Author Junot Díaz opens up

The Pulitzer Prizewinning author talks relationships, writing, and racism.

Author Junot Diaz read from his novel 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' in the gardens of Noepe on Thursday evening. — Photo by Michael Cummo

On Thursday evening, Pulitzer Prizewinning author Junot Díaz greeted a packed garden at Noepe Center for Literary Arts in Edgartown with the question, “Is anyone here from New Jersey?” Hands flew into the air throughout the audience. One group shouted that they were from Orange.

“Those are my people,” Díaz said with a laugh.

Mr. Díaz is a senior faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fiction editor for the Boston Review, a MacArthur Fellow, and sits on the Pulitzer Prize Board. He was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New Jersey when he was 6 years old. He has been visiting the Vineyard since 1988.

At Thursday’s reading, Mr. Díaz read from his novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and engaged the audience in a question and answer session where he fielded questions both literary and political.

Early in the discussion, Mr. Díaz explained the inspiration for his most recent book, “This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories about the power of love, a National Book Award finalist.

“It’s super-interesting to me how people first, when they’re in love, they’re like, ‘Yo, this person’s amazing,’ and when the breakup comes, suddenly a new person that you’ve never known before is described,” Mr. Díaz said. “What I think is important for me as a writer is to try to understand that the person we fall in love with when it’s the honeymoon time is the same person who becomes maligned.… Nothing reveals you more than failed intimacy.”

Mr. Díaz credited patriarchal society with the protagonist’s failed romantic endeavors. He told the audience that if his latest book was the only one left after the end of the world, “people at least would know that patriarchy and masculinity was a horror inflicted on women.”

Mr. Díaz commented bluntly about the current race conversations in the United States.

“This is a country which is profoundly addicted to white supremacy,” Mr. Díaz said. Audience members nodded as he continued. “It gets to a point where we we either start this conversation or we certify ourselves as lunatics.… We need to get with it, and we need to admit that we are not innocent, that a vast crime has been committed, and we are all culpable.”

Mr. Díaz said that racism in the Dominican Republic is identical to racism in the United States. The paradigm is “hate everything black,” he said, while addressing the Dominican government’s recent move to deport thousands of Haitian migrants.

Vacation, teaching, and editing

In an interview before Thursday’s reading, Mr. Díaz spoke to The Times about his experience with the Island and his relationship with writing.

“God, I was 19,” he said of his first visit to the Vineyard. “I was a Jersey kid, poor neighborhood, immigrant kid. This kind of world, at least in the summertime, was a bit of a revelation,” Mr. Díaz said.

Mr. Díaz said trips to the Island are an opportunity for him and his friends to renew themselves and to engage in the “privilege of leisure.”

“I’m a Caribbean boy. I love the beach,” Mr. Díaz said. “And the after-hours — the boys like to dance.”

Mr. Díaz said on “non-nutty fraternity nights,” he likes to go to the Sand Bar & Grille or the Island Bar and Grill in Oak Bluffs.

“Most of the folks of colors will gravitate there, visitors. Lola’s will occasionally have something of interest. We’re older, so we’ve got to take it where we can find it,” he said.

Trips to the Vineyard are a break before Mr. Díaz returns to Cambridge, where he teaches creative writing at MIT.

“I don’t teach creative writing for creative writers,” he said. “I teach creative writing because that, as a practice, is important for everyone. I’m not focused on the best writers in the class. That’s the kind of archaic favoritism that doesn’t help the discipline.”

When students are discouraged about what they’re producing, or when they are suffering from writer’s block, Mr. Díaz tells them to calm down.

“I’m like, You’re an undergraduate, who cares? Why are you taking this so seriously? … So many young people want to obey too strictly the commands of our present moment, which is that everything must justify itself monetarily. The only reason undergraduates are worried about writer’s block is because they’re taking it as seriously as med students are taking their biology classes, and that’s not art … I think so many young people are afraid, and they’re afraid, and they torture themselves, and they torture their work because they want it to do things. They want it to pay rent, to assuage their insecurities, they want it to be a bridge into the future. And that’s not what writing does.”

Mr. Díaz underscored that writing is not about earning an income.

“Writing is not about that, and when we do that, we deform it. It’s no different than a child, having this wonderful beautiful child, and saying, ‘I will only love you if you’re a doctor.’”

When he isn’t teaching, Mr. Díaz edits fiction for the Boston Review, which he described as “like being Santa Claus.”

“It’s great,” he said. “I just love it. I get to write emails to people and say, ‘Hey, I want to publish you.’”

When asked what he wants readers to get from his work, he said there’s no message. Mr. Díaz wants to create a space for readers to “commune with other people and themselves … I think for me, that is the most important thing.”