During a press tour for his latest book, New York Times bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz stopped at the Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Massachussetts, late last month.
“Islandborn,” Díaz’s first picture book for young readers, grew from a promise to his goddaughters when they asked him to write a book about girls like them: Dominican girls from the Bronx.
It’s not the first time the Dominican-born author has been to the city.
“If you’re Dominican, you’re never too far from Lawrence,” Díaz said of the city with one of the highest populations of people from the Dominican Republic in the United States.
Of the few hundred people in the audience, the majority were Lawrence residents, based on a hand count. Some familiar with the author’s adult fiction came from neighboring communities.
The story touches on many of the same themes Díaz highlights in his fiction: immigration, identity, collective memory, and the oscillation between otherness and belonging.
It follows a six-year-old girl, Lola, on a school assignment to learn about where she came from. She doesn’t have memories of “the Island,” but her whole neighborhood does, so she asks people to share their stories and memories.
They tell her of oppressive heat, “like five bullies,” Díaz read from the book; poetic beaches; mangoes so big they bring tears to one’s eyes; and even a monster that loomed over the Island for decades, a nod to political dictators.
Díaz was born in Santo Domingo. He was about Lola’s age when he and his family fled to the US from the Dominican Republic, which was torn apart by the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.
Though his energy was light and affable, Díaz acknowledged the political tones of the story.
“Every story is political,” he said.
In the story, the monster is defeated through friendship.
“The old-person word for this is solidarity,” he said to snaps and applause from the audience.
Like many authors, he told self-deprecating jokes. That promise he made to his goddaughters? He made it 20 years ago and the book was just released in March.
But, also like many authors, every word he uttered had weight. When asked why he wrote the story, aside from a promise, he responded “I wrote this book because I wanted to read this book.”
He has noted that growing up, he rarely saw characters that looked like him.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center estimated in 2016 that while 37 percent of the US population is people of color, only 11 percent of children’s books written in the past two decades are by or about people of color.
Díaz had an effervescent energy. He referred to children as young people, and adults as old people. He dropped “yo” and “man” with ease.
He spoke a bit about his life, read passages from “Islandborn,” then opened the event up to questions—young people first.
“Then if we have any time, we’ll see if old people have questions,” he said.
When it did come time for questions from adults, he made a point to hear from women of color.
Dahianna Ramirez clutched copies of Díaz’s other works of fiction. She said she followed his writing and talks about it often with her family.
His background is similar to mine, “so I identify with it,” said Ramirez, who came from Peabody with her children to see Diaz speak. “I find his writing refreshing; he also writes about real stuff.”
Now, Ramirez has the opportunity to share her love of Díaz’s writing with her children.
“He’s disciplined. My parents tell me to be disciplined, too,” said 10-year-old Gabriella Encarnacion, Ramirez’s daughter.
Celeste Cruz, 19, of Lawrence, said Díaz was her biggest inspiration for her own writing.
“He’s super honest. I don’t feel like he has to act, or code switch based on the crowd,” she added.
A woman asked him why he thought it was necessary to teach children about dictators.
“One thing people like us are good at is fighting political monsters,” he responded. “It’s our inheritance.”