Three questions came to mind while I was on my way to hear Anita Desai and Junot Diaz at the 38th Annual Writers’ Festival last Thursday at Agnes Scott College
- Would Desai & Diaz outdraw Billy Collins, the keynote speaker at last year’s Decatur Book Festival?
- Would Diaz’s selection be as graphic as the bulk of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?
beat Missouri , keeping my hopes for winning the NCAA basketball office pool alive?
The answers were: no, (but close), yes, and no (not even close).
After the announcement of the winners of Agnes Scott Festival Competition, Diaz read excerpts from his short story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” (which appeared in the New Yorker a decade ago). Diaz has a unusual style of reading in short bursts and pauses, allowing the crowd a moment laugh almost on cue with Diaz’s every colorful phrase —with responses stronger from the student section toward the front as opposed to the back of the auditorium where mature types like myself smiled politely.
Desai followed Diaz and read her story “The Man Who Saw Himself Drown” I’ll admit I knew nothing of Desai’s work until I arrived on campus, but considering that she published her first novel in 1963, the Indian-born Desai is impressive in her body of work. In contrast to Diaz, Desai, read quietly and flawlessly for about 25 minutes – her diction reminding me of those strong female characters out of a Mira Nair film (likeNamesake).
After the readings, Desai and Diaz sat on comfy chairs on stage, and allowed the crowd to interrogate them as they shielded their eyes from the klieg lights. (I was envious of their chairs as my theatre seat was lumpy and sinking to the floor.) Their most revealing comments were in response to the question of “What are you writing now?” Desai said she had believed that her last novel would be her final work (she’s in her seventies), but she changed her mind when she realized “I was not very happy.. I didn’t feel fully alive” and has since returned to her desk. Diaz confessed that for the last two years he has been “feeding the beast” – a reference to his new life as a famous writer on tour – and admitted that he had not been writing. To me it was a troubling irony of the evening—the thought that a well known author (telling me at a Writer’s Festival, no less) can become sidetracked by his own success.