Truth-seeking in Junot Diaz and Salman Rushdie
On September 16, 2016, English majors, English professors, and literature lovers gathered together and fangirled because we had the opportunity to see both Junot Diaz and Salman Rushdie speak on the same day (the same freaking day!). Both came for Human Ties, a three-day celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Junot Diaz spoke for a panel discussion entitled “United States of Contradictions: Writing About America,” and Salman Rushdie participated in a panel discussion entitled “Being Human in a Global Age.”
I am obsessed with immigrant stories. I love stories having anything to do with culture and alienation; what life is like for uprooted and resettled people or for a colonized people. Both Rushdie and Diaz have written about migrant people and their experience of isolation in similar styles. For example, the authors have this talent for code-switching. Code switching is when you speak to your mom and dad in Spanglish. Code-switching can also be talking “smart” in class versus shit-talking with your friends, so it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be bilingual. Rushdie has often switched in and out of English and Hindi (among other languages), and Diaz has often switched in and out of English and Spanish. Their distinct styles of code-switching add another layer of authenticity to their fictional characters, which is just mind-boggling because creating an authentic fictional character is a type of sorcery. How can a fake character be real? Regardless of this crazy paradox, their characters are more genuine to me than some people I know. For instance, Diaz makes me relate to Oscar Wao, an overweight Dominican kid in his novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao who loves science fiction and comic books and wants a girl to love. You can imagine the various types of loneliness that might come out of Oscar: loneliness from being caught between two cultures, loneliness from being part of a very traditional Dominican community that might reject his his love for science fiction and comic books, and the basic loneliness that he can only relieve with a woman in his life. Oscar’s isolation is one we can understand even if we don’t share his experience.
The narrator, a boy named Yunior, is largely absent from the beginning of the novel, but Diaz, sorcerer that he is, creates such a unique voice for Yunior that I can see him - I can feel what kind of character Yunior is. Here, read the narrator’s voice. You’ll see what I’m talking about:
And the lovely Maritza Chacón? Well, as luck would have it, Maritza blew up into the flyest girl in Paterson, New Jersey, one of the queens of New Peru, and, since she and Oscar were neighbors, he saw her plenty, hair as black and lush as a thunderhead, probably the only Peruvian girl on the planet with curly hair (he hadn’t heard of Afro Peruvians yet or of a town called Chincha), body fine enough to make old men forget their infirmities, and from age thirteen steady getting in or out of some roughneck’s ride.
Yunior describes Maritza in this paragraph, but his voice - the way he talks - makes me see the narrator too. Now that’s a real character.
And Rushdie? Dude, it’s witchcraft. Rushdie does his magical realist thing and he distorts the physical freaking world and yet his words ooze truth. The very first scene in his book Midnight’s Children describes a man, Saleem Sinai, born on the exact hour of Indian independence. Sinai expresses a simple truth, that he was born during a pivotal point of history, but he says it with such a frantic voice and with such distortion that it feels magical. During his panel discussion, Rushdie said that there’s a way that the fantastic can feel more real than the realistic in fiction. He said that there’s a way to use the fantastic honestly to highlight a truth. That’s true fiction.
Their honesty doesn’t stop in writing either. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was blown away by how forward and familiar they were with their audience. One woman during the question and answer portion of Diaz’s panel said that she felt as if she had known the author for a very long time. She got that sense in the mere forty-five minutes that he spoke in the Paramount, and I agreed with the woman. Junot (we’re on a first-name basis now) made you feel like a friend in the same way he makes you relate to Oscar and in the same way he makes you see Yunior. The author felt familiar because he stood as he was. He cursed and he used some high-level diction. His manner of speech was so fascinating. I could tell he is someone who is used to code-switching on a daily basis because he is part of two worlds: this highly-educated world of MIT, where he teaches creative writing, and this Dominican American world of poverty and cultural isolation. Junot is a particularly interesting author because much of his writing is about what it means for someone to be an immigrant growing up in another nation, much like he did. He was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, in a place he described as a “working poor cosmopolitanism.” He was used to switching between different identities growing up, and not quite fitting into any of them. And yet again, with the success of his books, he was exposed to another identity that he didn’t feel like he belonged to - the “intellectual creative.” Of course I’m not saying that poor immigrants can’t be intellectual creatives, but more often than not, poor immigrants won’t feel like they belong to throngs of intellectual creatives who tend to be rich and white and pretentious. Junot showed us that he didn’t fit the mold of the intellectual creative because, through his writing, he felt he bonded more strongly not with the stereotypical writer’s community, but with communities of people of color.
Diaz showed these two sides of himself, the “intellectual creative” and the Dominican immigrant, quite perfectly in how he described where he grew up. He said, “My place made the Pequod from Moby Dick look mad vanilla.” I don’t mean to get all English major on you, but it’s clear that his allusion to Moby Dick represents the “intellectual creative” part of his life and his colloquial use of “mad vanilla” represents the Dominican immigrant side (in the same way you would talk to a friend back home). The way he said “my place made the Pequod from Moby Dick look mad vanilla” was another form of code-switching, a subtle sneaky way of code switching that you don’t even notice because it’s just so natural. He is an academic and an immigrant and he speaks like both. He doesn’t play like he’s one and not the other. He curses in front of an audience because that’s the way he speaks. In reference to a point he was making about science or something, Junot said the universe does “bizarre spooky shit” and “smokes way better than we do.” He called himself a “fucking dork” at one point. He speaks like he writes - honestly and passionately.
But I wonder if honesty is ever detrimental. It’s great that Junot was able to maintain his integrity when on stage speaking to a full house, but Junot said himself that half of the audience has probably discounted everything that he said because he used “fuck” a couple times. Apparently “fuck” isn’t professional or literary. Maybe some people need an academic and professional speech barrier to summon respect for another person. Junot, because he created a familiar atmosphere with his easy manner of speaking, was interrupted quite a few times. In certain moments it felt like I was at an open-mic or a poetry slam, which is great for that vibe, but disrespectful at a panel where a renowned artist was speaking. Does honesty not command respect? If that’s it, why did no audience member at Rushdie’s event dare to interrupt Sir Salman?
While Salman Rushdie spoke largely about the same topics as Junot Diaz (writing about two worlds, a migrant’s identity as a writer) and while Rushdie was just as open and funny as Diaz, there wasn’t as much of a sense of familiarity as there was with Diaz between audience and author. I think a large part of it had to do with Rushdie’s intimidating fame. A couple days before I went to “Being Human in a Global Age,” I saw Rushdie in the first Bridget Jones’ Diary. Rushdie’s a big deal. Trump thinks he’s cool, which the author told us very disdainfully. Rushdie’s most embarrassing fact about himself, he said, was that Donald Trump pointed to him and said “You’re the man.” How unfortunate.
Regardless of his fame and his success, I thought Rushdie had a very strong sense of integrity. Rushdie was born in India during British colonial rule and sent to England to study at a young age. He’s also spent the last twenty years in New York, so he knows nothing but the migrant world. Rushdie saw truths about this migrant world and he wanted to expose them. His post-colonial literature, like Midnight’s Children, while exposing the reality of Indian imperialism and the aftermath of Indian independence, also posed other controversial matters, like what it means that some of India’s best writing since independence was written in English. He acknowledges these ideas and has spoken on them. More than that, Rushdie was truthful about change in his own writing. He said that he is not the same person he was when he wrote Midnight’s Children and thus his writing isn’t the same. He also told everybody that we should avoid reading Grimus if we could because it was his least favorite novel. I have to admit, it was pretty comforting to hear a celebrated author disappointed with some of his own works.
There was one honest part of Rushdie’s panel discussion that was particularly relevant to our time. Someone in the audience asked Rushdie what he thought about censorship on college campuses, since Rushdie is also a professor at NYU. The author took this to mean censorship in terms of labelling ideas with “trigger warnings” or creating “safe spaces” on campuses. Rushdie said that he could sense that these labels were beginning to die out, that they had a “sell-by” date, because they inhibited a free exchange of thought. He gave us an example in which some students at a university had to cancel the Vagina Monologues because there was an argument about how the event only represented women with vaginas and was not inclusive of women who did not have vaginas. In this case, I think he meant that the preoccupation with inclusivity prohibited an event from happening in the same way that “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” can inhibit a free flow of thoughts, because they imply a only certain kind of person will be able to access an idea. For example, a person might not click on a video labelled TW because they are afraid of being triggered. Thus, they are inhibited from whatever ideas are held in that video. My first reaction was anger at this statement. My first reaction was, no, TW and safe spaces are great, beneficial things because they make individuals more comfortable. But is that right? Is the point of expression to make other people comfortable? Writing is worth making people uncomfortable if the intention is to expose an important truth. Of course, we then get into what is and is not important to expose. Writing for truth has its complications, but if there’s anyone who can do it well it is Rushdie. I mean Rushdie almost died for publishing Satanic Verses. He cares more about someone arguing their truth, being as authentic as possible about a reality, than labelling it with a TW so someone can tiptoe around it. I admire that even though I recognize the importance of TWs and safe spaces. Rushdie doesn’t think maintaining your own integrity has anything to do with regard for a person’s feelings. Which makes sense.
This brings me to my last point. Junot Diaz and Salman Rushdie show us how valuable honesty in writing is. Ideally, you acknowledge truths about yourself and write based on those truths. You know what’s important to you and you write about it. That’s what makes authentic fiction, nonfiction, poetry, personal essays, journals, whatever. But how easy it is to write truthfully? I don’t even feel like I’m a fully formed person yet. I have strong opinions, yes, but they change every day. I’m a walking contradiction. We all are. I’ll say that my favorite fruit is the strawberry, but swear that I had said the blueberry. So how can I ever be honest with myself and in what I write? Diaz and Rushdie have a lot of years behind them. Maybe being true with yourself is just a matter of time.