Friday, May 15, 2009

Saturday, May 9, 2009

New Jersey Nerd

I hadn’t heard of Junot Diaz (winner of the Pulitzer for The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, ’08 and Creative Writing prof at MIT) until a few months ago when my writers group started planning for our participation in this year’s Feria de Libros. Junot Diaz and Annie Proulx (author of Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News) were the invited keynote speakers from the US. Several in our group had read his novel and all gushed at how brilliant it was. The rest of us borrowed copies and I dove in to his tale of a fat genius nerd from New Jersey, exploring his Dominican family roots during the dictatorship of El Trujillo.

As the book fair approached we decided to invite Junot to our celebratory asado. The party was the first gathering of our group with spouses included. Tara emailed him and received a “maybe” as he was flying in that day and might be pretty jet lagged. I never expected a celebrity (at least in the literary world) to make time for a group of complete strangers. Half hour after Hugh and I arrived, I got a tap on the shoulder. It was Tara introducing me to….Junot Diaz. He showed! Unbelievable really that he ventured unattended to a strangers bbq in a city he’d never been to. He admitted the invite was so “random”, he just had to check it out. When he found out we were a group of writers he was even more blown away. A small circle formed – each of us trying desperately not to hang on his every word but it was hard not to. He asked what type of writing we did. I admitted to short stories – and getting shorter with a 6 month old and so little time for myself anymore to write. This caught his attention and he insisted “Nah, that’s the opposite of what ya do. Yah gotta be “prepotente”. He speaks just as his character Oscar Wao – weaving in and out of gangsta Spanglish and academa-nerdom. We spent ten minutes debating the correct translation of “prepotente”. He landed on “pretentious” which somehow I knew was not quite right but no one else corrected him either. As with my own nonmastery of the Argentine tongue, I mostly get the gist of things even if the specific words pass me by. He meant that even though I might have 30 minutes or less a day to write – I should be bold, preposterously bold in my ambitions. Rather than writing flash fiction, I should take on a huge project – an unbelievable goal for someone with no time. He said even with 5 hours a day to write – you won’t spend all that time productive so with less time you can actually achieve more. His Pulitzer prize winning tome took 11 years to complete. He claimed his current novel in progress "sucks, really sucks".

Something about it made sense and left me wondering. Most of my activities pre-Valentina had shrunk or disappeared - my personal ambitions, muted. Now I’m reexamining that decision. He stayed for an hour and spread himself around, sampled the chori-pan and steak brochettes, raised his glass to a champagne toast.

The following night the US Embassy hosted a formal reception for Junot at the lavish Ambassadors residence (two doors down from our apartment). We attended and took a group photo together and chatted about the previous night like old pals. None of us had to say outloud - that these two exchanges were a hands down highlight of the year.

I love this photo. We took the first one all prim and smiley. Then Junot says "gimme your best gangstah face". Hah! We are not a gangsta-ready group. He was the only one that flashed what could have been a gang sign. The rest of us just looked like bad JC Penny catalog models.