The Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican writer Junot Diaz and Nuyorican Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda were in familiar territory last night during an appearance on 165th and Broadway. After all, the Washington Heights neighborhood is the backdrop to Miranda’s Broadway musical, In The Heights and Diaz touches on Dominican-American life in his two works, Drown (a collection of short stories), and his greatly received novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The event, “A Conversation With Junot Diaz and Lin-Manuel Miranda” was organized by the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA) and held at the Malcolm X Betty Shabazz Memorial, Educational and Cultural Center. It couldn’t have been more appropriately titled, as the night felt like a comfortable morning chat over a cup of café en casa. I mean, even Miranda’s papá, Luis Miranda, was the evening’s moderator (he’s The Manhattan Times co-publisher, a well-known uptown figure and a NoMAA board member.)
The audience fell for their homeboys from the beginning, bursting into laughter and uncontrollable applause every five minutes. Miranda and Diaz joked (in Spanglish) along the way as they set out to answer the three questions posed by Lin-Manuel’s dad at start of the discussion: What challenges did they face along the way, how did they, against all odds, break into the mainstream, and what is in the future for their work and communities?
“When you’re a young person aware early of these things [racial tensions and family issues], it’s going to inevitably be a part of your life,” Diaz said on a serious note. “I was told by my parents that I had to suppress my Dominicanness […] Being a child of a survivor of the Trujillato is like A-Rod, you need three therapists” he candidly added to roaring laughs from the crowd. The two spoke at length about the difficulty of balancing different worlds growing up, not just as Latinos growing up in the U.S., but within their own incredibly diverse communities.
Twenty-eight year-old Miranda, even with his obvious oration skills, came off more reserved and inexperienced in front of an audience than Diaz, who with his glasses and polished gray suit seemed like a wise college professor who just happens to curse a lot (he insisted he had a previous engagement and that’s why he looked like a “clown” dressed in a suit.) Miranda, who who grew up a Puerto Rican in the predominantly Dominican neighborhood of In The Heights, said he has spent most of his adult life writing and performing his musical, which came to him in a burst of inspiration when he was 19. He locked himself up and wrote non-stop for three weeks. as well as the changing face of Washington Heights. “In 20 years, The Heights won’t look like this. Even now, it’s not like that. This was a time capsule of produced on stage,” he said about his Broadway musical, in which he will continue to star until February.
The discussion was followed by a Q & A session. Many audience members proclaimed their admiration for the author and for the playwright, and repeatedly asked how to reach youth not interested in reading or musicals. Miranda conceded he didn’t know what the answer was to that challenge, while Diaz said “Art is not a messiah. Artwork can move certain individuals but […] Society fails our young people and it is up to us to collectively deal with these failures.” When asked how it felt to receive great accolades, Miranda said “What’s great about the Tony is that it tells people afraid of hip hop and afraid of Latin people that’s its “ok” to go see the show. I mean, if you’re going to pay $110, it better be the best show of your life, right?” Diaz added “Applause means very little to me. I want to do really crazy shit, you only get better by making mistakes […] [Growing up] nothing motivated me more than being undervalued.”
Currently, Miranda is voicing the audio book version of Diaz’s novel, and said that after his Broadway run will record a hip hop album with lyrics that brings together his love for musicals and urban music. Diaz, who said he writes extremely slow (it took him 7 years to write Wao) says that his novel was an attempt to capture Dominican history of the last 40 years and now hopes to write about the future of Dominicans. “I long for the day when every shade of my experience is covered” he said about wishing there would be thousands of Dominican authors publishing works every year, not just a few anomalies like him. “The cool thing about being from the Caribbean is that nothing we make up is going to be stranger than what actually happens back home.”
The night left an impression on the mostly artists, residents, and students in attendance. “The open dialogue made it feel like an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio,” said Candida Condes, 21, a Hunter college student as everyone waited to get a copy of Oscar Wao and In The Heights CD signed by the stars.