A great friend recently informed me of a book reading by writer Junot Diaz in commemoration of Dominican Heritage Month at Hostos Community College. As a Brooklynite, I tend to avoid the South Bronx like the plague, but as a proud Dominican, and a big fan of the writer, I knew that I could not miss that event for the world.
My first introduction to Junot Diaz came through his book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”. The book left me speechless; it was the first time that I saw my own voice so genuinely reflected on paper, the first time that I related to any one story so much. An audience member at the book reading questioned Mr Diaz’s wide use of Spanish and cultural anecdotes, she found his books hard to read as she felt that she needed to constantly look things up in order to understand the story. To which I felt a sudden urge to scream: “So what?! I have been doing that my entire life!!”
As an avid reader from a young age, I constantly found myself holding a book in one hand and a dictionary in the other. English is my second language, as a result I often struggled with the prose used by some of my favorite writers, from the old English of “The Scarlet Letter” to the colloquial speech of Holden in “Catcher in the Rye”. While reading Junot Diaz’s works and the way he so candidly highlights the simplicity yet unwavering complexity of our culture, I often find myself nodding in agreement…yes, I get this. That is because his story, his characters’ stories, although unique, are my story as well.
Then I wondered, does he know that he is doing this? Is he aware that he has become the voice of a people? A culture? Is he OK with that?
Then more keenly I inquired, isn’t that just part of success?
As a young professional, attempting to make a voice for myself, to be successful, am I willing to accept that? Would I be able to carry the struggles of my culture, a culture so misunderstood, everywhere I go? A culture of people so proud yet often self-deprecating, where being a successful Dominican is sometimes thought of as an oxymoron? I am ashamed to admit that I questioned if it would be too much of a cross to bear.
Suddenly, I realized that I was still at Hostos, and forced my thoughts to quiet down and hear the man talk. So I listened. I listened to not only his words, but how he said them: his constant use of Spanglish, his penchant for profanity, his “This is who I am, take it or leave it” attitude. And what I got from it was this: Believe in your art. Do it with character. Do it the way that feels right to you. Put every inch of you in it: where you come from, your culture, your identity, because that is who you are. You cannot hide who you are. I finally realized that I have no desire to.