slept in their living room out on the rug. Your long hair was making you sweat, and finally, you took your hand away from your eye. You hadn't stopped talking.
Today, I was given a new student. Her mother told me to be careful with her because she had the sight. And I said, the sight? And she said, you said the site. I asked the senora if the site helped her in school. And she said, no, not really. But it's helped me with the numbers a few times.
I knew I was supposed to laugh. But I stared outside instead where a mitten-shaped leaf had stuck to your windshield. You stood besides me. When I first saw you in our Joyce class and then at gym, I knew I'd call you Flaca. And if you'd been Dominican, my neighbors would have worried about you and brought you plates of food to my door, heaps of platano and yucca smothered in quesco frito. Flaca, even though your name was Veronica, the boys will be here soon, I said. Maybe you should roll up your windows.
I'm going now, you said, and you put your hand back over your eye. Too, I remember the boys keeping an eye on me because they were convinced that I was going to flip out. They figured two years ain't no small thing, even though that entire time I never claimed you. But what was nuts was that I felt fine. I felt like summer had opened up shop inside of me.
And I told the boys this was the best decision that I'd ever made. You can't be fucking with white girls all your life. And they looked at me like I had a hole in my head. After you dropped me off that night, the old man and stinky wanted to know what the fuck I was thinking. And I said, I'm thinking we should go out tonight. I'm thinking I got to find me a sister soon.
Three, I remember we met in class. You never spoke, but I did all the time. And once you looked at me and I looked at you. And you turned so red, even the professor noticed. You were white trash from outside of Patterson, and it showed in your no fashion sense. And you dated niggers a lot.
I said, you had a thing about us. And you said, angry, no. I do not. And I remember you used to offer me rides home in your Saturn. And I remember the third time I accepted. And our hands touched in the front seat, little fugitives.
Four, it wasn't supposed to get serious between us. I can't see us getting married or nothing. And you nodded your head and said you understood. Then we fucked so that we could pretend that nothing hurtful had just happened. This was like our fifth time together. And you got dressed in a black sheath and a pair of Mexican sandals. And you said I could call you when I wanted but that you wouldn't call me. You have to decide where and when, you said. If you leave it up to me, I want to see you every day.
At least you were honest, which is more than I can say for a lot of people, who pretend to be mad independent and aren't. Weekdays, I never called you-- didn't even miss you. I had my boys and my job to keep me busy. But Friday and Saturday nights when I didn't meet anybody at the clubs, I called. Those days, none of us wanted to go to bed alone. And I wasn't no different.
We talked until the silences were long, until finally, you asked, do you want to see me? You made me say yes. I want to see you. And while I waited for you, I would tell the boys it's just sex, you know, nothing more. And you would come with a change of clothes and a pan so you could make us breakfast, maybe cookies you have baked for your class.
And the boys would find you in the morning in one of my shirts. And at first they didn't complain because they figured you would just go away like the other white girls who would pass through the house. By the time they started saying something, it was late, wasn't it?
Five , you wanted to go somewhere, so I took us out to Spruce Run. We'd both been there as children. You could remember the years, even the months. But the closest I came to was back when I was young. Look at the Queen Anne's lace, you said.
You were leaning out the window in the night air, and I had my hand on your back just in case. What did your family do here, you asked? I looked at the night water. We had barbecues, Dominican barbecues. My father didn't know how to, but he insisted.
He would cook up this red sauce that he'd splatter on [SPEAKING SPANISH], and then he'd invite complete strangers over to eat with us. It was horrible. I wore an eye patch when I was a kid, you said. Maybe we met out here and fell in love over bad barbecue. And I said, I doubt it. And you said, I'm just saying, [INAUDIBLE].
Maybe 5,000 years ago we were together. And you said, 5,000 years ago I was in Denmark. And I said that's true. And about half of me was in Africa. And you said, doing what? And I said, farming, I guess, because that's what everybody does everywhere.
Maybe we were together some other time. And I said, I can't think when. You tried not to look at me. Maybe 5 million years ago. And I said, people weren't even people back then. That night, you lay in bed awake and listen to the ambulance tear down our street. You were hot from something. Your cheek could've kept my room warm for a week. And I didn't know how you stood the heat of yourself, of your breast, of your face. I almost couldn't touch you.
And out of nowhere you said, I love you, for whatever that's worth. Six, some nights I can't sleep, and some nights I pull on my sneakers and run. These are the only times I break two miles, when there's no traffic and the halogens turn everything the color of foil and fire up every bit of moisture that's on the cars. I run down and around the memorial homes along George Street, past troop where the Camelot stands boarded and burned,
I stay up entire nights. And when the old man comes home from UPS, I'm noting down the times the trains arrive from Princeton junction. You can hear them breaking from our living room, a [? nash ?] just south of my heart. And I think this staying up means something. But the old man hears me and laughs. He's a brother who believes in the practical and hardwood floors and paperclips.
You need another job, he says. And he shows me his beaten up hands, a good one. That's what this is about. You need something that will give you dreams. You can't sleep without dreams. Right now, you're just all out. Six, last section. Hmm. We went back to Spruce Run once more.
Do you remember, when the fights seemed to go on and on, and every one ended with us in bed tearing at each other, like maybe that could change anything? In a couple of months, you'd be seeing someone else. And I would too. She was no darker than you, but she watched her panties in the shower and had hair like a sea of little [SPEAKING SPANISH]. And the first time you saw us , you turned around and boarded a bus I knew you didn't have to take.
That second trip I stood on the beach and watched you wade out, watched you rub the lake on your skinny arms and neck. Both of us were hungover, and I didn't want any of me wet. There's a cure in the water, as you said. The priest announced it at service. You were saving some in a bottle for your cousin with leukemia and your aunt with the bad heart.
You had on a bikini bottom and a t-shirt. And there was a mist sifting down over the water lacing the trees. You went out to your waist and stopped. I was staring at you, and you were staring up at me. And right then it was something sort of like love, wasn't it?
That night, you came into my bed, too thin to be believed. And when I tried to kiss you, you put your hand across my chest. Wait, you said. Downstairs the boys were watching TV and screaming. You let the water dribble out of your mouth, and it was cold. You reached my knee before you had the refill from the bottle.
I listened to your breathing, how slight it was, and listen to the sound the water made in the bottle. You whispered my full name, and I remember how the next morning you were gone, completely gone. And nothing in my bed or in my house could have proven otherwise. And that's that for that one.
Have I done enough?
AUDIENCE: You've done it.
DIAZ: OK, it's weird because the second story is more internal. And lately, I've been writing these more internal things that end up being kind of dull to listen to. So you've got to deal with it though. Do you have any questions? Oh, couldn't wait.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, couldn't wait. Where did you do your formal training, and what steps did you take to get your first election of stories [INAUDIBLE]?
DIAZ: Formal training, could you elaborate exactly?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, do an MFA, or--
DIAZ: OK, thank you. Yeah. No, thank you for your question. I had started writing when I was a junior or senior in undergraduate. And I was accepted into an MFA. I applied to five of them because I couldn't afford more than five. And I got denied everywhere but Cornell, which was funny, because Cornell was quote, unquote "good school" I applied to. So it shows you how fucking arbitrary this shit is.
I didn't kid myself. I got in. I used to be like, I didn't accept-- I didn't get accepted to Vermont Mount College, you know? And I went there for my MFA. But mostly, I was telling some other students before, I really wilded out in my MFA, because mostly I was a community organizer. And so when I got there, I came in. It was back when Cornell grad school was still letting in kids from state schools.
And so they accidentally let a bunch of us in from New Jersey who all knew each other. And none of us went to class. And we just wilded out for the Latino and black community. And so it was only till my senior year that I really started to take it seriously.
AUDIENCE: And how did you get your own first collection of stories published?
DIAZ: Yeah. I mean, we say it at home [SPEAKING SPANISH]. It was just a complete accident. I published one story. I had been in graduate school. After three years, I hadn't sent in a story anywhere. And I had gone to see my chair. And she was like-- because if you do a lot of activism, which we'll talk about in a minute, you're more than likely to be despised by everyone in your department.
And so I had done all this activism, and one of it was critiquing the English department. And so we like really rammed it to the English department because a lot of us were sitting on these committees, and so we went berserk on them. And what happened was we forced them to hire two faculty in the English department on doing US Latino studies. We just screwed them. We got Helena Maria Viramontes in there, and we got somebody in the PhD program. And so it was really a big success for us.
And then I went to my chair to get her to sign off on me, and she was like, I'm not signing it. Fuck you. And then I knew I had to leave because if they don't sign off, you might as well go home.
So I was on my-- I said, fuck, I'm doomed. And I hadn't sent in any stories out, and so I sent my first story out. And it was like-- talk about ancestrals looking out because the first story I sent out was accepted and published by Story Magazine, and I was telling the other students before. They were like-- and Story was like, do you have another one? And I sent them another one, and they were like, oh, OK, we like this one, too.
And then I was telling the students, another class of students. I was like, OK, so I've made all of $500 on two stories. I got to go home now, and what ended up happening was I had gone home.
I was making photocopies, and a few months into that, and an agent called. And she was like, oh, I like your stories. I'd like to represent you.
And I was like, OK. She's like, you don't want to meet me? I'm like, not really. I'm desperate.
So and then a few months later after that, she was like-- oh, by the way, she called me at work. They used to think-- I was working at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. They used to think I didn't speak English. I was so sullen. I wouldn't speak to anybody. They would just give me photocopies to make.
So I was making photocopies, and homegirl called me. She was like, oh, I just sold your book. Quit. And so that was that.
It sounds like a fancy, funny story, but what's funny about that story is that I don't fucking kid myself. It's like the lottery because every one of us who make it like this, that actually means a thousand other young writers of color didn't make it because it's like a selection process which definitely doesn't favor us.
So my friends-- we were all like, yeah, this is great. It's nice to eat, but at the same time, we knew every one of us would get one of these positions locks out another 20 people. And that's not something to be all cheery about. Next question. Right here.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] race and beauty in the Dominican Republic [INAUDIBLE] What affect did that have [INAUDIBLE] race [INAUDIBLE] beauty, and how do you work it out in writing?
DIAZ: Do we have any other Dominicans here? Raise your hand. All right. Could you answer that question for me?
DIAZ: Yeah, why don't you try?
AUDIENCE: Well, I guess this is how I see it, being from New Jersey and all. Going back and forth from the island to Jersey, definitely got mixed messages about what beauty meant. My hair, for example-- [INAUDIBLE] but I couldn't wear it like this because then I was [SPANISH], and I didn't look presentable. Back in Jersey, back home, I could spend a day or two washing it and leaving it kinky and curly, and it was OK. It was all right as long as I kept it wrapped up.
But in DR, they're very strict, just to use that as a metaphor and just as a very symbolic view of how women are perceived. In DR, if I were to leave the house and not straighten it, that would look bad on the family. So it was just a different way of--
AUDIENCE: Straighten your hair, like as in no curls?
DIAZ: Mm-hmm. There was another hand. Does somebody else want to try that one? No?
AUDIENCE: They're all passing, man.
DIAZ: Yeah. I mean, I think Santo Domingo isn't very different from some of the communities we have in the United States. Negrophobia is just absolutely rampant, and I think that people don't like to talk about it. But I mean, the level of self-hatred that I encounter in Santo Domingo has a perfect analog in the United States, has a perfect analog.
So when I hear a lot of people trying to other the Caribbean and say, things are worse in the Caribbean, I'm always like, worse than what? What the fuck are you talking about? It's such a weird question because it's like, worse than what? What's your standard?
And so I know that when-- it was intense because when we were in Santo Domingo, there was like-- I mean, in my community where I grew up, I grew up in a-- I mean, my name was a testament to that I grew up in a Dominican and Haitian community, and I was probably the lightest skinned person they'd seen in 500 years. They were so excited they produced me. Everybody was just like, my goodness, we worked so hard.
And it was very clear. It was so very clear. It was just so very clear on the island, the things that were attributed to us. It didn't matter how fucked up ugly I was. People were like, oh, [? tan ?] [? cute. ?] I'm like, you're bugging.
But then we came to the United States, and we noticed something even worse is that the United States-- the United States, I guess, their racial measurements are at the millimeter wave so that, for example, my older brother is lighter than me. And when we went to school, people used to throw shit at me and boo me, and my brother would come in. They'd be like, oh, he's got straight hair and no signs of negritude. So I wasn't sure what the difference was.
Well, I mean, I kind of got lucky because, I mean, I grew up with a lot of sisters, like women in my family, and they were real good at bashing it out of us in our heads. So by the time I got to writing, I had already, quote unquote, "resolved these issues," most of them in my head. And so what I tend to do in my work is just torture people who haven't.
Oh no, it's a whole crew of evil Dominicans, people who I absolutely adore. Another question?
AUDIENCE: [? I ?] [? see a ?] [INAUDIBLE] between your work and that of Piri Thomas in Down These Mean Streets. And it's like that whole urban Latino American experience. Did you have any influences from Latino American authors, and if so, who?
DIAZ: Yeah, I mean, well, for me, I mean, Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets is like-- it's one of those founding texts, right? And it was definitely one of the earliest Caribbean Latino texts to like do some good things like talk about race, et cetera, et cetera. But there was also some really like wild, fucked-up shit, like unreconstructed-- like just unquestioning misogyny and just wildness.
And so it was a real important text for me to read, but I was much more affected by a lot of the women writers like, Cristina García and Sandra Cisneros and people who were about 50 times-- I was telling another class [INAUDIBLE] us writers always pick-- well, some of us pick better parents than we are. And so for me, it was like, Toni Morrison was a huge influence.
A brother from DC called Edward P. Jones, remarkable short story writer, probably one of the most underrated short-story writers in the country-- and he wrote a short-story book called Lost in the City, which the entire book was set in Washington, DC. And it was just remarkable where he organized this collection around DC geographically, and that was just so dope because most of the kids I knew from New Jersey didn't want to use New Jersey as background for anything because New York has a way of erasing.
Everybody I know from New Jersey-- they live one week in New Jersey. They're like, yeah, I'm from the Bronx. I'm like, oh, nigga, please. What are you talking about? I saw you at Spotswood, you clown. Other questions?
AUDIENCE: If you want to get to some of the political issues in New York and New Jersey, they just had [INAUDIBLE] about profiling, stopping black and Latino cars on the turnpike, and [? they ?] [? fired ?] [? somebody. ?] Do these kind of things come up in your writing or affect your writing or feel like talking about some of those?
DIAZ: I mean, I was actually interested in asking like-- we were talking earlier in another class about the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. Are people organized on this campus for that?
AUDIENCE: I haven't heard much. I did it in high school in social justice, but I haven't heard [INAUDIBLE] here. Just recently, [INAUDIBLE] posters up the next rally in April.
DIAZ: Yeah, see, I'm disappointed in you guys. I know you work hard, but we have the Mumia Abu-Jamal march on in Philadelphia. We all know he's on death row. We all know that he's an ex-Black Panther, an important anti-police-brutality activist and a member of like-- I don't know, [? one of our-- ?] I think just someone who was very important who was framed for-- thank you. See, we've got someone who brought it.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] but it's here.
DIAZ: I'm glad that's there. I didn't even see that. And then the rally is April 24th in Philadelphia, and some of you students should organize to take some buses down there so MIT could have a contingency.
And that's my plug for politics is to try to get people to organize because we organized Syracuse recently. And we got like four buses going down there, and Syracuse students are about nothing. I love them to death, but they ain't about shit. So if we can get them to go--
AUDIENCE: I brought the sign up. I'm affiliated with Revolution Books in Harvard Square. There are groups in the city, but it hasn't gotten [INAUDIBLE]
DIAZ: MIT needs some buses. I want to see [INAUDIBLE] when I'm at the rally smoking up, I want to see some of you guys.
AUDIENCE: One thing, people don't read the news or watch the news. Like if you cited this name, "Amadou Diallo," how many people in this audience would know that name?
DIAZ: I think "Amadou," people know. Diallo shooting?
AUDIENCE: Ask. Ask them.
DIAZ: How many people don't know the Diallo shooting? Raise your hand. You're wilding. What happens here?
Now, if I tell you who Amadou Diallo is, he's the cat who in New York City was shot 41 times by the police.
AUDIENCE: Oh, yes.
DIAZ: Now you know. Yeah, that's bad.
AUDIENCE: MIT students don't know [INAUDIBLE] for the most part [INAUDIBLE]
DIAZ: It's a dangerous habit. Other questions or comments or beef you want to roll into? Up front here, then we'll move back.
AUDIENCE: How do you [? like ?] teaching?
DIAZ: I mean, I always felt a certain missionary zeal about teaching because we used to gripe all the time about not having any professors of color, and so for me, that's really important to get in there and work my students and not just be in the classroom, but do organizing work. And that's cool, and getting students prepared for grad school. I mean, our big thing is to get our undergrads prepared for grad school.
When we were grad students at Cornell, each year, the grad students, the Latino and black grad students dedicated themselves to producing 10 grad students every year. So we placed 10 students in grad schools, and that was just shit we did on the side. And I think that's so important because one of the failings-- I don't want to sound too much like I drink too much, but I feel like, if anything, the failings of some of the movements that came out of the '60s and '70s was some of the weird ownership issues that came out where mentorship is a problem.
You tend not to see really good mentorship from one generation to the next. You don't. I didn't see it. I didn't see a lot of these older activists reaching out to young people to have these young people train them to replace them.
What they wanted were followers. They weren't training anybody to replace anybody, and so that's what I think teaching is really important. And I find it to be like-- we need to place people in grad school and other things.
There's people who aren't grad-school orientated. We need to place them in really good community jobs and get people going, and we got to-- the attrition rate at universities-- I don't know how the Latino and black student attrition rate is here, but when I was at Cornell, it was like the highest in the country.
You know what attrition rate is? Y'all bugging. You're supposed to be the smart students. Attrition rate is when students drop out.
So at Cornell, we had-- the Latino and black students were dropping out of Cornell with an average grade point of a C, so that meant they weren't failing out. They were cold bolting. They were just breaking loose, and so we were trying to figure out ways to stop that, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. [INAUDIBLE] some-- [? go ?] [? ahead. ?]
AUDIENCE: [? You ?] [? may have ?] addressed [INAUDIBLE] somewhere else, but I'm curious about your story "Ysrael." I'm curious about-- is that a common name?
AUDIENCE: So I was wondering why you named your character Ysrael, and I also wondered if you would speak to some of the American and Dominican tension in that story. I was curious about Yunior, since it didn't strike me that-- I don't speak Spanish. I'm sorry, so I don't know whether Yunior is a common Spanish nickname or affectionate name or--
DIAZ: Yeah, half of Santo Domingo is called Yunior, and Ysrael is a [INAUDIBLE]-- Ysrael's one of my boys back in Santo Domingo who drives a cab, and he was always like, yo, put me in a fucking story, kid. I was like, no doubt.
Yeah. Yeah, so it was cool, though, because I'd gone to Santo Domingo for part of the book tour, and we had a radio interview. And if you think this country has class problems, Santo Domingo is ruled by oligarchical elites, so you can't imagine the class problems there.
So we were on the radio. We were wilding out on the radio, and all the ex-commies and left-wing people were calling up. And they were just like, yo, fuck the rich people.
And halfway through all this stuff, my friend Ysrael called me from his cab phone, and he was like, somebody ate my face in your story. So I said, come on, now. [INAUDIBLE]?
AUDIENCE: I was interested in finding out more about what you did to get Latino minority students, let's say, [? interested. ?] Can you tell me a little bit more [INAUDIBLE]?
DIAZ: Sure. The most important thing is to-- I mean, we came to college-- again, we were really evil because we'd been trained at Rutgers, which is a very active school. And so we came in, and we had law students. And we had accounting students. We had all sorts of students.
And the first thing we dissolved was this artificial separation between grad students and undergrads, so we just started wilding out and go into the undergrad meetings and shutting our fucking mouths, so we would never speak during the undergrad meetings. We just let them run things, and if they needed any of our help, we would do it.
And then we would start offering just services. We would start being like, yo, if anybody's interested in grad school, if anybody wants to talk about it-- and the first thing is, you've got to physically be there for your students. This old just show up and try to help them out, that's bullshit. I mean, so much of what we do as activists and flows across interpersonal relationships, and that was our most important thing was to break down those walls.
And the next thing we did was we would start targeting students that we thought were really fucking smart and shunting them off to classes of our peers and friends. So my friend Paula was a PhD in history or English, and we would be like, yo, you got this undergrad kid running around, [? and he ?] should be in one of your classes.
And the same thing-- we would just [? pamp ?] ourselves out during our office hours. All of us would give our office hours out, and it would be like open paper-writing stuff. You could bring any papers through, and we would work on them for you.
So these kids would be funny because my other kids would be waiting to meet me from a real class, and these kids would just break in. And I'd tell my other students-- I'm like, oh, this is very important meeting. And that really helps, and I know that sounds kind of stupid. But I mean, we're kind of blockheads, so we weren't trying to do no master theory. Our theory was if we put ourselves out there, people are going to respond to that. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you could share some of your dreams for the future for yourself and some of goals that you had professionally, I mean, as a writer.
DIAZ: Yeah. I mean, that's a nice question. Thank you, but I'm not so certain. I'm like, I want to want to talk about-- I mean, I came from-- some of us here-- my parents and my grandparents were farmers.
And so farmers are funny because they don't plan on anything, and I think part of that was given to us. I've never seen anybody in my family dream longer than their arm, and it's not a great thing. I mean, I actually don't recommend it highly because, I mean, it makes us very blinkered in some ways. And I mean, I don't want to just attribute it to some family upbringing. It could've just been [? something ?] [? on ?] our side, so I'm really guarded by that because I'm always convinced a meteor is going to hit my car or something.
So I mean, one of the things I just want to keep doing is just keep doing organizational work, and also, it's important for any of us who can write to do all kinds of writing. So all kinds, no matter what genre it is, I think we have to tear it up. I'm sort of mad at some of our other writers who are, quote unquote, "literary" haven't just tackled every genre they can possibly tackle, which means I think Toni Morrison needs to write a horror book on the real just to mess up with these boundaries. If I stick around long enough, I'd like to do some of that work.
AUDIENCE: Speaking of changing genres, are you planning on writing a novel? Do you have anything in mind?
AUDIENCE: Tell us about some of the characters.
AUDIENCE: If you can.
DIAZ: Yeah, I'm writing a novel, and I'm not going to take the title of it because I'm absolutely convinced by telling you the title of it, that's when the meteor hits. But I'll tell you, the first section is from a film. Do you know this film, Exterminating Angel?
Anyway, when I was a kid, my father was a real film buff for this [? hick, ?] and he used to talk about this film, Exterminating Angel. And as a kid, you're like, Exterminating Angel, word up. You're ready to see this nonsense. And then it turns out to be some Buñuel film where people just sit around and talk, so it was not fun.
And so the first section is called Exterminating Angel, and what it's about-- it's this insane, absolutely insane book about a new minority group. There's a new minority group in the United States, and it's actually based off of an Octavia Butler story in Bloodchild, a really wonderful story where she imagines people with this illness who are discriminated against.
So I just took that one further and imagined an entirely new group, a minority group, and everybody calls them mules because they're sterile. And it's just a real simple story about this guy named Lucero. He's in an underground railroad, and he just spends his time smuggling mules out of the country.
And it's a United States now, except that none of the civil rights legislation ever passed. Instead, there was in '68-- I was reading these National Security Agency-- I was a historian, so I was into this stuff. And I was reading all this stuff in the National Security Agency, and they had prepared, in '68, if there had been mass-scale rioting, that they would incarcerate 10% to 15% of the black and Latino population and put them in huge prison camps and declare a state of emergency.
And so I thought these documents are really interesting, finding them, so what I was going to do was imagine a United States where none of the civil rights legislation was passed. Instead, a state of emergency was declared, and the plan went through. And this is 50 years later when the state of emergency continues to be, and these characters are living in this world.
And it's about this guy named [? Lucho ?] and his beloved girlfriend, [? Yas, ?] and both of them are sort of conductors. And they both hate each other and are pissed off, and it's about their life. And what I'm trying to do is to take-- I know this sounds kind of crazy, but it's kind of like cut and paste because what I'm trying to do is take stuff out of the common culture, like when people talk about, for example, during the Vietnam War, experimentations done on soldiers.
I love that kind of folk history, and so what I'm doing is I'm just taking this folk history and just pretending it's all real. I know this sounds berserk. Good luck, plenty of good luck. I'm sorry. I'm going to get this and then--
AUDIENCE: How much of yourself do you put in your characters? Is there one character that you can think of that really [? represents ?] [? you? ?]
DIAZ: I, mean I think the Yunior and the Rafa character are based on me my brother, and so the Yunior character tends to be the main narrator. But I mean, life is stranger than fiction, so I mean, I had to leave a lot of stuff out and change a lot of things. So I wouldn't exactly say Yunior was me, [? ever. ?]
I mean, my mother always answers that question the best because when she read the book in Spanish, she was always like, I'm a lot funnier than this woman. And I'm like, [INAUDIBLE]. Uh-huh, and--
DIAZ: No, just no. It's like writing poetry. It doesn't-- those are really important forms and I have no talent or interest in. Thank you, though. And then back there, and then here and then [INAUDIBLE] [? get ?] [? this? ?]
AUDIENCE: Yeah, last little thing I wanted to ask-- we're talking about analogs [INAUDIBLE] about physical beauty and how there's an analog for that kind of self-hatred [INAUDIBLE]. I was wondering, is there an analog, do you see, in a literary sense between-- in the '60s, there was a black aesthetic to write [INAUDIBLE] [? of ?] [? artists to ?] [? write. ?] In the Latino community, there's kind of a Latino aesthetic that's being debated or [? misconceptualized. ?]
DIAZ: You might know better than me, in a sense, because I think that-- I mean, I think-- I mean, I don't know. I guess what troubles me most about-- I mean, you want to talk about aesthetic-- I think the debate that's happening now amongst the young writers I know is that there's a small group of us who think it's good to kind of write unruly stuff and to be political in our lives.
And then there's another huge group of young writers who-- they just want to be celebrities. It's all about feeding at the trough. It's like a bunch of pigs eating at the trough, and they're like, don't make too much too much noise. You'll interrupt the feeding.
And so I feel like [? at least ?] one of the-- I mean, I think just some old stuff hasn't been resolved yet. I mean, I find so many writers. I go to writers conferences a lot. You get invited, and these writers who write very interesting, complicated things-- or you think they're very interesting and complicated. And they start talking, and they say some wild, dangerous things.
And you find yourself like-- I mean, this writers who-- I was at a conference recently with a bunch of, quote unquote, "very famous" established black writers, and it was painful to behold because the entire time, these, quote unquote, "famous black writers"-- all they wanted to talk about was white people.
And I was just like, you're an idiot. That conversation is played out. It's about time for communities to start speaking to each other. I mean, the black and Latino community hasn't even begun the dialogs it needs to have. I mean, the communities of color need to start dialoguing with each other in ways that have never happened before. Like right now, a lot of these writers just-- they perform their little shucking and jiving under a white gaze, and I think that that's really foolish because every voice should be equal. And if every voice is equal, then first, we need to have a conversation with each of us. And every fifth round, we'll have a conversation with the, quote unquote, "white community." But first, I'd like to see some other conversations occurring.
Was there a hand there? Oh, no, I'm sorry. You [INAUDIBLE] and then-- I'm sure [? I ?] [? dissed ?] you before, but--
AUDIENCE: I would like to know how you prepare yourself [INAUDIBLE] to write. Do you go to certain places [INAUDIBLE]? Is there an emotional process that you go through? What do you do?
DIAZ: Yeah, I mean, preparation is tough. I think some of you, by now, have mastered this kind of like concentration or focus. You need to. You wouldn't be here looking at me right now.
I mean, and part of it comes with-- I mean, I was telling an earlier class is I have to do it first thing in the morning. Once I start interacting with people, it's finished. Then, I just want to have fun. I'm a social person.
But the other thing is that-- I know this sounds corny, but it's to appreciate the fact that-- I mean, my mother cleans toilets. That's her job, and so I'm like, OK, she didn't clean toilets so that I could write some old [? "bleh blah," ?] some old fucking nonsense.
And I feel like that, for me, is something that really helps me get ready to start writing. It's like, think about the old lady, and then I'm like, OK, time to get going. [INAUDIBLE]. Your hand was up.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] personal things, but when you left to go do your schooling and get your thing done, how did you deal with maybe some guilt that came across [? from being in ?] the neighborhood. I know that I've encountered leaving my neighborhood as being like [? shunning ?] to do my own thing. Does that make sense?
DIAZ: Yeah, no, it does make sense. But I mean, being an immigrant, you get great lessons in leaving your community, and it's not always leaving. I mean, some of us feel no connections to communities, and I'm like, cool. But those are not really the people I'm talking to, in a way.
I feel like if you feel a real connection to a community-- again, the community I belong to isn't suffering the sort of things it's suffering and that it's being put on it so that I could go to school and feel real guilty. I mean, I know this sounds grandiose and full of shit and idealistic, but I really believe this stuff. It's kind of berserk. I'm like a sucker. I think I'll wake up one day, but I really believe this stuff.
I was like, they didn't send me to be a fucking clown, and that was a real serious business for me. They were just like, go and do good and don't come back with some old silliness. And that helps, but that doesn't mean it's not there.
I know the first year when I was at Cornell, I was a wild drunk. All I did was drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, drink because I missed home really bad, and I felt like I don't even know what the hell I was doing. And so I don't think it's real easy. I think a lot of us who leave home-- it's good to have friends.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, [? I just ?] [? had a question ?] because you put yourself in a very influential position [INAUDIBLE], and I think it's great that you can write and still manage to kind of multitask. You write, and you're also galvanizing a lot of people and so on.
And just some of the stuff that came up before-- how do you manage to watch the evening news every night and just keep that energy and keep that idealism that you have going? I mean, what keeps you fighting, I guess? Just because there's so much when you look around [INAUDIBLE] [? down. ?]
DIAZ: Yeah, but I mean, what am I really doing? Nobody's really beating me with a chain. I think that's really tough, and I don't end up in abuse shelters. That's really tough.
I mean, and I'm not really all that influential. Outside of this room, ain't nobody know who the fuck I am, and most of you here don't even know who the fuck I am, so-- I mean, I make photocopies for Mumia Abu-Jamal things, and I go to meetings for anti-police brutality. That doesn't take much time for me, so I'm pretty much a grunt. I'm great at making photocopies.
And so again, you just pick your small stuff and do them, and it's not like I'm all that successful. I should have had two books out by now. If I had dedicated myself to my writing-- I have people who-- we came up together, and they're going to be happier people. Guarantee it because they're just [? sit ?] at home and write, and they're already on book three.
And so that's it. You feel it. You feel it when your friends send [? you your ?] third book, and you're still out in the street getting spit on by cops. You're like, huh, this doesn't amount to much, so--
AUDIENCE: Since you're [? looking ?] [? out ?] for the first couple years of college, I guess I'm interested in what it takes to be [INAUDIBLE]
DIAZ: You know Toni Morrison's-- I love that influential essay of hers where she talks about how-- well, I'm going to get Toni. But I love Toni, but for me, it just took somebody-- somebody set it straight in a really good way. And again, you have to be personally ready.
This is not like some old new-age shit, but for me, I was just like argh, drinking and getting into fights. I was stupid because I'm this little nerd kid, but I had for years and years and years been a boxer. So I would be like, hurr hurr, [CLICK], so I was just like an idiot.
And one day somebody was just like-- some woman I never even knew. I didn't even know who she was. Some sister just walked by, and she's like, look at this idiot. And I was like, OK, let's do this.
So I mean, that doesn't give you much, but for me, that's all it took. Nothing like being made fun of. Why? Are you having difficulty? Are you wilding out, bro?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] [? just ?] [? wondering ?] [INAUDIBLE] experience.
DIAZ: And then, [? yeah. ?] We're about to have last questions here, guys. [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: The conference that you talked about and the conferences that you go to, I'm curious as to whether the focus on white people is more of the writers that came up either before or during the Civil Rights Movement, or [INAUDIBLE]
DIAZ: They're younger than me.
AUDIENCE: Younger than you?
DIAZ: Yeah, well, a couple were older than me, but a bunch of them were younger than me. I mean--
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] name names [INAUDIBLE]
DIAZ: The only reason I don't want to name names is not because [INAUDIBLE]. I'll fuck them niggas up in a minute. There's no question about that. But it's also, you start getting into this personal "he said, she said." It gets away from the issues, and that's the way people tend to boil it down is that I'm not interested in personalities. I'm really interested in some of these issues.
It's just disappointing because I always hope that the young writers are going to be beyond kooky, but late modern capitalism has a really good way of making sure everybody's identical. I'm like, oh, you also like money a lot? That's great. You're real fucking original. I mean, whatever.
OK, I'm going to take one last question because-- well, I'm going to take two and try to answer them both because before you leave, I'm just going to read you a page so you can leave with words. I'm going to take your question.
AUDIENCE: I'm curious, given your interest in history and activism, [? do ?] you think about trying to write for a somewhat younger audience like high school kids or younger, even?
DIAZ: Yeah, I mean, I want to, but my characters right now are so mean to each other that it really precludes it. And it's also some of the ideas I've been into. I think, though, when I get my first real novel done, I think I'll think about these other things because I feel like that's an important genre.
And when I was a kid, I mean, the young adult books really set me off. I can think of some writers who really had a big impact on me, so I'd like to give a little back. Thank you. Why would you ask that question, anyway? What were you thinking?
AUDIENCE: Well, I just think-- I have read but very little bit of you [INAUDIBLE] and you speak to an audience that's sitting in front of you, mostly, most directly. But all of us have already been formed, as it were. The clay is pretty well molded. You want to challenge some institutional views, your rampant capitalism, you have to [? tag up ?] [? to ?] [? someone ?] younger age. That's my view, and I wondered how you thought about that.
DIAZ: Yeah, it's weird. It's something I learned in Santo Domingo. It's a word that they don't use too much in the United States is "simultaneity." So I'm always like, fuck the "either" or the "or" because I think you're right.
But I think it's good to do both. Get the young people. Get everybody every age, but thank you. And I think you're quite right. OK, I mean, and that was the last-- back there, those--
AUDIENCE: I just had a question.
DIAZ: Go ahead.
AUDIENCE: Your second story left me with some mixed feelings about interracial relationships, and I wasn't quite sure what you were trying to drive home with that short story. Maybe I just wasn't clear about that.
DIAZ: Do you want to elaborate your mixed feelings?
AUDIENCE: Oh, it's that I'm dating a white boy, and I'm Hispanic. And it made me wonder if maybe I was going through a phase.
DIAZ: Somebody else want to answer that? You know what? It's one of those things where-- Again, I don't want to get into personal issues. I'd rather just speak on some old abstractness that might connect us in some way.
I mean, again, nobody can tell anybody who the fuck they can date. That's just the bottom line. I've never had any issues with that, and I've never worried about that.
But I do find that people pretend that when we talk about racism, that racism is a bunch of just discrete little units that are not connected, and I don't see that. I see it as a continuum, so the kind of self-- and I never accuse anybody of self-hatred because how would you know? You can't read minds, no more than how can they know? Because they can't read their subconscious.
When somebody tells me that they have no self-hate, I have to start laughing. I'm like, OK, you have total access to your subconscious? I'm like, you need to read [INAUDIBLE]. Come on, now. This book's been out for 30 years.
But for me, what I find interesting is some very simple things we were talking about in another class where there's some very simple patterns about desire and race. And the fact that they are constant, that they're almost constant, they're almost like a law of physics, right?
It was like, we were joking with another class before I [INAUDIBLE]. Some of the students are here. And me my boys when we were coming up, we always notice that no matter who we dated, they were always lighter skinned than us.
And then one of my friends did this hilarious thing where he took every single basketball player-- and just watching ball because he's an obsessive ball-- and he just sat down with a notebook for an entire season and discovered that like every single basketball player dates somebody or is married to someone lighter skinned than them. And the fact that it occurs with such perfection and precision and without any disruptions of it really speaks to some wild-ass shit. I mean, you couldn't get that pattern unless you tried over time.
And I guess that's the sort of stuff I try to critique in my stories. Whether it has some relevance to you personally, good luck. But I do think that there is a lot of that, and there's a lot of-- what we consider beauty is some wild shit. It's culturally pre-programmed, so I think it's good to disrupt some of it. Whatever. I mean, I'm just putting an intellectual spin on something that my friends in East Harlem could say in two seconds. Fuck that. And you had that question, and that's that?
AUDIENCE: I had a question also. It seems like you pride yourself on being Latino, Hispanic, black, and I'm not sure-- Caribbean, Dominican. I was wondering where you think the line should be drawn with being celebrating race and singling someone out for race because sometimes it seems like where in America, we call attention to your race so much, sometimes people start seeing [? others ?] [? before ?] [? they'll ?] [? see ?] people.
Like for example, with women, if people see [INAUDIBLE] women [? write ?] women [? in ?] [? this, ?] women [? in that ?] instead of saying, well, this is writing, and then, we have men. We have women. We have blacks, Latinos, whites, whatever-- I'm wondering where you think the line should be drawn between celebrating something and singling them out.
DIAZ: Thank you. I mean, I come from a certain philosophical bent where-- forgive me, but like I don't think others could be singled out anymore than they already are. I think gender-blind stuff and race-blind stuff is foolish nonsense. Our brains are hard-wired to recognize difference. They just are. They are, and that's it.
I think for me, it's not a problem with recognizing differences. It's describing all sorts of negative and pejorative nonsense to it. And I think in the States, people try to confuse those two. They're like, oh, we shouldn't talk about race because that means that-- I'm like, no. I don't mind being all these multiple things. Just don't put negative shit on it, and that's that. Just don't put some old negative shit on it.
And so those of us who want to do that kind of work, I think that that's the most important thing, and people feel really uncomfortable with that. But I'm like, you know what? You should go-- you learn to be humble when you travel, and no matter what you say about yourself, people pick your ass out.
I went to Japan. It was beyond. Nothing I could say about-- please don't select out. See me as a human being. That wasn't working.
And for me the reality is always the masses on some old weird shit. I mean, whenever I walk in African communities, they always crack on me. They're always like, yo, what are you, man? But do you know what I'm saying? So--
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] what are you? I mean, [INAUDIBLE] do you check "other" in the census box when you're filling those out?
DIAZ: Oh, I don't check "other."
AUDIENCE: Then what do you check?
DIAZ: Well, I always checked that ugly word "Hispanic" till they changed it to Latino, but I mean, again, it's like you have to do things. For me, I think most of us have multiple identities so that I don't mind going through my list of multiple identities. If you're dumb enough to ask, then you're dumb enough to have to listen.
So I tend to be like, it depends where the question is coming from. Where the question's coming from is almost as important as the way you answer it. So people will ask me what you are, and if I don't like their attitude, I'll be like, what am I? The fuck are you?
That's the answer back to-- and but the way, I mean, I see it most clearly is I'm like, it's like a member of the Dominican diaspora, which is a portion of the larger African diaspora. I'm an immigrant. I'm a Latino, and I come from the-- I'm a man, and I come from the poor communities, urban. So you see the list grows, but I don't mind that. I think that's OK.
All right, I'm just going to read you guys just one page. I'm sorry. Y'all have to leave. Go ahead. You guys can go. No, I don't want to put you on the spot.
It's just, I just wanted to leave you with just this one little description from a story, the last story that I'd published. And it's just this little piece on the Dominican Republic, and it's just this guy, this narrator is just talking about how much he loves his country, which is this sort of nonsense, but anyway.
"Let me confess. I love Santo Domingo. I love coming home to the guys in the blazers trying to push little cups of Brugal into my hands.
I love the plane landing, everybody clapping when the wheels kiss the runway. I love the fact that I'm the only nigga on board without a Cuban link or a flapjack of makeup on my face. I love the redhead woman on her way to meet her daughter she hasn't seen in 11 years, the gifts she holds in her laps like the bones of saints.
[SPANISH] has [SPANISH] now, the woman whispers. The last time I saw her, she could barely speak in sentences, and now she's a woman. [SPEAKING SPANISH].
I love the bag my mother's packed, shit for relatives and something for Magda, a gift. You give this to her no matter what happens. If this was another kind of story, I'd tell you about the sea what it looked like, what it looks like after it's been forced into the sky through a blowhole, how when I'm driving in from the airport and see it like this, like shredded silver, I know I'm back for real.
I'd tell you how many poor motherfuckers there are, more albinos, more cross-eyed niggers, more [SPANISH] than you'll ever see, and the [SPEAKING SPANISH]. And I'd tell you about the traffic, the entire history of late-20th-century automobiles swimming across every flat stretch of ground, a cosmology of battered cars, battered motorcycles, battered trucks, and battered buses, and an equal number of repair shops, run by any idiot with a wrench.
And I'd tell you about the shanties and our no-running-water faucets and the sambos on the billboards and the fact that my family house comes equipped with the ever-reliable latrine, and I'd tell you about my [SPANISH] and his [SPANISH] hands, how unhappy he is that I'm not sticking around. And I'd tell you about the street where I was born, Calle XXI, how it hasn't decided yet if it wants to be a slum or not and how it's been in the state of indecision for years.
But that would make this another kind of story, and I'm having trouble as it is with this one. You'll have to take my word for it. Santo Domingo is Santo Domingo, and let's all pretend we know what goes on there."
Thank you. Have a good night, you guys.