No. 1 Herb

“A Dominican dork can stand for everybody“—Junot Diaz, Oct. 3rd, 2008

How fucking imagineery is that? This is my post-post (ok, week late) breakdown of the New Yorker Festival “Where I Come From” lecture, with three of my favorite lit dorks, Sherman Alexie (a Spokane Indian) , Shalom Auslander (an ex-Orthodox Jew), and of course, Junot Diaz (A Dominican New Jersey transplant). It’s lame to include the race markers here, but if you don’t know the crew, it bears later.  In keeping with the spirit of the lecture, and probably with the fact that none of my pictures turned out, I am including lots and lots of %$&*^, et al. If you want a more stayed report of the event, you can check out the New Yorker offical wrap-up. But personally, I think they missed the fucking point.

Trust me, putting a week between the event and my recap is well worth it for you, oh treasured reader. I had to get a lot of nerding out of my system before it was possible to sit down and write about nerds being nerdy on writing books about nerds being nerdy. And as Diaz said “We’re a bunch of Class A Herbs”

Which doesn’t, in itself, capture the deep racial undertones in this and nearly every event where Diaz, and especially Alexie, speak. Both their most recent books, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and The Completely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, are about non-white characters orbiting white worlds, but they’re not about race. I find this kind of cool.

After the awesome critical reception of his debut Drown—short stories narrated almost entirely by his old standby Yunior, a code-switching Dominican street genius—Diaz said he realized that he and other black and brown writers were all writing thugged out macho street books when…

“the biggest silence in the room was what big fucking dorks we were.”

Junot Diaz is the best kind of intolerable mug—he laughs his head off at everybody else’s jokes; frowns and nods sympathetically, slaps his knees and doubles over with laughter.  Sherman Alexie is so tall and funny-looking that he makes everyone around him look both short and attractive, yet worlds less intelligent by comparison. Auslander, who I adore in a vacuum, came up a little short I’m afraid. It was a brown-boy party from the start, and his stout Jewish figure (the kind you know slaves at the gym three days a week as a penance for three decades of neglect) is the one that’s not like the other.

We are seeing the first generation, removed from Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros, et al, who are writing with race and in race and not about it. People—including probably half the bougie white audience with their $12 MoveOn shirts and Patagonia jackets and their Crocs who don’t know what the fuck Dominican is— want to make oscar wao into The Invisible Man but he’s just not. This is a generation writing centrally and yet only peripherally about race. I’m not saying that race relations are any more nuanced than they were in the 90’s (well, maybe a little) but if you look at Obama, mabye life is imitating art, and maybe Picasso is finally in the building.

You know how I know people weren’t getting it? Cuz they stood up and said so.

And then there was the Q&A, aka the awk part. I won’t humiliate the white girl who stood up and told Sherman Alexie she’d always felt Indian (did you have to stop reading? I did). To his credit, Alexie said that everything that white liberals idealize about indians he thinks is “shit”, and my insides cheered.

Then there was the question that blew the room apart.

A cocky hipster took the mic and asked Diaz: “How do you feel speaking for Dominicans?”

“First of all, that is a fucked up question,” Diaz said, no longer mugging. Awkward laughter.  “I’m totally fucking serious.” And then for a 30 seconds, there was SILENCE.

And then for 15 minutes, Alexie and Diaz riffed off race and the expectation it places authors, fucking pulitzer prize winners, who asked so unfairly to be more than just black words on white paper.

“He should be up here talking about his fucking whiteness.”

This is first and most prominently a race issue, but it is not only a race issue. It is also a class issue, and more silently, an ability issue. Yes, there is a selfish point to all of this; to steal Diaz’ words:

“Anybody can write anything they want”

It’s hard in this climate (and yes I mean j-school) to admit you write fiction. I do. I am a No. 1 Herb, and right now, I admit it,  I am writing about a dwarf. Not a magical dwarf. A petuitary dwarf with a bad heart and pathological compulsive reading problem.

I never asked myself why I was writing about a dwarf, because Ursula seemed like the most perfectly natural person to write about. But when the question came to me from outside, I asked Junot Diaz.

Well, not exactly. I asked Diaz and Alexie why they (also) wrote about disabled characters. The answer was articulate and cerebral:

“Reading is something you do with your whole body. If somebody in a book breaks his leg, you feel it.”

Diaz said there are only a couple kinds of bodies in literature, which i think is very true. When you’re like crippled-ass Alexie, or like me, you never read your body, never see it on T.V., or in the movies. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a disabled protagonist? Not that token kid on Sesame Street in a wheelchair, and not those elegant heroines in 19th century novels who all get the consumption. I’m talking one fucking person with pathos, somefuckingbody who just was, who just happened to be sick or crippled the way that Oscar is brown. Where it was the background and not the fucking plot? That’s right, ya didn’t.

So that’s what I’m writing. Then again, I’m a fucking nerd.


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Filed under 3rd World Imagineering, Reimagineers, The Liberal Media

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