Junot Díaz’s unapologetic style inspires the crowd as Los Angeles Times Festival of Books draws to a close

Author Junot Díaz at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Junot Díaz thanked the packed crowd and its city. “When fools talk about diversity,” he said, “they can’t even imagine L.A.”

The auditorium roared. A smile cracked the author’s face.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, a headliner of this year’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, made the comments Sunday during a public discussion on the second and final day of the event.

Now in its 23rd year, the book festival — the largest in the U.S. — featured workshops, readings and panel discussions with authors, journalists and prominent legal minds. The event, which drew an estimated 150,000 people to USC, included sessions on Mexican food, creative activism and how to stand out as an author of young adult fiction.


On Sunday, Times staff writers led panel discussions on writing about sexual harassment in the #MeToo era and covering the cannabis industry.

During his conversation with Times staff writer Carolina A. Miranda, Díaz — whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was 6 — spoke about identity, representation and his new children’s book, “Islandborn,” which tells the story of an Afro Caribbean girl named Lola.

His godchildren first asked him to write a children’s book years ago, Díaz said, noting that the process took a long time, as he struggled not to write something cute or corny. Children understand and deserve complexity, he said. They can handle more than narratives of innocence.

“Children are incredibly resilient,” he said. “They know that there are monsters, for real.”

Díaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” spoke about the importance of representation in literature. Many depictions of Afro Caribbeans “are beyond discouraging,” he said, noting that he was very particular in picking a collaborator to illustrate his book.


“White supremacy has been incredibly malignant,” he said. “I needed an artist who grew up in a black hair salon.”

During the conversation, Díaz alluded to a personal essay he wrote for the New Yorker this month. In the piece, he discusses being raped at age 8 and how the violation seeped into every part, and every phase, of his life.

“Trauma,” Díaz wrote, “is stronger than any mask; it can’t be buried and it can’t be killed. It’s the revenant that won’t stop, the ghost that’s always coming for you.”

During his “Islandborn” tour, the author met so many children who seemed so deeply loved. He couldn’t help but think of his past.

“I had one of those childhoods you don’t want to give to children,” he said, adding that the tour provoked him to write the New Yorker piece.

Throughout the talk, Díaz — a self-proclaimed nerd with a habit of rubbing his palm against his right knee as he speaks — engaged the crowd.


“Any Dominicans in here?” he asked, drawing loud whoops.

“We everywhere,” the author said, smiling.

Sandra Valle, a 38-year-old who works in education, said she was inspired by Díaz’s unapologetic style, particularly his reference to white supremacy during his talk.

“He’s not sidestepping it,” she said. “It’s not extra, it just is.”

For Hugo Fernandez, a Cal State Long Beach student working on a children’s book, one of Díaz’s messages — don’t lose faith — resonated. So far, he’d failed at that task, Fernandez said. But now he’s eager to dig into edits.

While Díaz’s talk touched on many themes, some of the event’s sessions were very specific. There was one on the power of music as medicine and another on the evolution of Mexican food in L.A.

During the panel on Mexican food, chef Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos spoke about the importance of a good tortilla. Instead of using ingredients from massive corporations — “big, huge conglomerate corn,” he called it — he buys from a local organic tortilleria, Kernel of Truth Organics.

“You can taste the difference,” Avila said.

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