Junot Diaz at CityLit

April 21, 2009 | No Comments

I was privileged to spend part of last Saturday at the 6th annual CityLit event in Baltimore, held at the Enoch Pratt Central Library. I took part in a panel hosted by Nancy Johnston (of Baltimore Sun’s Read Street blog) about first time authors, and relished my good fortune of sharing the stage with the incredibly talented Jessica Anya Blau, Elissa Brent Weissman, Eric D. Goodman and Ben Shaberman.

Unfortunately I missed the reading by poet Mark Doty but I did join the throng paying homage to multiple award-winner Junot Diaz, who read an excerpt from one of his short stories. Diaz, comfortable in front of this large audience, struck me as warm, articulate, funny and generous with his time and his insights into the writer’s craft. I’m ashamed to admit that I still have not read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so I was eager to hear his prose. Diaz, without a doubt, is a very effective reader. His voice dipped into the rhythm, tone and idiom of Dominican Spanglish to the delight of his fans though his saucy subject matter and colorful syntax sent some parents with younger kids scuttling from the room (I’m not sure what they had been expecting!). Nevertheless, Diaz’s choice disappointed me, as it seemed to lack the swooping breadth for which he is renowned, and had characters who didn’t surprise, a plot that didn’t turn, and a literary punch hinged on a single repeated line, (“time for you to go one way, and I to go another”). He pulled it off because of the strength of his performance, not because of the strength of the material. And thinking about it later I concluded that there is a difference between mimicking nature and holding up a mirror to nature. For the reader (or listener) the pleasure of the former stems from recognition, but the power of the latter is revelatory. Yes, I recognized his characters, but it seems I must dive into his novel to experience revelation.