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Carmen García Durazo: PAGE TURNER 2011: “Hanging Out” with Junot Díaz and Min Jin Lee

November 2, 2011

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A breakdown of the Brooklyn literary festival that dark, snowy Saturday.

By **Carmen García Durazo**

Pageturner-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Ann Larie Valentine.

It is 6:00 pm on a Saturday night, and the kimchi taco truck has left. There’s no getting around it—my master plan, however genius, has been foiled.

PAGE TURNER 2011 seemed the ultimate opportunity to accomplish the supreme goal I had as a writer, a reader, but above all, a voyeur: to watch a Pulitzer Prize winner eat a taco while pontificating about the merits of long-form prose, post-Enlightenment subjectivity in the age of New Media, translation theory, and the immigrant experience. It seemed a situation just weird enough to work its alchemy.

In my vision, I saw the Dominican novelist Junot Díaz exchange pithy one-liners with Korean writer Min Jin Lee, the two of them laughing, necks craning to savor the culinary equivalent of their conversation: a fusion of the Latin and the Asian—the fermented cabbage, the corn tortillas, the lack of cutlery, the meanderings of spice and nectar on the palate. Although the tacos were missing, the pair’s conversation more than supplied a sufficient amount of my daily dose of literary fusion; on that first cold night in early winter, I was able, at least, to complete part of my mission.

PAGE TURNER 2011 boasted a packed schedule, one glittering with literary luminaries and timely, incendiary subject matter. To begin the day at Brooklyn’s powerHouse Arena, Guernica’s own Joel Whitney moderated a panel on Occupy Wall Street, speaking candidly with Monica Youn, Dora C. Wang and Mark Nowak on performance culture and subjectivity at Zuccotti Park. Using the movement’s “human microphone” as a reference point, the panel pointed to what it termed the “democratic co-authorship” apparent at Occupied locales around the world. By repeating what one person says, the collective makes it audible to the hundreds listening. In this way, Occupiers transmit a message only after they have said it first themselves, a type of performative ownership that strengthens the movement’s supporters.

The concept of democratic authorship, no doubt present at Zuccotti, Washington Square, Oakland and Plaza del Sol (Madrid), also proved an appropriate way to ignite the discussion at powerHouse that day. Following the OWS panel, the loft-like space hosted roundtable discussions, author interviews, and impromptu readings by Amitav Ghosh, Ken Chen, Teju Cole, Siddhartha Deb, and more. And in human-microphone type fashion, the panels bled into one another, creating a kinetic, harmonious atmosphere which crackled and buzzed with political and literary heat. Each panel—such as Hisham Matar and Amitava Kumar’s conversation “War and Its Representations,” directly on the heels of Ghosh and Chen’s trading of witticisms on the Chinese Opium Wars—informed the next. And although PAGE TURNER organized itself along a cleanly divided, 50-minute session premise, it became clear that indeterminacy, not rigidity, would come to be the rule.

“I think Asian Americans need to learn to chillax,” said Min Jin Lee, the Ivy–League educated, corporate lawyer turned prize-winning novelist, perhaps speaking to the flux of the festival. At PAGE TURNER 2011, this levity was in abundance, as was exemplified by the concluding event held by Lee and Díaz on Saturday night.

Although they proceeded without the kimchi tacos, Díaz and Lee rounded out the evening at powerHouse with a loosely led session of the two “hanging out.” Clearly and comfortably speaking without a format, they were quick to share words of advice, affection, and encouragement for each other and any burgeoning writers in the audience. “Live in a universe of doubt,” Díaz urged, eschewing the concept that there was any “right” path to authorship. ”Find that doubt, and embrace that stupendous particularity .’” Both novelists shared stories of the slow, stop-and-start maturation of their prose lives, their varying career paths, their un-literary, hyper-involved, and fiercely loving mothers. The tone was upbeat; the vibe, joyous.

PAGE TURNER’s warmth and chatter was, in this regard, an exercise in fusion. The panelists and attendees represented myriad professions, ethnic backgrounds, preferred genres, immigration statuses. The heels of Guggenheim fellows and aspiring writers clicked about on the sparse gray floors, filling Brooklyn Heights’ powerHouse Arena with all the stupendous particularity missing from the frigid night lying in wait.

My missing taco experience aside, alchemy—and flavor—at PAGE TURNER 2011 was not in short supply.

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Carmen García Durazo is a Guernica Daily intern. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her @Carmen1Garcia.

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