Exploring Babylon Chapter 20.1
A Monster Chronology
On March 15, I watched author Junot Díaz interact with a room full of youngsters, introducing his new book, Islandborn (Dial Books for Young Readers), discussing the writing process, and exploring the concept of “monsters.” I subsequently told everyone who would listen about how much I’d enjoyed seeing the students and the author respond to one another and how exciting it was to hear their conversation.
In our brief interview after the book event, I was really struck with the way Díaz answered my question about addressing monsters with young readers: “I don’t think they need to hear anything from me about the monsters they face….If their lives are anything like mine, they know.” It seemed clear he was including very personal monsters as well as the kind that took over “the Island” in his book and in real life. For better or worse, though, I left this topic right there and shifted focus to public libraries, which was the issue I’d been sent to cover.
I filed my story, “Junot Díaz, Monsters, and Ward 7,” in late March, and it appears in the April edition of East of the River magazine. I shared related thoughts in a post here, “Monsters, Exile, and Storytelling.” And then, a week ago (4/9/18), The New Yorker published a piece of personal history from Díaz: “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” — a heart-breaking, powerful, brave, healing story of abuse and returning to self (April 16 print issue).
In the week since Díaz’s personal history piece was posted on-line, I have found myself returning again and again to the way I saw Díaz address young readers who wanted details about the specific monster in Islandborn or answers about monsters more generally. Look, he told them several times, returning their attention again and again to one spread in the book: Look at the way the monster was defeated, through people joining together.
That’s what he told me, afterward, too:
The key is to help [young readers] confront and work through their experiences [with monsters], forge friendships and solidarities.
And a version of that is what he tells us in “The Silence”:
I was fortunate. I had friends around me ready to step in. I had good university insurance. I stumbled upon a great therapist….
He also explains in “The Silence” a little of how his children’s book and his decision to share his personal story relate:
Over the last weeks, that gnawing sense of something undone has only grown, along with the old fear—the fear that someone might find out I’d been raped as a child. 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. 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. The cover stories are returning. There are even mornings when my face feels stiff.
There will undoubtedly be more to say — from the perspectives of literature, sociology, or other fields — on Islandborn and “The Silence.” There is definitely more to say about trauma and storytelling, in- and beyond #ExploringBabylon. There is much more to discuss, for example, around the popular academic theory that trauma affects so much of the telling, and omissions, around the Babylonian exile. In addition, the period of the Omer — between Passover and the Revelation-focused holiday of Shavuot — has related undertones.
For now: Immense gratitude to Junot Díaz for his writing and his in-person teaching, for his bravery and his compassion; and wishes for continued healing to him and to all in need.
— On this 16th day of the omer, making two weeks and two days