Junot Diaz Book Signing!

“So good to meet you. Hello, I’m Junot,” Junot Diaz says to us, as we walk up to him and introduce ourselves. We laugh a little bit and tell him we know. “Well, custom dictates that one introduces one’s self,” he adds. He smiles, warmly, sweetly. To welcome him, Phil and I hand him a bag full of local goodies: Cafe de Lipa’s Barako blend, some chicharong laman from Lapid’s, some sumang latik and some kutsinta. “That’s such a wonderful thing to do!” Junot says happily and kisses me on both cheeks. I freak out a little because I still have a bad cold. The last thing I want to do is pass my damn germs on to one of my favorite authors. We chat a bit more, mostly about movies. When he gets home, he says, first thing he’ll do is watch Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Tarsem Singh’s Immortals. “I’m a film obsessive,” he says. We know that too. Anyone who could write a book like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would have to be obsessive and a true blue nerd.

photos taken by Phil

The crowd is small but attentive. They’re quiet, but there’s no mistaking their enthusiasm as they all sit down to listen to Junot Diaz talk about his books and his experiences. There were a lot of very good questions. Diaz is very comfortable answering everyone. He would sometimes asks questions back. At one point he asks the crowd, “Does anyone remember the audience in Lolita?” and looks around for a raised hand. It’s clear that he’s been teaching for a long time. He talked about many things. Here are some of them:

On writing about the Dominican experience: “I write about the Dominican experience because America doesn’t need my help.” Being Dominican is at the very center of his being a writer and he sees no benefit in ignoring it. When asked if he could’ve written Oscar Wao had he and his family not left the Dominican Republic, he says, jokingly, “There’s no way to tell. Let me run a beta test life and see how things turn out.”

On readers and writing a book like Oscar Wao: “I read a book, I go right through it. But there are readers who are hardcore. They want the extended package. They want the weapons, the accessories, they want to keep going back in.” He wanted to make sure it was the kind of story that offered something to every kind of reader, after all, the reader, he says, does most of the work. “Look, I just write the damn book.”

On whether Oscar is a hero: “Yeah, Oscar is kind of a dumbass…I love Oscar. He has a naivete that is very American…I find that charming, but I had to kill him for it.”

On working: “I was always the guy with five jobs.” He says it’s just what happens when you grow up poor in the Dominican Republic. He’s been a caterer, a diversity trainer and many other things. He’s always had teaching jobs. “Teaching is great. You help young people, they make fun of you a little bit, and you make some money.”

On how we are made: “You can say something like, “Pacquiao is Pacquiao because he grew up poor.” We love that. Writers love that kind of thing because it is a way of explaining what we are and what we become. But it isn’t that simple.”

On coming to the Philippines: He’s been waiting forever to get the chance. “I grew up in Jersey, just south of Pinoyland, you know? It was overrun with Yllagans!”

On family and being a (Pulitzer Prize winning) writer: “In the Dominican Republic, we say there are people who might win a menta, you know, a mint and they would talk about that for the next twenty years, you know? They’d be like, yeah, I won that shit! On the other hand, there are people who might win something really big but won’t talk about it. They’ll be like, I don’t care, I just have to keep working…I think I’m like that because of my evil militaristic father.” And his mother? “She says to me, ‘You used to be smart’. How do you answer that? I’m like, thanks, ma.”

He signs my book and I thank him. “No, no, thank you so much for being here,” he answers, takes my hand and then makes beso again. I make a silent plea to my germs, do not infect Junot Diaz, please. Leave him alone and you can stay with me for another week. Junot Diaz will be participating in the 2nd Manila International Literary Festival. Could you go and make sure he hasn’t caught my sniffles?

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