I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information including RA for All's EDI Statement.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Junot Diaz’s Personal Plea to “Decolonize” the Shelves and Becky’s Demand That You Start NOW!

Thanks to my daily reading of Shelf Awareness, I was altered to an amazing and heartfelt speech by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Junot Diaz.

Below is the summary of what he said via Shel Awareness with the link to watch the entire speech, but after that I have some comments that are specific to you as you work at your library.
#Wi13: Junot Díaz on 'Decolonizing the Shelves'

Junot Díaz
Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., introduced Wednesday's Wi13 Breakfast Keynote speaker, "beloved novelist" and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz. Islandborn (illustrated by Leo Espinosa, available from Penguin March 13), his debut picture book, is, in her words, "a celebration of creativity, diversity and our imagination's boundless ability to connect us."
The breakfast of nearly 1,000 booksellers and publishing representatives marked Díaz's first time speaking at the Winter Institute. "It's a great honor," he said, "to meet the people who made me possible." He began by giving a quick "genre of gratitudes" to the booksellers both present and not, to his publisher and to the bookstores he referred to as his own: Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books on Martha's Vineyard in Mass.; Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass.; New York City's Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria; and Singapore's BooksActually. "If it hadn't been for the curatorial devotion of independent bookstore sellers, my art would perish."
After expressing his gratitude, Díaz read prepared remarks. His speech was a deeply personal account of his childhood relationship with books and his inability to find himself in them. His family emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States in 1974, settling in Parlin, N.J., "on the bleeding edge of Bon Jovi-level whiteness." He explained that his family were the first Dominican people in the neighborhood and not welcomed: "The white supremacy... was all day every day for us immigrants of color where white folks could say anything to us without any kind of repercussion."
Having "arrived in the United States completely illiterate," Díaz said that, "if it hadn't been for the kindness of librarians," he probably wouldn't have found books. But he did. "Books became my shelter against the white world that sometimes felt like it was trying to destroy me." Yet, while the books saved, they also alienated him. As the world in which he lived told him his very existence was weird or wrong, his books either agreed with the greater world or acted as if he didn't exist at all: "what really killed, was the erasure. God almighty, the complete and utter erasure. How thoroughly kids like me did not exist in our books."
This desperate desire for representation in children's literature is what drew Díaz to writing for a young audience: children of color still "live out milder versions of what I endured in my childhood." He is working to "decolonize the shelves" and asked the audience to do the same. "Bookstore owners and librarians are on the front line. It's the smallest intervention that can sometimes create the most important, lasting change." He finished his speech to a standing ovation: "I wrote my children's book, Islandborn, because I believe there are things immigrants can teach that we all need to hear without which we will never understand this stolen land we inhabit."
You can watch his keynote here. --Siân Gaetano
On a personal note, I love Diaz’s writing. You can click here to see everything I have had to say about him.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of the only books I have read three times-- for fun. I love how he captures the immigrant experience in general, his personal Dominican heritage, and nails what it mean to be from Jersey better than anyone.

He is one of the best writers I have ever read. He can take letters and craft them into words [in 2 languages] that can portray every emotion and at the same time, tell a story that is a pleasure to read. His stories can be in equal turns brutal, beautiful, funny, suspenseful, speculative, and above all-- lyrical.

But to hear him speak here, my heart breaks for him, yes, but it also breaks for all of the immigrant kids and all of the kids of color, who have never been reached by great books because they could not find one to speak to them and their experience.

He talks about how the library both saved him AND saddened him. It gave him a place to belong, but the books he read could not save him. Thankfully, he was able to write the books that could save him. And now he is writing to save others-- especially children. In a room full of white booksellers, he is challenging us all to do better.

Listen to Diaz. Don’t think you are not part of the problem...still. Even those of you, myself included, who are trying to do better, who make an effort to check our privilege. Every single one of us-- we all need to listen to Diaz tell us the honest truth from the perspective of that brown kid who became a great “American” writer.

Look, it is fine to say you are making sure that you are providing diverse reading options to all of your patrons. Everyone grows, learns, and is a better human on this planet by reading diversely. [Please use my diversity tag for more information, essays, and presentations on this topic.] But there is more to this speech. There is a call to action. We cannot keep paying lip service to the problem without ACTING.

If you get nothing else out of today’s post, please know that one of my mantras for 2018 is that when it comes to diversity, checking yourself is a mandatory, professional responsibility. I will demand that of all of you and of myself. And I am serious. I am working on a committee to re-write an author list and I assigned a person whose sole job is to be the diversity checker-- to make sure we are considering all voices. And I am not sorry that I didn’t even ask for this, I simply demand it happen and in the middle of the meeting asked someone to do it, putting her on the spot [but to be fair, I know her well enough to know she wouldn’t protest].

This is not how committees should work, but I am not ashamed of my behavior even a little.  Seriously people, this is how change happens- when people act. Don't wait for change to come. Act. I don’t care if that behavior described above made anyone upset. It is too important to wait around for change, or bring it up for discussion in 4 consecutive meetings before deciding to maybe do something.

I will continue to check myself, check others, but I will also ACT. I will demand we all do something. The last few years have been focused on talking about the problem. What are you going to do about it?

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