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Books: Diaz says flawed characters appeal to readers

Sunday, September 30, 2012
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Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz will read from his new book at the University at Albany on Thursday. (photo: Michael Greenberg)
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz will read from his new book at the University at Albany on Thursday. (photo: Michael Greenberg)

Junot Diaz loves writing about conflicted characters. “Characters who have all the answers and know exactly how to live and how to always do the right thing give off very little heat in a story,” he said in a recent phone interview.

“Most of us love ambivalence,” he said, “and my character Yunior is one of those dicey cats that will at times turn off and offend readers. He often makes the wrong choice, especially in relationships, but I still thought writing about him would be worth the risk because he’s an honest cat and there’s something refreshing about that.”

Diaz has just published his third book “This Is How You Lose Her” (Riverhead Books, 224 pages, $26.95). It is a collection of linked stories exploring love, passion and heartbreak. The central character is Yunior and the stories follow his progression as a young fiery Dominican from New Jersey to his early middle age as he is attempting to become a writer.

Junot Diaz reading and seminar

WHERE: University at Albany

WHEN: Thursday — Reading at 8 p.m. in Assembly Hall at the Campus Center of the Uptown Campus; Seminar at 4:15 p.m. also in Assembly Hall

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 442-5620, www.albany.edu/writers-inst/

In 2007, Diaz received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” His first book, “Drown” (1996), was also a book of linked stories, and all three books have included the character of Yunior.

“I can’t help writing these linked stories,” said Diaz. “They’re so much fun. A linked story collection is one-half novel and one-half story anthology. You get both the journey of an entire life, but you also get the gaps and the silences and the rupture that comes from an episodic story.”

His most recent book is destined to create some controversy because of its unflinching look at the way men treat women and the inherent racism in America.

Language into silence

“As artists we’re looking for those places where people don’t want to look,” he said, “and as artists we’re trying to throw language into the silence. We’re trying to scrutinize the blind spots.”

He believes that in the Americas, one of the great silences we have and one that we’re in total denial of is how race works in our lives. “As an artist, how can you resist such an easy and massive target?” he asked.

“We’ve entered a time where honest conversations about race are even more important than ever before.”

Diaz said he does not want to moralize and be didactic as a writer, but he hopes his stories will open up a dialogue on such major topics as racism and the way many men treat women.

“People avoid the topic of racism in this country,” he said. “Everyone is afraid to offend, but it’s not going away. It’s part of the fabric of America. Even President Obama avoids the topic. My stories would be worthless if I didn’t acknowledge the reality of racism.”

Diaz teaches at MIT and is often amazed at how far he has come from his own days as a Dominican kid from New Jersey. “There’s a part of me that’s astonished about where I came from and where I am now, the distance I’ve traveled,” he said, “but there’s another part of me that thinks there’s so much more for me to do. That’s what I try to focus on. Once you start thinking about how you’re a successful writer, you lose that edge that all artists need.”

He also feels fortunate to have a loyal readership.

“It’s tough today as a writer to get anyone to pay attention to you,” he said. “I have people come up to me at readings all the time and tell me I’m the only writer they read. How crazy is that? I write about Dominicans in New Jersey. How unlikely is that to appeal to readers? But I tell you, man, this stuff can change, and you never know when it happens. I’ve got some writer friends and one day people were paying attention to them and another day they weren’t.”

Diaz believes part of his appeal is the mixed English and Spanish style of his writing, which also employs many references to popular culture. “The hybrid voice I write in took a while for me to develop,” he said. “There aren’t many people who write like that. It’s something that I worked very hard on to achieve, and as a writer I’m trying to capture the tremendous diversity of languages and voices that are around us all the time. This is my attempt to write in the American vernacular.”

Need for humor

He also admits his stories have been successful because of their humor. “At times Yunior is a complete idiot, and you have to laugh at him,” he said. “I honestly wouldn’t be interested in reading a book that had no humor in it. Good books should have the full range of the human experience.”

A gifted speaker, he loves to tell people how important the arts are. “People would be much happier if they could be creative about something. People need the arts in their lives to be truly alive. We live in a society where the arts are considered irrelevant, and if we can’t get an appreciation for literature, art and music at a young age, I worry that individuals will never acquire it.”

 
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