For more than 20 years, novelist Junot Diaz has explored the immigrant experience.
From his debut 1996 novel, “Drown,” a semi-autobiographical work on the life of a young Dominican transplant to the United States, to “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, Diaz has found inspiration in the culture that surrounds him.
His work has won him more than just accolades. He is a MacArthur “genius grant” winner and teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his books and in person, his use of language is very much for an adult audience. But for years, his two goddaughters and other children have asked him to craft stories with them in mind. Diaz has done so with his latest book, “Islandborn,” which tackles the dilemma of an island girl in the United States: How do I remember where I come from?
“[I’ve] got a lot of young people in my life asking for books about them,” Diaz said this week from Chicago, a stop in his book tour. “I felt their need rather acutely. Diversity in books is a serious problem.”
In “Islandborn,” he writes of a brown-skinned girl named Lola, whose head is topped by an Afro puff, or bolita. On Friday, Diaz will discuss the book at the Ethical Society of St. Louis.
Lola could be about the same age that Diaz was when, at 6, he arrived in New Jersey from Santo Domingo, with soon-to-fade memories of the Dominican Republic.
One day Lola’s teacher asks her students to draw pictures of where their families are from. But Lola can’t remember her island. So family and friends start to tell her stories, beginning with memories of a hurricane she lived through.
“Where were we?" Lola asked, her eyes wide.
"We were hiding under the bed is where we were!” Abuela said.
"That’s right,” her mother said. “And you know what? You never cried once. You were such a brave little girl."
"I wish I could remember that," Lola sighed.
"Well, it happened," her mother said. "You might not remember the Island but it remembers you."
'The need is really vast'
Diaz, 50, came of age in Patterson, New Jersey. He's lived the culture that he writes about. Still, he was bedeviled by writing the story.
But he was determined to get it right, given how hard it is for children of color to discover books with characters who are like them, particularly by authors of color.
"We've got a lot of good people working in it, a lot of people who I admire deeply," he said. "Still, there's a tremendous deficit, so I just found myself being moved."
Diaz is quick to acknowledge children’s books by Mexican-American author Pat Mora and Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat.
But, he said, “The need is really vast.”
Only about 8 percent of the 3,700 new children’s books published in 2017 were by Latino, black and Native American authors, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. About 8 percent were by Asian authors.
There are a growing number of characters of color in children's books, but that doesn't address the most pressing issue, said Sarah Park Dahlen, an associate professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“If you look very closely at the numbers, it’s not because more people of color are writing these books,” Dahlen said. “It’s because more white people are including characters of color in their books. And this is not the solution that we want. We don’t want more white people writing about us in their books. We want more writers of color writing about us.”
The publishing industry is 79 percent white and 78 percent female, according to a baseline diversity survey Dahlen helped prepare for Lee & Low Books, the largest children’s book publisher in the United States.
Dahlen said part of the problem is that books that children of color could identify with are not reaching them.
“We have a lot of things to do on the publishing and editing side — libraries promoting books and teachers using them,” she said.
'The kinds of stories I grew up with'
The participation of an acclaimed novelist like Diaz, who joins other novelists writing children's books, could bring more attention to the genre.
Diaz said he’s not always sure what motivates him to tell a story a certain way. But he does know that his inspiration comes from way back.
“It seems to come from a place inside of me that I don’t always have access to,” he said. “And I know it had to do with not having stories where my community appeared. I know it had to do with longing to see the kinds of stories that I grew up with inside of books.”
Diaz has won critical acclaim and fans for his ability to connect Latinos to their ancestral homelands while also channeling the experiences of people who navigate two cultures.
That particularly makes his work appealing to young adults, said Julia Macias Garcia, director of the Annika Rodriguez Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis. In 2010, the program brought Diaz to campus as part of its annual symposium on Latino contributions.
“I think he has a voice that’s really relevant,” said Rodriguez, who is of Mexican-American heritage. “He can talk about that Latino experience. It’s not just about Latin America or the Caribbean or being in the United States. It’s about the hybrid experience. That ‘Latinidad’ is very alive in the American space.”
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Rodriguez said, gave Latino students who were born in the United States or have been in the country a while license to express that cultural duality.
“I think he speaks it out loud,” she said of Diaz. “He gives people permission. They know it’s their identity. For whatever reason, for safety or whatever, they don’t know that they can speak it. [Diaz’s work] gives you permission, or helps other people understand when you identify yourself.”
But after so many years of writing books for grown-ups, Diaz knew the time was right for a children’s book. “Islandborn” includes the colorful illustrations of Leo Espinosa, an award-winning illustrator from Bogota, Colombia.
Diaz didn’t shy away from addressing tough subjects in the book, but wrote in a way that young audiences would understand.
Like his novels, “Islandborn” seems to be about the Dominican Republic and Rafael Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship, an allegory for the strongmen who have ruled many countries, fueling immigration to the United States.
When Lola collects memories, the adults describe the island in glowing terms, perhaps to protect her — or themselves — from a difficult history. But there is no escaping it, as Diaz writes through Mr. Mir, the super in Lola’s building:
“It was the most dreadful monster anyone had ever seen. The whole Island was terrified and no one could defeat it. It was just too strong. For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.”
For Diaz, it’s important to acknowledge that troubled past.
“I think, communities like mine, if we’re not willing to have stories with these kinds of complexities — who we are and why we’ve found ourselves across the world — those stories are not going to be honestly told,” he said.
But Diaz also wants to let immigrant children know that they have a culture and a history that they can be proud of.
“On many levels, it’s about, first of all, recognition that we exist at just the most fundamental level,” he said. “[In] this experience of the last couple of weeks in this book tour, all these little girls walk up to me and they’re like, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a little girl like me, with black hair and bolitas. That matters.”
If you go
Junot Diaz speaks about "Islandborn"
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road
Tickets: $20 -$25 via Left Bank Books
A $20-ticket admits one person and includes one copy of "Islandborn." A $25-ticket admits two people and includes one copy of the book. A $5 companion ticket admits one additional child under the age of 12.
Follow David on Twitter: @dpcazares