Be back soon

I get worried about you—both for the way you feel and for the way you are depressed. I am not depressed; I can’t believe you should be. The Place [the gallery called An American Place] and all that it is is a wonderful thing; you have made a tremendous and enduring contribution to life. Long after you are gone the impact of the Place and of you will continue to grow and expand all over the world.

I will be back soon, I hope. Things are moving fast for me now. Hope I can manage them.

Ansel Adams, from his letter (April 15, 1945) to Alfred Stieglitz, in Ansel Adams: Letters 1916–1984

(Photograph: “In Glacier National Park” by Ansel Adams. Thank you, National Archives.)

“I don’t know what subtle effect of light, or vague noise, or memory of a fragrance or melody, intoned by some inscrutable external influence, prompted these divagations when I was walking down the street and which now, seated in a café, I leisurely and distractedly record. I don’t know where I was going with my thoughts, nor where I would wish to go. Today there’s a light, warm and humid fog, sad with no threats, monotonous for no reason. I’m grieved by a feeling that I can’t place; I’m lacking an argument apropos I don’t know what; I have no willpower in my nerves. Beneath my consciousness I’m sad. And I write these carelessly written lines not to say this and not to say anything, but to give my distraction something to do. I slowly cover, with the soft strokes of a dull pencil (I’m not sentimental enough to sharpen it), the white sandwich paper that they gave me in this café, for it suits me just fine, as would any other paper, as long as it was white. And I feel satisfied. I lean back. The afternoon comes to a monotonous and rainless close, in an uncertain and despondent tone of light. And I stop writing because I stop writing.”

Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet (translated by Richard Zenith)

I walked through mists and clouds

Days and months are the travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by…. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind—filled with a strong desire to wander….  I walked through mists and clouds, breathing the thin air of high altitudes and stepping on slippery ice and snow, till at last through a gateway of clouds, as it seemed, to the very paths of the sun and moon, I reached the summit, completely out of breath and nearly frozen to death. Presently the sun went down and the moon rose glistening in the sky.

Bashō, from The Narrow Road to the Deep North (epigraph in Part 3, “At Crystal Mountain,” in The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen)

(Photograph by Lukas Furlan. Thank you, Mr. Furlan and Behance.)

“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.”

Annie Dillard, from Chapter 13 (“The Horns of the Altar”) of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final. 

Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I, 59

(Photograph: Beginnings by Roman Loranc. Thank you, Mr. Loranc and ND Magazine.)

Brutal and wondrous

Junot Díaz is one sly dude. He makes you laugh so hard you don’t notice how serious he is. Motherfucking serious. “Over-the-top Jesucristo” serious. He wants to tell you about the history of the Dominican Republic. About being a poor immigrant of color in New Jersey. About the “super-duper clusterfuck” bred by racism and sexism. About men who cheat on, beat, and rape women (Dios mío). About boys abandoned by their fathers, families devastated by cancer, lovers wrecked by infidelity and insecurity. About surviving depression (how to “exorcise the shit”). About geeking out on Star Wars, Marvel Comics, LOTR, and The Matrix. About giving in to your “inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.” And about those moments of painful silence and lonely tenderness in the life of every sucio, puta, or pendejo.

Who knew Elizabeth Gilbert would be the perfect complement to Señor Díaz? After all, wasn’t it the same inextinguishable longing that drove Liz elsewhere—to Italy, India, and Indonesia—in Eat, Pray, Love? She’s all earnest and New Agey in EPL and so Oprah-meets-Darwin in The Signature of All Things, you might forget how funny and tough-minded she is. With authority and humility, she writes about science, religion, marriage, masturbation (oh yeah, sistah, see Signature), lobster fishing, and The Last American Man. Before EPL, she was a journalist writing often about men and for men. So don’t be so snarky around her. She can whack you with empirical evidence from nineteenth-century botany (and prove that the “natural world was a place of punishing brutality”) before you can even say chick lit.

“What can you do? Life smacks everybody around,” says a character in the final story in Díaz’s first book, Drown. In other words, or in Díaz’s world, we’re all pissed off and fucked up. Which is the same thing that Anne Tyler, a writer with a totally different style and sensibility, would say: “We’re all scarred.” And no one can blame you if none of that gives you comfort. But look closer and you’ll find more that Junot Díaz and Elizabeth Gilbert share. Both The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Signature of All Things center on protagonists who revel in their geekiness. Oscar de León is into sci-fi and comic-book “nerdery”; Alma Whittaker loves botany. Both are described as ugly: Oscar, fat and pimply; Alma, middle-aged and homely. Both learn that the search for love often requires the struggle for existence in a world that keeps crushing even their most stubborn hopes. As Gilbert says about lobster fishing, “it is a mean business.”

Two of the most moving short stories in Drown concern a boy named Ysrael who has to wear a mask because “when he was a baby a pig had eaten his face off.” He is No Face, the town’s masked monster. The other boys taunt and assault him, and the promise of surgery can’t stop his nightmares. Still, he’s not swallowed by self-pity or hate. He survives his days, learning English, doing pull-ups, reading comic books, and running fast, “never slipping or stumbling.” He’s like moss, that botanical anomaly that Alma studies. Moss is “not big or beautiful or showy.”

Mosses were typically defined by what they lacked, not by what they were, and, indeed, they lacked much. Mosses bore no fruit. Mosses had no roots. Mosses could grow no more than a few inches tall, for they contained no internal cellular skeleton with which to support themselves. [ … ] In every way mosses could seem plain, dull, modest, even primitive. The simplest weed sprouting from the humblest city sidewalk appeared infinitely more sophisticated by comparison. But here is what Alma came to learn: Moss is inconceivably strong.

Moss “grows where nothing else can grow.” Moss persists. Moss endures. And so can you. Because you have to. Gilbert is saying: Like it or not, life can be brutal and ugly. And Díaz won’t let you forget that. In Chapter 3 of his novel, for example, there’s that scene in the sugarcane fields where a woman is savaged under a “ferocious moonlight.” It’s the kind of horror that haunts you for years. But Díaz, like Gilbert, isn’t letting you go without any consolation. Read any of their books and you’ll find it. It’s there like moss thriving in the least expected places. And it’s there in the final line of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: “The beauty! The beauty!”

Junot Díaz

My plan [for This Is How You Lose Her] was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human—the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability. In my mind what novels do best is that they immerse us deeply into our character’s world—they truly transport us deep into these spaces—but the same way you know a Hollywood movie won’t end after thirty minutes, you carry in yourself the implicit contract that the novel won’t throw you out of itself ’til the very end. That bulk of pages is a form of consolation, of security.

Of course we all know that’s not how life works. The novel that is our life can end at any time. Sometimes even on page one. We know story collections end when they end, as well—the pages serving as a countdown—but nevertheless the standard story anthology hews closer to what makes being human so hard: it reminds you with each story how quickly everything we are, everything we call our lives can change, can be upended, can disappear. Never to return. Usually at the end of each story we’re thrown clear out of the story’s world and then we’re given a new world to enter. What’s unique about a linked collection is that it can deliver both sets of narrative pleasures—the novel’s long immersion into character-world and the story anthology’s energetic (and mortal) brevity—the linked collection is unique in its ability to be both abrupt and longitudinal simultaneously. How fucking cool is that?

from “The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Junot Díaz by Gina Frangello

 (Photograph by Nina Subin. Thank you, Ms. Subin and The Rumpus.)

Junot Díaz on his “slowness as a writer”

As for my slowness as a writer—that’s been a struggle, no question. We live in a culture that values and rewards machine-speed productivity. Even the arts are expected to conform to the Taylor model of productivity. Used to be in the old days, only the pulp writers wrote like machines. Now everybody is expected to be literary John Henrys. So in that context someone like me is an anomaly. For many years I felt pressure and even felt bad that I wrote so slow. But what can you do? As an artist you’re on a journey of discovery and sometimes that journey takes a long time, doesn’t subscribe to [a] train schedule, to the punch-clock. And I need to read a lot to make my pages happen. A book a page seems to be standard rate of exchange. I read a book, I get one page. But it’s clear to me that us slow-poke writers are a dying breed. It’s amazing how thoroughly my young writing students have internalized the new machine rhythm, the rush many of my young writers are in to publish. The majority don’t want to sit on a book for four, five years. The majority don’t want to listen to the silence inside and outside for their artistic imprimatur. The majority want to publish fast, publish now. The professional aspect of the practice is stressed over the artistic dimension. I was recently teaching in a school famed for its writing program and a lot of my students—not all of them—got more excited talking about advances and agents than they did the books they’ve read recently. In this atmosphere, I’m a total outlier. That really struck me—how many of my students wanted to be writers but how few of them practiced the kind of reading that would help sustain all the writers we’re producing. But there were a few who did read and who believed in it, and those were a great joy, believe me.

— from The Sunday Rumpus Interview by Gina Frangello

Like hope, like grace

It takes a while. [ … ] And then one June night you scribble the ex’s name and: The half-life of love is forever.

You bust out a couple more things. Then you put your head down.

The next day you look at the new pages. For once you don’t want to burn them or give up writing forever.

It’s a start, you say to the room.

That’s about it. In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace—and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.

Junot Díaz, from “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” in This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead Books, 2012)

(Image by dabacahin.)

Junot Díaz on the “profound terror that we call love”

Fifteen Minutes: Are most of the stories in your new collection “This is How You Lose Her” about love in some way?

JD: Love and its consequences. It’s really a book about the rise and fall of a Dominican male slut. How did the boy learn to be a male slut, or at least this particular boy? How he is formed, and how that formation undoes him in the end. Because one must reflect that many of the messages we labored under were piercingly contradictory.

FM: How so?

JD: On the one hand, we’re told that the sort of proof and excellence of a man is measured by how many girls he can get, by his lack of vulnerability, by his indifference and often his hostility towards what would be considered traditional women’s arenas: domesticity, love, familial bonds, nurturing, family. And then there’s the other side which is: Who the fuck can be whole, who the fuck can be human without intimacy, without encountering that profound terror that we call love? On the one hand, you’re being told that that shit doesn’t mean shit. That that shit is shit. And on the other hand, your heart is dying for it. And it’s not as if boys are victims. Boys, believe me, profit quite well from the patriarchal, heteronormative arrangement. But, on the other hand, there clearly is a price to be paid for being a loyal boy. I think it’s really, really interesting how we doubled down on our bullshit because we didn’t have anywhere else to go. If I get more girls, maybe I’ll feel better. If I’m more of a masculine prick, maybe I’ll feel better. Maybe you just dig yourself deeper into a hole.

[ … ]

FM: So you don’t consider yourself an asshole anymore?

JD: Oh, of course I do. That never goes away. Come on, one doesn’t let oneself off the hook that easily. I think that it’s not the situation where one is transformed, where one is instantly converted and the conversion sticks. The truth is that you manage that shit. But that shit doesn’t fucking go away—that’s why I think it’s sort of dishonest when dudes are like, “I’m a feminist.” I’m not certain if, given all the training we’re given, men can be feminists. I believe myself a feminist ally, but a feminist? I think it would be possible only when we have the matriarchal revolution we’re all dreaming for.

— from “Fifteen Questions with Junot Díaz” by Rebecca F. Elliott (The Harvard Crimson)

You try every trick in the book to keep her

You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass-e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together. You claim that you were sick, you claim that you were weak—It was the book! It was the pressure!—and every hour like clockwork you say that you’re so so sorry. You try it all but one day she will simply sit up in bed and say, No more, and, Ya, and you will have to move from the Harlem apartment that you two have shared. You consider not going. You consider a squat protest. In fact, you say you won’t go. But in the end you do.

Junot Díaz, from “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” in This Is How You Lose Her

(Photograph by Karim Boumghar. Thank you, Mr. Boumghar and Art+K.)

“You are scared stupid at what you are doing but it is also exciting and makes you feel less lonely in the world.”

Junot Díaz, from “Miss Lora,” in This Is How You Lose Her

“You whispered my full name and we fell asleep in each other’s arms and I remember how the next morning you were gone, completely gone, and nothing in my bed or the house could have proven otherwise.”

Junot Díaz, from “Flaca,” in This Is How You Lose Her

(Photograph: La nada en Domingo, 2014, by Guadalupe Salgado. Thank you, Ms. Salgado on Tumblr.)

(Reblogged from guadalatas)

Junot Díaz: “The Four Horsefaces of the Apocalypse”

My mother was checked out in her own way [when my brother Rafa was dying of cancer]. She wore herself down—between my brother and the factory and taking care of the household (I didn’t lift a fucking finger in our apartment, male privilege, baby) I’m not sure she slept. Lady still managed to scrounge a couple hours here and there to hang with her new main man, Jehovah. I had my yerba, she had hers. She’d never been big on church before, but as soon as we landed on cancer planet she went so over-the-top Jesucristo that I think she would have nailed herself to a cross if she’d had one handy. That last year she was especially Ave Maria. Had her prayer group over to our apartment two, three times a day. The Four Horsefaces of the Apocalypse, I called them. The youngest and the most horsefaced was Gladys—diagnosed with breast cancer the year before, and right in the middle of her treatment her evil husband had run off to Colombia and married one of her cousins! Hallelujah! Another lady, whose name I could never remember, was only forty-five but looked ninety, a complete ghettowreck: overweight, with a bad back, bad kidneys, bad knees, diabetes, and maybe sciatica. Hallelujah! The chief rocker, though, was Doña Rosie, our upstairs neighbor, this real nice Boricua lady, happiest person you’ve ever seen even though she was blind. Hallelujah! You had to be careful with her because she had a habit of sitting down without even checking if there was anything remotely chairlike underneath her, and twice already she’d missed the couch and busted her ass—the last time hollering Dios mío, qué me has hecho?—and I had to drag myself out of the basement to help her to her feet. These viejas were my mother’s only friends—even our relatives had gotten scarce after year two—and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes. Wouldn’t serve them coffee until she was sure each tácita contained the exact same amount. And when one of the Four was fooling herself she let her know it with a simple extended Bueeeeennnnoooo. The rest of the time, she was beyond inscrutable, in perpetual motion: cleaning, organizing, cooking meals, going to the store to return this, pick up that. The few occasions I saw her pause she would put a hand over her eyes, breathe in and out deeply, and that was when I would know she was exhausted.

— from “The Pura Principle” (originally published in The New Yorker), in This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

“This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever.”

 Junot Díaz, from “Otravida, Otravez,” in This Is How You Lose Her

(Photograph: A family in the Dominican Republic by Arne Gjorne. Thank you, Mr. Gjorne and Inspired Eye.)