From the stage at the United Palace in Manhattan, Junot Díaz pondered his fame. He’d just been asked by a young child what it’s like to be famous, and he was trying to explain the relative anonymity afforded to even the most famous writers. “If I was a bachatero, then I’d be famous,” he explained, a nod to the homeland heroes who sell out stages even larger than the one he stood upon. But the event, a reading of his new children’s book, Islandborn, hosted by the Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria with the United Palace of Cultural Arts, was lit from the jump. The energy was palpable, as a community burst with pride in one of their own sharing his art and success with its young people. Because in the Dominican bastion of Washington Heights – at an event packed with teachers, students, and librarians, where some of the loudest applause was for a four-foot poet who read a poem called “I am pastelito con salchipapa” – Junot Díaz is a rock star.
Just days before, Díaz published a gut-wrenching essay in The New Yorker detailing his childhood rape by a man he trusted. “It’s no coincidence that I recently began a tour for a children’s book I’ve published and suddenly I’m surrounded by kids all the time, and I’ve had to discuss my childhood more than I ever have in my life,” he wrote. “I’ve found myself telling lies, talking about a kid that never was. He never checks the locks on the bedroom doors four times a night, doesn’t bite clean through his tongue.” On Friday, standing in front of hundreds of kids, he didn’t speak on the subject at length – though at the end of the event a man offered help for victims of sexual abuse – but he didn’t have to lie as he answered questions about his past and read about his new book, which explores, memory, community, and the monsters that prey on them.
Both on the page and in person, Díaz does not immediately strike one as kid-friendly. He wields the slang of the street with the poise of a professor, but it’s not always age-appropriate. And reading his latest work to a theater full of little ones, his voice was demonstrably different, stretching out his vowels as he delivered G-rated punchlines. He admitted he’s not fully comfortable with the youngest of children; “I’m the one you send your messed up teenager to,” he said.
The book, Islandborn, would feel familiar to anyone who grew up in or around a barrio, a neighborhood here where everyone is from the same place over there. It follows young Afro-Latina named Lola, who came to the United States when she was too young to remember the island she came from. Prompted by her teacher, she interviews people in her barrio to learn about the island through their strongest memories—some beautiful, some scary, and some painful enough to not want to talk about.
Given the chance to ask Díaz about his book, the children in attendance were most eager to talk about the source of those painful memories, the “monster” that ruled the island for 30 years.
“Does the monster live in the water?” one girl asked.
“How was the monster born?” wondered another.
And one girl wanted him to cut straight through the metaphor: “Who is the monster?”
In the context of Lola’s island, the monster is Rafael Trujillo and the racial dictatorship he established in the 20th century. But humanity has no shortage of monsters: Trump, ICE, the Koch brothers, the NYPD – and of course, Díaz’s own personal demon, the abuse he carried with him since childhood. The weapon it proffers to fight the monster is solidarity, a lesson applicable to any struggle. One educator in attendance, a woman who teaches young children in a bilingual program at El Museo del Barrio, was impressed with the conversation she hoped it would start. “You tap into their imagination and their curiosity, and that’s the brilliance of it,” she explained. “That it created that spark, as to ‘Who is the monster?’ Within our culture, within our homes, our lifestyles…who is that? Who affects us that directly?”
Some parents were grateful to have a book to share with their young ones that reflected their experience: As immigrants, as Caribbeans, as people of African descent. One couple, Felix and Madonna, was excited to explore Díaz’s depiction of shared memory, the idea of not remembering a place but still carrying it inside of you, and sharing it with the people who do remember.
Faced with the prospect of having to talk to his daughter about the monsters of the world, Felix admitted he still had to figure it out. But Madonna could already see the seeds of that conversation in Diaz’s text. “In the story they address it,” she says. “There are bad people, and there are bad things that happen. He reiterated that what is important is finding people and solidarity, and figuring out different ways to defeat and overcome them.”