Meeting Junot Díaz

Earlier this spring I went to see Pulitzer Prize-winning Junot Díaz at a local literary festival. We went to see my parents over Fred’s spring break and I cut short our trip home so I could see Junot Díaz in the flesh for the first time.

I love Junot Díaz.

I cannot explain well why I do, so I will use his words instead:

You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.

I adore and admire many writers, and I do so for different reasons. But I love Junot Díaz literally beyond words – that is, beyond the words in his books. I love him because of why he writes. His Facebook page also reflects this. Unlike other authors, Díaz rarely if ever promotes his books on his page. Instead he shares articles and essays (by other writers) that open our eyes and minds to the people we may not think about or understand well enough: people who are marginalized, who have no voice, who are invisible.

Díaz’s voice is one I never realized I was starving for until I read it. He’s of a different gender and culture from me but there is a universality in his stories about the struggles to find self and love amidst dysfunction and confusion. In his talk he said, “When I write, my default is that we are a descendant of slaves; society’s default is male, white, middle class.” I have nothing against male, white, middle class writers. But I’ve been reading them all my life. When I read Junot Díaz, I do, finally, see a reflection. Reading his books and knowing that he writes transform me from reader to participant: he makes me understand that I exist, that I take up space, that I am alive.

At the event he opened with an extensive Q&A before reading a passage from his latest book, the short story collection This is How You Lose Her. I was trying to both listen and pay attention while feverishly typing some notes on my iPhone with one finger. The following are my best attempts to paraphrase some of the quotes that stood out most to me:

On reading and writing:

How do we ask the questions that can open up our deep complexity?

The truth of who we are is best expressed in the fiction that we don’t pay attention to.

On love:

Nothing teaches more about love than its malfunction.

I am interested in [writing about] fidelity and what it does to children and the possibility of intimacy. When it comes to trauma, parents don’t talk about it but it’s the silence that passes down.

When you love someone you have to put your heart in someone else’s hands. A great way to defray intimacy is through cheating; it hurts less to give half your heart to one person and half to another.

We drag other people into our own fears.

Intimacy is so difficult – it demands more courage than we can imagine.

This is How You Lose Her is a collection of stories about his protagonist Yunior’s struggle to find and keep love. Díaz’s interest in this subject matter stems from his own experience growing up with an unfaithful father.

As a speaker he was thoughtful, engaging, articulate, self-deprecating, and funny. In front of an audience of 300 he pretty much talked the way he would talk to a buddy over beer.

Book signing came next and this is the part that got my nerves jangled for weeks. Max calls Junot Díaz my literary Justin Bieber. I honestly had no idea what to say to him and didn’t figure out something until halfway through his talk. It helps to get a flavor of the author’s personality and values first before deciding on what to say. I finally decided to just be honest when I talked to him.

I wasn’t in line long and when it was my turn, he reached out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Junot.” As if I didn’t know!

I shook his hand and handed him my books to sign. I then said to him, “I am so grateful that you write…I am so grateful for your voice.” And I shared something personal about my own immigrant experience at which point he stopped and looked at me and gave me a look of…sympathy or compassion or something along those lines. He asked me where I was from (Peru (though I’m Asian)) and when we were done he said something to me in Spanish which for the life of me I couldn’t catch.

The people managing the event requested that we wait for photos if we wanted to take photos. So ever the rule-abiding gal I was the one person who waited all the way to the very end (I had to wait for my ride anyway) and I finally got my photo taken with Junot. I kind of made a fool of myself at this point, because I told the young woman holding my phone to “take as many” as she could. After we were done he went off with his wife, some family friends, and writer Peter Straub.

I’m relieved to have survived this celebrity encounter. To be honest, in the days leading up to the talk I had actually contemplated not going. Of course I’m so glad I went. Now I’ll have to brace myself once again when I go see Khaled Hosseini in a couple of weeks. I have no idea what to say to him.

 

Q&A. Sorry, quite a bit blurry...

Q&A. Sorry, quite a bit blurry…

 

"Hi, I'm Junot." He said this to every reader.

“Hi, I’m Junot.” He said this to every reader and he signed his books standing up the whole time.

 

That's me on the left. I know, there's some irony in making myself invisible in a picture with the writer who makes me feel visible. Unfortunately, I looked terrible that day (why hadn't I chosen my outfit more carefully) and I'm also trying to remain somewhat anonymous on this blog.

That’s me on the left. I know, there’s some irony in making myself invisible in a photo with the writer who’s given me my reflection. Unfortunately, I looked terrible that day (why hadn’t I chosen my outfit more carefully) and I’m also trying to remain as anonymous as I can on this blog.

 

IMG_0407

 

Have you met any authors? Which author would you most like to meet? And what would you say to him or her?

How to Love and Be Kind to Yourself

A major eye-opener for me over these last few weeks that I have been doing my “emotional work” is the fact that I don’t love myself enough. It’s an odd thing to say, when you think about it. I do think I love myself, or otherwise I wouldn’t be so scared of dying. But it’s true that I am not kind enough to myself. I am not kind to myself the way that I am kind to others.

This is more rough draft and homework than it is prescribed solutions, but here are some ways I’ve come up with to “love” myself more:

1. Find something good in the mirror.

Whenever I look in the mirror or at a picture of myself, the first place my eyes go to are the features I don’t like. There are parts of my face and body that I have not been satisfied with since the time I was 10. If they have been there since I was a child, then I guess they’re not going away without surgery. I haven’t really made peace with these parts and maybe I never will. But one thing I – and we – can do is at least balance that picture a little, so that in our minds we are not just a package of all that is wrong with the human form. Occasionally I’ll look in the mirror and actually like my eyes, or my cheekbones. I like how the muscle in my calves is getting more and more defined now that I’m running more. I need to look at my face and body with different eyes, and let go of the mental picture of the ideal woman that I have been holding myself up to (and falling short of) all these years.

2. Catch yourself doing good.

Positive behavior reinforcement is big at elementary schools now. Catch kids doing good as opposed to giving attention only when they’re “bad.” This could work wonders on me too. Instead of closing each night with guilt that I still haven’t gotten around to cleaning off my desk or that I had fed soda to my child once again, I could instead think about the things I did well, regardless of how simple they may seem. After all, if my family goes to bed well fed and peacefully, how badly could I have done?

3. Banish “I’m such a bad mom” or “bad” anything from your vocabulary.

It’s amazing how rampant “I’m such a bad mom” is. I can’t begin to count all the times that this self-condemnation has rolled off my tongue whenever I made a mistake, and I can instantly rattle off different examples of the ways my friends have used it. “My daughter has a cavity. I’m such a bad mom.” “My kids had to walk all the way home in the heat. I’m such a bad mom.” “I forgot to give my son cough syrup. I’m such a bad mom.” Or sometimes it goes before the confession: “I’m such a bad mom. I am so critical.” “I’m such a bad mom. I let him watch t.v. all afternoon.” And sometimes there’s no example. Sometimes I just say, “I’m such a bad mom,” period.

Maybe we say this so often that it’s lost its meaning, but can you imagine doing the opposite? What if we said, “I read Goodnight Moon 7 times without stopping. I’m such a good mom.” or “I stayed up with her when she woke up coughing. I’m such a good mom.” Alright, so it sounds almost silly as I type that, which goes to show just how foreign the concept of praising ourselves is.

4. Correct your mistakes.

I had to start doing this recently, to save myself from falling into an abyss of guilt and self-hatred.

I’m at the point in my life and parenting where my past issues are catching up with my son’s entry into tweenhood. It’s new territory for me and I’m sometimes employing familiar but unhealthy tools to relate to my child. More than once I had broken down into tears the instant he stormed out of the room in frustration. Yes, I had a reason to get angry, but as the adult it is my responsibility to react maturely. I could have handled things differently. And so during these times I sit in my room while he sits in his, blocked off from each other by our closed doors. This is usually when I do hate myself, when actual words of reprimand start going off in my head: I’m such a bad mom. I’m awful. I am screwing him up. I have one chance to be a mother and I am messing this up. I am awful. I am awful. I am awful. 

Everything feels so dire when I start thinking like this. And then I realized one day, I have a choice. I can’t take back what I said, but I can make things better, and save us both from sinking into what will one day be an ocean of hurt.

This happened last night. I said something that didn’t come out the way I had intended, but it doesn’t matter, because it had come out and it had hurt him. After I pulled myself together I walked into Fred’s room and told him in tears that I was sorry I had hurt him. I explained to him what I had meant, and that my anger and frustration had prevented me from reacting better and from choosing my words more carefully. He nodded at me slightly and went back to his crossword puzzle. Five minutes later, he came into my room to ask me for help with the puzzle. Twenty minutes later, his arms were wrapped around me as I sang him to sleep.

My point here is not that “I’m sorry” is enough, and that anything can be fixed with an apology. What I’m trying to say is that while I’m on the path of learning how to do better, I can expect to make mistakes, but I have the power to correct them as well.

5. Talk, connect, be vulnerable, ask for help.

You’ve all been so supportive as I swung back and forth on this over the last few weeks. Ultimately I do believe that we poison ourselves when we hesitate to share with others the parts of ourselves we don’t feel proud about. Keeping things secret implies shame. I have a stepson, and for years I kept this within our immediate family only. My mother made me swear to not tell anyone that Max has a child from a previous marriage. There is so much stigma around divorce in my culture, particularly from my parents’ generation. Then one day a friend told me she didn’t learn about her half-brother until she was 18. She said, “The fact that my parents kept everything so hush-hush made it seem like there was something so bad and so wrong about my brother, like it was shameful for him to exist.” Her words changed me. I couldn’t bear the thought of any child having to be made to feel that way, and ever since then I have been open about my stepson’s presence in our lives.

The same holds true of all those different parts within us. Mental illness. Suicide. Divorce. Abuse. Illness. Dysfunction. Failure. Mistakes. Struggle. Hardship. Plain old bad luck. When we cling to this and hold it inside we are equating it with shame which contributes to our self-loathing. But maybe by opening up – whether it’s on a blog or with one trusted friend – we can begin to redefine shame, and give it a new name: human.

On Self-Consciousness, the Fear of Being Judged, and Struggling to Write

I’ve been having a hard time over the last couple of weeks mustering up the energy to write. The struggle is not new; I get hit by this every so often.

Emotional and physical fatigue is my biggest culprit. I experienced extreme highs and lows over the last couple of weeks that included a death in the family. I don’t sleep as much as I should on normal days, so the last couple of weeks have taken a bit out of me.

The other block is a renewed self-consciousness. I’ve received only support and encouragement ever since I posted about my experiences with anxiety, and friends are now even forwarding articles to me on being good to myself. But in the aftermath of those personal posts are the uncomfortable feelings of having said too much. Do my friends look at me differently now, even though my achievements have not changed? When I meet people, are they smiling at me out of pity or judgment? One friend confessed quietly that she had suffered from depression as well, but added, “But I’m not about to go around telling everyone about it.” Though she was speaking only of herself, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was also making a statement about my choice.

How do writers balance authenticity and vulnerability?

There are two sides in me, constantly, that either fuel or drain my motivations to write. There’s the side that expects the best in others – their open-mindedness, their compassion, their acceptance, their lack of judgment. And then there’s the side in me that fears the worst. My culture has instilled in me the importance of keeping secrets and keeping face; the reality of my life has shown me the toxicity of holding everything in. Since I started writing almost five years ago I’ve been gaining strength in my internal battle against the needless shame of being human. I had made the decision that having a voice outweighs the fear of being judged. It’s a seesaw I ride on every week that I write, and I hope that in time the nobler side wins.

Image courtesy http://www.ynaija.com