May 12, 2008
To Stephen Harper,
Prime Minister of Canada,
A bottle with ten genies in it,
From a Canadian writer,
With best wishes,
The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa ON K1A 0A2
Dear Mr. Harper,
The book that accompanies this letter was heartily recommended to me by a bookseller. I’d never heard of it or of its author. I thought to myself, Well, why not? An obscure book that moved at least one reader. That makes it as valid as a book that moved a million. A little later, I mentioned my choice to a friend and she said, “Oh, he just won the Pulitzer Prize two days ago.”
So much for the obscurity of Junot Díaz. I’m sending you Drown, his first book, a collection of short stories. It came out in 1996. It took Díaz eleven years to write his second book, the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for which he won, just a month ago, the Pulitzer.
That’s one of the good things about literary prizes. They bring attention to books or authors that might otherwise be missed by readers. The life of the literary writer is mostly invisible, like the movement of lava under the surface of the earth. Poems, short stories and novels are published, they are reviewed here and there, sales are modest, the world forgets, the writer writes on. It sounds dull, it’s generally financially impoverishing, but hidden from view is the intoxication of being creative, the wrestling with words, the heaven of good writing days, the hell of bad ones, with at the end of it the sense that one has proven King Lear wrong, that something can come of nothing. A book is a bottle with a genie inside it. Rub it, open it, and the genie will come out to enchant you. Imagine being the one who put the genie in the bottle. Yes, it’s terribly exciting work.
However, the world is strewn with such bottles, and many don’t get much rubbing. Sometimes that’s right, sometimes it’s unfair. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, the writer continues to labour.
Then, one day, you are told that five readers liked your book. And they’re the right readers, because they’re on the jury of a prize. In fact, they’ve decided to give you the prize. Suddenly the clouds of the book world part and you hear a booming voice say, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” You’re ceremoniously hauled out of obscurity. It’s not an unpleasant experience, far from it. I’m grateful for every nod I’ve ever received.
But if I won, doesn’t it mean that someone lost? That’s the less appealing part of it, the feeling that you’ve become a racehorse, that you are competing, that there are winners and losers. History may decree that it is so, but it’s not how it feels on the inside. On the inside, you’re alone in your shop with your bottle and your genie.
Back to Junot Díaz. Drown is a collection of ten short stories, ranging in length from six to thirty-nine pages. These are the first short stories I’ve sent you. You’ll find the experience quite different from reading novels. You’ll be changing gears more often, so to speak. Díaz is a Dominican-American and his stories cover what it means to have a hyphen in one’s identity, the potential for it to be a gulf, a dream, a strain, a loss. The English is peppered with Spanish, the tone is oral and informal, the characters profane and touching. It’s a world of kids left to themselves, where there’s no money and no father, no jobs and no prospects, only streets and harried mothers, drugs and fickle relations.
Now how will these stories expand your stillness, you might ask, the stillness with which life is properly examined? The answer might be found in the following quote from the story “Boyfriend”, about a couple breaking up. The man comes by a few times to pick his stuff up:
She let him fuck her every time, maybe hoping that it would make him stay but you know, once someone gets a little escape velocity going, ain’t no play in the world that will keep them from leaving. I would listen to them going at it and I would be like, Damn, ain’t nothing more shabby than those farewell fucks.
The toughness is surface. Beneath it is hurt and questioning. People are people, just trying to get by and make sense of things. No matter the language or the posing, the yearning for stillness is the same.