“Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs” is a series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A! This week, Junot Diaz discusses comic books, his exes and the importance of bearing witness to yourself.
Audience Member: Can you speak about how comic books and graphic novels are a good way to tell a fictional story and what your thoughts were on it as a genre?
Junot Diaz: We all grow up with different literacies. Some of us are really into music in ways that it’s one of our great literacies. Music makes sense to those of us who know it well that perhaps other folks can’t enter that. Comic books were one of those literacies. If you grew up in the time I grew up — I was born in 1968 — for poor kids growing up, when there were three channels, there’s a reason Biggie and Wu Tang Clan are mic-checking comic books every fucking song. Comic books were a big part of growing up broke, and I’m sure a big part of other people growing up the way they did. For boys especially, it presents another kind of circuit of information in a more complex way and a different set of narratives. It was something that wasn’t easily dismissible when we were kids. For me, it was one of my foundational literacies. I didn’t know how to read French. I didn’t have foreign films, not until I got to college.
For me, there’s something really important about comic book form, something incredibly useful. It’s been described by many critics as, in some ways, it pulls together what we could call the affordances of multiplicity of media. It’s a very powerful fucking form. It’s a form that, I think, hasn’t been explored as wholly as we need. We still don’t have as many comic artists and writers of color as we need. It’s really powerful because it does internal life really well. You can approach people’s internality in a powerful way, the way that literary fiction does. It has all the visual punch and emotion of moving pictures, but it’s also able to capture the static beauty of portraiture.
Audience Member: How do the women in your life respond to the way relationships are portrayed in your stories?
Oh, that’s a wonderfully fair question! Well, first, believe it or not: This shit is fucking fiction. I mean it. [Someone in audience screams, “Dique!”] Nah, it’s true! It’s completely true. I am a retired cuero. I was a little cuero for many years — the worst kind of cuero: a plain-looking motherfucker. But there are fictional elements. I guess if I made the “me” character look better, there might be a stronger reaction. I guess my sense of it is, my exes don’t seem to be deeply troubled because they’re like, “Yes, this is the asshole I remember.” Most of my exes have never been in any of my stories ever. I think the only ex that has ever been in a fictional story is my beloved college girlfriend, who I model Lola on. And she was like, “Die, motherfucker, die.” And for good reason. So I guess that’s the spectrum of reactions. Some of my exes still talk to me. Where’s the fucking dique now, yo?
Audience Member: The choice for a person of color to write so honestly about their experience is a really powerful one. What has given you the audacity to do that?
What are the options? I mean this most seriously. Put aside fiction for a moment, put aside the art, and what are the options? How useful has self-deception been to anyone in our lives? Most of us are professors emeritus in self-deception. We can’t help it; it’s part of the human condition. There’s just some part of us that tries really hard to hide the truth of ourselves. I know: I’ve spent most of my energy deceiving myself. How useful has that been for any of us? I would argue that it hasn’t been very useful for me. Fiction was always the place where the things that couldn’t be said could finally be said.
I grew up in a family that was the kind of Dominicans that none of the other Dominicans wanted to live near. Nobody ever moved into empty apartments next to us. They were like, “Yo no me porque loco.” There was so much sexual abuse in my family, I’m amazed any member of my family got out without being raped. I’m not sure anybody did. Sexual abuse, a ton of fucking violence, people got slapped around in my family like it was free. I think a lot of people recognize that stuff. This isn’t just sensational confessional hour — a lot of us put up with a lot of shit when growing up.
The worst consequences of this is the silence that haunts us after any of these childhoods, the loss of the voice, the loss of the ability to bear witness to ourselves. We already live in a country that, as people of color, as women, as queer folk, doesn’t encourage us to bear any witness to ourselves because the witness that this country bears to us is so maligned and distorted that the image of ourselves is so absolutely pathological that we get sold. This is a country that prepares people of color, prepares immigrants, prepares queers to absolutely despise themselves. To bear witness to yourself is about all you got that will allow us to survive this fucking place.
I think it matters deeply whether you’re people or if you’re an artist. The game is: Can you bear witness to yourself fast enough not to let this place kill you? Because if any of you are like me, and you’ve been in psychic pain, you’ve been unhappy, you’ve been fucking depressed, you’ve been demotivated, you’ve been haunted, you find yourself doing the same shit over and over again. You don’t have to be fucking Oprah Winfrey to realize that part of the pain and part of the agony is that we have not borne witness to who we have been and to what we have suffered.
Kate Gavino is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for HelloGiggles, Prefix Magazine and CMJ, and is currently working on a novel.
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