Junot Díaz slayed me many years ago when Drown came out. It was new, it was raw, it was fearless, and it was unafraid, and it told of a world that, as I lived in a predominantly Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood, was very close to mine, despite being worlds away.
I was fairly new to New York City then, myself, a twenty-something, white and wide-eyed college drop-out running from my blue collar family (who by then had followed the work out of Detroit and dropped us into the South, a place I still don’t understand to this day). My Brooklyn neighbors, speaking in slangy, rapid-fire Spanish, were a little amused by the white girl living in their midst, concerned about me walking home from the subway late at night, concerned that that I smoked too much and ate too little — and as I look back, surely concerned that my presence there spoke to impending danger, to gentrification and displacement.
And there I was, living with a bunch of Dominicans, reading stories about Dominicans by a Dominican guy, and I’d never even met a Dominican person before I moved to New York. This young writer broke everything — stereotypes, assumptions, the glass ceiling of the publishing world, the floodgates on my tear ducts, everything, and he wrote in a way that simultaneously encouraged and defeated me all at once.
He won countless awards, including a Pulitzer. Catapulted, quickly, to fame and recognition, he has been referred to as “one of our greatest living authors”, and his raw, “i’ll use the word fuck in the literary world anyway” style is one that always appealed to me. It’s a concept I understand.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be a Junot Díaz but I’ve always admired what I perceived as his fearlessness, so when I read this recent article in the New Yorker (yet another instance in which Junot Díaz has broken something, and in this case, it was the Internet), I was left, once again, with my jaw on the floor, cleaning up wreckage in the wake of Junot’s courage.
What I had seen for years as fearlessness was merely a tepid mask covering monumental pain; what I saw as bravery was actually avoidance — of using his words to skirt reality. It was a reality I know all too well, though he was so skilled at this he got a Pulitzer and made himself into a NYT bestseller, a Guggenheim fellow, a professor at MIT. I, on the other hand, became a college dropout and a mediocre and inconsistent blogger, at best.
No one can hide forever. Eventually what used to hold back the truth doesn’t work anymore. You run out of escapes, you run out of exits, you run out of gambits, you run out of luck. Eventually the past finds you.
Over the many, many years that I’ve been writing, I’ve been told more than once that my writing lacked depth. For years, too, I have held that as a personal fault. The past whispers to me that I am shallow, I have no real insight on life, and worse, I am not a “real” writer. I will never write a book because I can never finish anything. I can never maintain a blog because I am erratic and incapable.
I know what has kept me from this depth, however: I am distracted by comparing myself to others. I worry about what my mother might think; I worry about stepping on family toes, about letting the skeletons out to play when I know without a doubt that fresh air and sunshine cure a world of woes. I worry about what my wife might think, or my friends, people who’ve formed some sort of impression about who I might be that could be torn asunder by what I eventually write. I worry about offending someone, despite knowing that so much of what I have experienced in my life, so much of what I have held quietly from the world, the secrets the deep always holds, is where the real soul of my writing resides, is where my soul will touch others.
This is true for all of us, really. I’m not in this world to crank out endless clickbait articles on productivity (not all the time, anyway). I’m not intellectual or educated enough to write about a lot of things but I do know who I am, and I know what has made me, and I know what connects me to other people. And I do know how to write.
This latest revelation from Junot Díaz has changed me. I don’t expect to see results of this overnight, but like the years of therapy we share, eventually, all will come to light. Eventually our pain is what paints the imagery of a new world.
I’m inspired by you once again, Junot, and the past has indeed found me. This time I am not running. This time I am not hiding behind a mask or a wall. This time, I am letting the past sidle up beside me, letting it whisper in my ear; I am letting it taunt me, just a little, until I hit my breaking point, until I knock it to the ground, spread it all out and turn it into street art.
Dori Mondon-Freeman lives in far northern California with her wife, daughter, two old rescue dogs and a big Maine Coon cat. Writes for food, welcomes intelligent discourse.