(Paterson, N.J.) The other day Junot Diaz drove back to his home state. He had promised a college friend who teaches eighth grade here in this tattered, slate-colored, chain-link-fenced town, that he would make an appearance. And so he'd collected his rental car from the valet of his hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, placed an orthopedic pillow against the seat (he has nagging back problems) and, with his iPhone propped on his knee and set to Google Maps, drove slowly toward the George Washington Bridge, then New Jersey.
He leaned forward as he steered, the feminine, digital purr of the phone calling out left turns and forks in the road.
If you knew nothing of the 44-year-old Diaz but his resume and acclaim — heralded at 27 as the United States' first Dominican-American literary star upon the publication of "Drown," his breakout story collection; a Pulitzer winner a dozen years later for his novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"; his reputation as an original, exuberant voice of contemporary fiction rock-solid despite only three books in 20 years (the tour for his latest collection, "This is How You Lose Her," brings him to Evanston Sunday for a sold-out Chicago Humanities Festival event) — you might note the somberness that morning. It was the first day of October here that felt like autumn. Leaves were yellowing, and the sky, the hue of dirty drywall, blended in with the sidewalks.
About a half hour from New York, when he reached Paterson, he parked near Charles J. Riley School, which is gray and blue and hews to the popular image of oppressive-looking urban public schools anywhere. He met with Jennifer Ciocco, his friend from Rutgers University. They hugged, talked family and gentrification.
Then she led him to classroom 307.
You know that sound in a movie trailer of a needle scratching, to signal an abrupt change of tone? Diaz brightened at the two dozen or so students: "What's going on young people, yo!" he shouted.
They were 13, 14, had no idea who he was, but safe to say: They wouldn't hear this from J.K. Rowling.
They giggled at the bald, wiry, middle-aged man with Muppet eyebrows and large, delighted eyes.
"Yo, guys," he said, "my name is JOO-no, and I am a writer and an artist but first and foremost from the Dominican Republic. Anyone born anywhere outside the U.S.? OK, Puerto Rico … Colombia ….
"Well, I'm from Santo Domingo. My family came here when I was 6. We knew no English. We had five kids. We didn't have Internet or TV. I had no photographs of the United States, yo. I grew up in the kind of immigrant family that was familiar to most of my immigrant friends: I had a mother and father who all they did all day was work. I came up in a typical urban environment, with no money in the world, yo. Everybody was trying to do something to make money. My own parents expected me to be a doctor, a lawyer, something that made cash. I wanted to be an artist and writer, and it was a strange thing to want to be."
"I came up in a neighborhood a lot of you would recognize," he continued. "Nobody was reading. Nobody knew anything. I remember a fight breaking out because someone made the mistake of saying there were three continents and someone else was, 'No, nine.' A fight started. When I would tell cats I wanted to be a writer, they would laugh: 'Who wants to read about Dominicans? We don't read, and who would want to read about us?' Meanwhile, my mom, didn't speak a word of English, was out there, working to make things happen for the family. I felt I owed her to go to college, get a job, make enough to help the family. But I also remember thinking at your age: Do you pursue the dream everyone else tells you to pursue? The dreams of your friends and parents, which are usually about becoming a professional? Or do you have your own dreams?"
He folded his hands, nodding for emphasis, pacing between desks. Whatever restlessness had been in the room a moment ago dialed back to zero in 60 seconds. The students sat in clusters, wearing maroon uniforms, books stacked before them, listening with widening smiles as they seemed to realize: Here was an adult who could be blunt and funny and unencumbered by the worry of having to watch what he says.
Why come to Jersey? a small voice asked.
"I'm from Jersey," Diaz said. "I was raised not far from here, outside Perth Amboy, went to a school a lot like this one. I do this, I talk to you guys, because when I was young, I had never met any artist. My entire life, no one said, 'Yo, I am an artist, this is hella what I do!' Which would have helped so much. What else you got?"
A girl asked: Do you make money off books?
"Hellllllll no," he said.
A boy asked: His favorite writers?
"I am a super nerd," Diaz said. "I read everything. I read 'Lord of the Rings.' I read the stuff you read now: First 'Hunger Games' book, super tight. Yeah, yeah. I was lucky. Your age, I had a brother who liked to fight. I could be a nerd in school. People were, 'Yo, that's Junot's brother. So don't (expletive) with him.'"
Hands shot to faces convulsing in giggles. Ciocco winced and shook her head, smiling privately.