As I walk into the endless warehouse of a room that is The Strand’s fifth floor, Junot Diaz and Hilton Als arrive onstage. Diaz needs little introduction: in 2008, his Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao garnered widespread praise and a Pulitzer; his short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her, has critics in a frenzy. Als writes for The New Yorker, but tonight he’s simply Diaz’s friend: they’ve shared late dinners, time-travel theories and half-jokes about fathers who, says Diaz,“drive past the house and call that a visit.”
There must be over two hundred of us here, and what really strikes me is our range: from the suits in the first row to the students in the aisle, from the preppy girl with bright pink nails to the nerd who bites his with neglect. Dominican natives, Bronx-born Latinos, all-round Americans and I—the uprooted Argentine—make a company of sundry folk worth a Chaucerian prologue.
Diaz talks about the usual Junot Diaz things—race, machismo, the DR—but (perhaps because he’s talking to a friend) he also talks about Junot Diaz. He talks about a family who, years ago, was ready to love him for how many neighborhood fights he won or bulls-eyes he hit on the rifle range, but not for reading Samuel Delany’s sci-fi. “Anormal!” they’d say. “Go outside and play!” He talks about a post-dictatorship Dominican culture that prized external markers of success, and a father who demanded that he met them: “If I ironed my clothes every day, [he] would like me.” He talks about his child’s need to please his father, his family, his scene in Santo Domingo and later Jersey.
It may seem as though adult Diaz has shunned this need; we’ve come to know him as a badass geek, a writer whose propelling engine “doesn’t…want popularity.” And yet, to this day, he will not discuss his art during Christmas dinner to avoid feeling anormal: he will talk sports instead. “I’m still auditioning for my family’s love,” he admits. His father’s ghost visits when he writes—a command to be successful and renowned—and he must stifle it in order to produce good work. No wonder he’s impatient when a middle-aged woman asks how he’s managed to transcend his past: “Who says I did? I have to live with it!”
Living with it, for Diaz, is writing about it. As a selfish reader of his fictions, I can’t help but bless the pain that drives them.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.