Junot Diaz at the Jaipur Literary Festival

The Jaipur Literary Festival, Junot Diaz, and Calabash International Literary Festival…and what such festivals bring to the people in those countries.

Junot Diaz in Jaipur being interviewed by Sonia Faleiro. Photo courtesy of Tehelkadotcom

Well, Junot Diaz stole the show on the first day of the Jaipur Literary Festival in an interview with Sonia Faleiro, one of my tweeple (@soniafaleiro) and author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. A flurry of tweets this morning by @tehelkadotcom, one of the best all round news cum arts magazines in India conveyed the excitement of the moment.

But before we go there–for those who want to know more about the JLF, taking place this weekend, chk this tweet:

bookbeast Lucas Wittmann

The coolest literary festival in the world? Jaipur, obvi. William Dalrymple on how it started and who’s coming http://thebea.st/e3ZPjC

In this entertaining video Indian writers discuss Junot Diaz, the huge crowds at the Festival and generally every aspect of the JLF.


The JLF is not without its fair share of controversy. According to an article titled

The atmosphere is informal and the debates are conducted in a polite and generally consensual manner, often featuring the father of the festival — the British historian and expert on India, William Dalrymple.

But Dalrymple, a ubiquitous presence on the Indian literary scene who co-founded the modern Jaipur event in 2006, has been sucked into a damaging row after coming under attack in the Indian news magazine Open.

In an excoriating piece published on January 1, political editor Hartosh Singh Bal questioned why a white middle-aged Scottish man had established himself as a “pompous arbiter of literary merit in India.”

If Dalrymple is the father of the festival its mother is co-founder Namita Gokhale, whose daughter Meru, is married to Patrick French, VS Naipaul’s biographer. I met Meru and Patrick at the 2008 staging of Calabash where Patrick read from his The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul. Two years later he’s just published a new book India: A Portrait.

Let’s return to Junot Diaz, who as i said earlier has been wowing crowds in India just as he did here in Jamaica when he first read at Calabash, in 2002. Back then the Gleaner carried an article titled “ New ‘Latino’ author for Calabash festival”:

“Historic” is how Dominican Republic writer, Junot Diaz, views the upcoming 2002 Calabash International Literary Festival, scheduled to open at Jake’s Village in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, on May 24.”It’s so rare to get African and Caribbean writers coming together outside of the United States of America,” he told The Sunday Gleaner in a telephone interview. “Usually, such festivals and gatherings are held within U.S. borders, so I find it rather historic, and am actually looking forward to participating.”

Mr. Diaz will be one of 31 writers in the fields of literature, theatre and music, scheduled to take part in the three-day festival. And, while it will be his first experience in such an event, he’s no stranger to Jamaica.

“I visited once before, and was impressed with the people and the country,” he said.

Mr. Diaz gained fame and acclaim with his first publication ­ a collection of short stories, titled Drowning, which draws on his own emigration experiences from the Dominican Republic to the U.S.

In most of the 10 stories which make up the book, the narrator is a young adolescent who recounts his island childhood to current life in New Jersey.

“The inspiration for the stories came from my own observations and remembrances of my family and growing up, ” Mr. Diaz pointed out. “So portrayed are the struggles for survival, the poverty, cruelty and violence, all within a ‘macho’ context and presented in a humorous fashion.”

The 33-year-old fiction writer is rather candid about his transformation from struggling writer to overnight success: “I was lucky to be liked by one per cent of the reading audience in the U.S., which in itself constitutes about one per cent of the entire population.”

Drowning was published in 1996, and at the Calabash Festival, Mr. Diaz expects to do readings from the collection. But he’s also working on a second publication ­ his first full-length novel.

“It will probably take me a long time to complete,” he warns his fans, “for I work very slowly and need to get my plot together.”

He’s promising no “happy ending”, for a main character “who will be the ‘opposite’ of that in Drowning“.

The Gleaner got the title of Diaz’s book wrong three times, it’s Drown not Drowning. And the character whom he promised would be the opposite of the one in Drown was Oscar Wao, the protagonist of Diaz’s masterful first novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which was published in 2007. In 2009 Diaz again graced Calabash with his presence, along with Edwidge Danticat.

Today at the Jaipur Literary Festival Junot Diaz talked to an enraptured crowd about how ‘oppressive regimes destroy national character’ and ‘Silence becomes institutionalised in oppressive regimes.’ He was probably referring to the Dominican Republic where he was born. “There’s enormous silence, holes punched thru us, in people of my generation, from my country” he said.

So not only does Junot Diaz write like a dream, he is hot and funny. No, not gay either. #JLF

Also: Diaz insisted New Yorker stop italicizing Spanish words in his stories. They never italicised any foreign language word again #JLF

And: Diaz on removing the n word from a new edn of Huckelberry Finn- Just coz you use a word dsnt mean you endorse wht it stands for. #JLF

Diaz also said: “You assume as artist that what you create will one day in future encounter someone who needs it.”

Junot Diaz with Indian author Mridula Koshy #jlf

That Diaz was responsible for changing the venerable New Yorker’s editorial policy regarding foreign words and how they are represented is awesome. We were blessed to hear him twice at different points in his comet-like trajectory. As you can see Calabash belonged to the same family as the Jaipur Literary Festival, both part of a network of such confabs around the world bringing the work of great writers to audiences in distant places. Neither is immune to criticism but to not admit their immense contribution to the societies in which they’re staged is to wilfully succumb to myopia. Long live Calabash and the JLF!

Author: ap

writer, editor and avid tweeter

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