From J to L: conversations with my literary hero, Junot Diaz

When Junot Diaz enters a room you don’t really know what to expect from him; he appears mousy, like a nerdy forty-something year old Dominican guy who is a bit unsure of himself. But once he makes eye contact with you it’s like a switch goes off and out comes the fastest-paced Spanglish you’ve ever heard. He admits that it has a lot to do with nerves.

I first reached out to him in September of 2008 a friend of mine had told me he was leading a discussion for a book club meet up to discuss his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and she knew that I was a fan and asked if I wanted to come along. Of course I said yes but I felt that before meeting him I would have to in some way thank him for inspiring me.

I emailed him through his MIT email account and told him I was going to attend that meet up and he replied within hours thanking me for my “support and kind words” and offered to have a drink with me after the discussion.

We met at a bar in downtown Brooklyn in November of 2008. He walked in almost unnoticed until the room filled with chatters and murmurs of, “Is that him?”

I looked up and found Junot waving his arms frantically and going on about how crazy Rutgets was and how there always seems to be the same types of stock characters at every college even MIT. He said, “Don’t even get me started on them, they are all sorts of fucked up.”

He made his rounds introducing himself and when he came up to me he smiled and I spat out the fasted Spanish I’ve probably ever spoken in my life and I rambled for about a minute and a half about how I was the girl who had contacted him and so forth.

He gave me a huge hug and told me that it was OK, “breathe girl” he said. Junot then practically takes me under his wing, he put his arm around me and kept talking to everyone and before you know it we were talking to each other like old friends because apparently all Dominicans know each other and we kinda know the same types of people.

One question that kept coming up in interviews at the time was whether Julia Alvarez’s novel In Time of The Butterflies influenced Oscar Wao, the book is referenced in the footnotes in several parts of his novel. Julia Alvarez, “is regarded as one of the most critically and commercially successful Latina writers of her time” and she’s our Dominican treasure in terms of literature, our pride and joy. She published her first novel in 1991 and has been keeping busy ever since writing children’s books, poetry books, essays, novels, you name it. She was recently awarded a National Medal of Arts; a prestigious American honor; it is the highest honor specifically given for achievement in the arts conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the people. Honorees are selected by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and ceremoniously presented the award by the President of the United States.

So it’s no surprise that whenever the subject of Dominican identity, literature or history comes up that Alvarez would be referenced in some way (her works often re-imagine or retell historical events from the Dominican Republic) and I couldn’t help but get the feeling that there was some sort of friction between the two equally talented authors.

In a 2007 interview with, when Junot was asked if Alvarez’s In time of the butterflies is a direct influence on Oscar Wao he said, “I wouldn’t say that. And yet I wouldn’t deny it either. It’s kind of hard to understand how other people’s books work their way into your narrative engine, but I think what was most interesting for me was that in some ways my book was having a conversation with all these other books. And so even though Julia Alvarez’s is one of the texts, the book seemed to be explicitly chewing the fat and arguing, sometimes agreeing and sometimes not…In time of the butterflies was one of her best novels, but I was also thinking of a different approach to writing history.”

That quote may not seem like much without this juicy tidbit; I had also met Julia Alvarez, it was the summer of 2008 and Ms. Alvarez was participating in a literary fair in Washington Heights. It was the community’s way of bringing in literacy and culture to the Latino, Dominican youth. She was asked what she thought of Junot, his work and all the attention he had been receiving. She was very gracious and said that she “knew Junot before he was Junot.”

Years prior to Junot becoming a Pulitzer Prize winning author he had sent her his work; early drafts of some of the stories that would eventually make up his critically acclaimed first collection of short stories, Drown. He asked her for advice. So Alvarez literally went through his work with a red pen, marked up and commented on it like if he were a student of hers and she wrote him what she called, “critical but encouraging feedback” and basically told him, “you have what it takes you’re just not there yet” and that till that day had not heard from him, which she equated it to him not taking her feedback, “very well.”

So when I met him I asked about her and relayed what she had said and he turned as red as a fire truck. He said something to the effects of, “Girl, that was ages ago” and left it at that.

He unofficially became my mentor, we would email back and forth and I often sought writing advice from him and eventually worked up the courage to ask for his help with one of my courses. We tried to work out some sort of interview for a presentation for one my masters’ critical thinking class; he happed to be the subject matter.

At the time I was completing my first year as a graduate student at the New School of general studies’ MFA in fiction program. We continued to email back and forth trying to work something out but in the end, the week before my presentation to be exact, I got the following message from him:

“I just jumped from Tokyo to Buenos Aires (where I am now) and my
friend the writer Dagoberto Gilb just had a stroke so I’m flying straight to
Austin to help. Sorry, L”

“L” was the nickname he had given me through our correspondence because he signs off all his emails with the letter “J” and in my book dedication he purposely misspelled my name as an inside joke. Dominicans don’t often know how to spell people’s name or they have a tendency to Dominicanize them. He told me, “my own mother doesn’t know how to spell my name and she named me! She sometimes spells it with a Y!”