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My Love Letter to Junot Diaz

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Me and Junot Diaz, Occidental College, September 22, 2015.

Last night was the best night of my life. And I say that having had some good times, all over the world, with strangers, and with those whom I share unbreakable bonds.  I’m still high from meeting Junot Diaz, the Dominicano, Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times best-selling, uses words like “culo,” “motherfucker,” and “cocksucker,” Junot Diaz. The same one who, when I read This is How You Lose Her, made me examine why I accepted deceit veiled as love from a man, why I didn’t expect more out of my own quest for my heart to be understood and cherished, how we’re taught to view women as male means to ends, how one would write about love and loss so effortlessly, so naturally, and, among other things, why he spelled the vernacular use of the “n” word with an “er.” I was mesmerized and hooked and anxious to see where his narrative would take my mind and heart in the next book of his that I read, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And I gotta say, when I picked up the book, I was instantly hooked. Like, Game of Thrones and Empire kind of hooked. Afro-Latino Diaspora? Nerds who aspire to be novelists? Women who didn’t bend to social conventions?  He was speaking the language of my heart.  And he is one of the few authors who, by the book’s end, brought me to tears.  Yes, I’m sensitive sometimes.  I own every ounce of that.

I almost passed on my opportunity to meet Junot Diaz last night.  Even though my mom emailed me a few days prior that he would be speaking at Occidental College, just a 20- minute drive from where I live in downtown Los Angeles, I was feeling tired and didn’t want to throw off my workout plan.  Priorities.  But then,  my inner circle spoke some sense to me.  Inspiration is worth a minor inconvenience, they said.  And if it’s wack, I can always dip. Plus my mom was going, so the accountability (read: guilt) factor kicked in right on time.  I was going.  And for the first time, I brought his book with the intention of getting him to sign it. It might be the kind of night where the unimaginable happened.

That night, I experienced a miracle that I will likely fail to attempt to articulate here.  After waiting in a line that spanned what must have been at least three city blocks, me and 600+ other souls sat raptly on the edges of our seats, calling and responding like only the Diaspora can, when Junot insert-explicative Diaz read from This is How You Lose Her and Oscar Wao, then answered questions ranging from when he’ll write a children’s book, to his advice for writers, to how he responds to criticisms that his writing is misogynistic.  I listened to him shout out the Latinos, Domincanos, and people of African descent.  Listened to him talk about how art puts you in contact with your best self, how the hardest thing you’ll ever do, whether you’re a writer or not, is to deal with yourself, how we’re all complicit in racism and sexism, how he considers himself a lazy writer, how he exudes compassion when his older relatives criticize him for claiming blackness, because, after having survived a regime wherein Dominicans were hacked to death for their blackness, his grandma still associates the machete with being Black.  There was no place I would have wanted to be and I thanked the cosmos that entire time for conspiring to make my presence at his reading—just one week after I finished Oscar Wao—happen.  I was elated.  I was transfixed. I was in awe.

Words have always held a special power to me. Maybe that’s why I take them so seriously. This is what I get for being the daughter of a novelist/librarian.  Growing up, I was never into the things that would gain me popularity and social status like fashion or beauty, instead I read books. My mom always enrolled my older sister and me in summer reading clubs and by the time I discovered Toni Morrison, Gabriel Marquez, Laura Esquivel, and Herman Hesse as a pre-teen, and was in.  Deep.

At some point in my mid-twenties (read: professional career and tumultuous marriage), I realized that I had stopped reading and writing. Not in the literal sense, trust me, I was writing plenty of emails and occasional speeches for work events.  But I stopped reading and writing to feed my spirit.  Stopped writing to discover myself—the flaws hiding in the darkest crevasses, hidden to my public and private world, and my strength and resilience that had sometimes poured out of me so seamlessly it terrified me. If I’m staying honest here, I’ll have to admit that graduate school was the culprit, or rather, forcing myself into an intellectual and creative constraint that was too tight, too coarse, too much of a plan that my father or ex-husband approved, too suffocating for my voice echo off the walls of the universe. Funny how your spirit dies when you live for everyone but yourself.

If it weren’t for my mother’s unwavering belief in some of my untold stories—you know that kind of conviction only a mother can give, the kind that voices opinions ever so subtly because they know they have to introduce you to your own brilliance when you can’t yet see it for yourself, the kind that then overtly urges when they know you’re not really hearing them and you’re wasting time—I wouldn’t have rediscovered writing, and by extension, reading, at the age of 28. But I did.  And slowly, I started writing, freely, in my spare time. That summer, and for the next six months, I began writing what’s become a manuscript for my memoir that loosely deals with African and African Americans, gender, and becoming, well, myself.

Then I began writing articles. About different aspects of Black life that fascinated, confounded, inspired, or tickled me.  And it was a miraculous process because I soon discovered that my words and accounts actually resonated with people I had never met, and some who I had, in different geographic locations, with different life stories.  I guess James Joyce got it right: “In the particular is contained the universal.”  And all of a sudden, this hidden essential part of me that I had buried for so long in pursuit of an unattainable self somehow started to flourish.

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Being in the presence of Junot Diaz last night gave a tremendous amount of joy to the part of me that’s been reawakened.  To the part of me that thrives and utters its truth, because to do anything else betrays my soul.  I will forever cherish my evening with him and the blurred selfie that we took together (because we thought my mom’s maneuvers ruined our shot, an accusation for which I’m still eating crow) because it reminded me why I’m alive. More importantly it reminded me the unimaginable power of words and their gift.  Junot Diaz, sus palabras son tesoros.

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One thought on “My Love Letter to Junot Diaz

  1. Zahida,

    Your words resonate with me and many others because they are real and freeing. You have learned…and I am still learning that people pleasing is a prison. Keep writing and let your spirit soar! You are your Mother’s daughter! You have a true gift in your words.

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