Junot Díaz-ed

1. Just the beginning of the line outside NYU Cantor Film Center waiting to hear Junot Díaz read. 2. About 1/18th of Junot Díaz’s wonderful and attentive audience.

At first, I thought the line was for a movie. A special screening of Avatar with bonus features. Apparently the NYU Creative Writing Program’s Fall 2010 Reading Series is the new Avatar. Or perhaps just Junot Díaz is the new Avatar. The line outside the NYU Cantor Film Center last night stretched for blocks, plural, and was made up of over five hundred Junot Díaz fans.

It’s been a year since I last heard Junot Díaz read. He commanded a small but loyal audience last fall at The National Book Festival on the National Mallin Washington D.C. Dedicated fans sat in well-spaced chairs, which were mostly filled, and asked thoughtful questions that were obviously practiced in bathroom mirrors or over bowls of inspiration-inducing mini wheats the morning of the reading. NYU’s Reading Series event last night was a bit different. The crowd was just as pleasant and the writer was certainly just as lively, but the whole production was on a much grander scale. Several rooms had to be prepared last minute to accommodate the enormous crowd. The event had to be split into three parts so that at least half the line could enter the building. And Mr. Díaz’s reading, though cut short by the need to cater to the masses, just felt a bit more “celebrity” than last year’s.

Deborah Landau, the director of the NYU creative writing program, also seemingly very cool, gave Mr. Díaz a rushed but thoughtful introduction. She spoke of Díaz as an inspirational writer but also as a demanding and impressive colleague. Mr. Díaz is part of the NYU creative writing program faculty this year, filling the coveted writer-in-residence position.

1. Junot Díaz and Deborah Landau before the reading. 2. Deborah Landau, the
director of the NYU creative writing program, speaks to the audience about Junot Díaz as a writer, a faculty member and a colleague.

Due to the masses, Díaz only had time to read an excerpt from one piece, “Nilda,” a short story that was first published in The New Yorker in 1999. “There was plans to read other shit before shit got like this….Fuck.,” Díaz said, referring to the shortened forum. That may have been so, but, all the same, the excerpt from “Nilda” was captivating. Díaz took the audience beyond comfort level at points, from Colombian streets and warm spice-filled kitchens to bad boy brothers with fingers so far up hoo-has that they appeared to being doing “some sort of medical procedure,” and then he took the audience back down again. His lilting Spanish inserts made half the audience laugh and the other peer around curiously, searching for translation. He swore constantly: in his introduction, throughout his story, and in his closing remarks. But he was forgiven because he’s handsome, his reading is lyrical and full of rhythm, and because no one fucking minded to begin with.

1. My favorite audience members, Joe Baker and Alicia Henriquez, who brought some of their 10th grade students from Uncommon Charter High School to the reading. They are reading Díaz’s book in Spanish for class. As noted by Díaz, “Wow! My fucking teachers never did shit like that for us. Fuck!” Cheers to Mr. Baker and Ms. Henriquez for opening up the world of fiction and language to their students.

The question and answer portion of the reading was, like everything else, cut short due to the crowds. Highlights:

1. Díaz talks about growing up poor and paying for groceries with food stamps. Hmmm…Anyone know where he got those? My fridge is ridiculously empty.

2. “…And this was back when X-Men made some kind of fucking sense.” Don’t remember the context of this one, but sorry, Junot, I disagree. A superhero team that opposes powerful mutant terrorist organizations always makes sense to me.

3. Díaz tells a 19 year-old high school student,“It’s not just about writing all the time. It’s about whether you’re doing the two things that’ll make you a good writer. Living and reading. I have no doubt that when you have something to say to the world, you’ll be able to do it. And if you can’t write? Good. Go read.”

That last one was nice. I liked that. And I’m off to the library.

–Sarah Codraro lives in Brooklyn, works for Electric Literature and Electric Publisher and is, oddly enough, not a writer.

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