@

A lot has been written on Junot Díaz lately.  For several weeks starting in September, he appeared in at least twelve publications that showed up at my house.  He was in everything from the unsolicited Time Magazine, apparently intended for my fifteen-year-old son, to Vogue, where Díaz appeared in costume, dressed as a member of Edith Wharton’s circle.  Díaz’s face smiled out from Entertainment Weekly, and he appealed for understanding from the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Online, the Guardian Blog stated that the term “genius” was inadequate praise.  Seemingly everywhere, his big glasses, smooth head, trim beard, and tentative smile greeted me. If Andy Warhol still lived, he would use Junot Diaz as a subject.

Recently I traveled to Peru to research my next novel.   Peru rattled me, although I am not a nervous traveler.   When I was thirteen, I made the trip from Manila to Boston, including a required overnight stay in Los Angeles, by myself.  There was hitchhiking in Italy in my college years and other bold and ridiculous travel adventures; once I landed in Ravenna with no money and had to work two days at a communist beer festival to make train fare back to Florence.  I drove through the Texas Panhandle in an ice storm and had to sleep in a church.  I’ve negotiated public transport in Bangkok, often alone, and somewhat confidently.  In recent years, I waited out officials at the Zimbabwe/Zambia border as they attempted to extort one hundred dollars—something I would have given them, but which I didn’t have since, as I explained to them several times, only a stupid woman would travel alone and with lots of cash. I didn’t sweat it.  I had time, and I survived through those moments composed and sustained by the notion that, at some juncture, this would make a funny story.  But Peru made me nervous not because of danger, nor lack of money, nor corruption, nor alien culture, but because of language.  Peru made me nervous because of Spanish.  Spanish makes me nervous because I can’t speak it.  More clearly (not speaking Thai doesn’t bother me) Spanish makes me nervous because I can’t speak it, and I look like I should.  I call this particular anxiety “The Spanish Thing.”

In a distant incarnation of self, circa 1991, I was a member of the grunge scene in Portland, Maine. This did not entail much. I frequented bars, stayed razor-edge thin, and was sort-of (although I could be mistaken) dating a drummer from a band called Otis Coyote. One evening, we attended a party. Instantly, the crowd sorted itself into the musicians (males) and the people who had shown up with the musicians (females). I could only wonder what the musicians were talking about. I imagined they were discussing the things that the drummer talked about—music, books, wild stories from the not too distant past—while I pretended interest in the canned food drive that socially-conscious metal band Tesla had organized in coordination with their upcoming concert: whoever brought the most cans got to meet the band. My forays to join the musicians were met with a silent curiosity or the statement, “there’s more beer in the fridge.” This was a fight waiting to happen—which I promptly initiated at first opportunity—and I anticipated every word leveled at me in the car on the way home: snob, elitist, snob. I knew to steer clear of talking gender because I didn’t need “harpy” added to the others.