Junot Díaz’s Visit

Junot Díaz’s Visit

Junot Díaz visited our campus on November 5th for our annual E101 Lecture.  Courtney Lam, RISD Textiles Major and Literary Arts and Studies Concentrator, wrote the below piece about this event:

Junot Diaz

by Courtney Lam on 11/26/12

For a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer and recent recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Junot Diaz is remarkably self-deprecating. It’s a Monday night with twenty minutes until his lecture in the RISD Auditorium, and we’re waiting at Carr Haus, where he has requested a “small coffee with absolutely nothing in it”, even eschewing the need for a lid on the paper cup. A reference to his love of comics and movies leads to a question of whether he’d be interested in writing for these other media, and Diaz is quick to deny any such ambitions. “Oh hell no,” he replies. “This literature thing–it’s hard enough for me. I like to think that I focus my mediocrity.”

This “mediocrity” Diaz speaks of has manifested itself in a relatively small but highly acclaimed body of work: two short story collections–1997′s Drown and this fall’s This Is How You Lose Her–and a single, epic novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won him the Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008. Diaz’s work focuses on the experiences of the working-class Dominican-American diasporic community, and is lauded for his vivid portrayals of outsiders: the nerds, rebels, and oppressed minorities. Their lives unfold amidst the landscape of American pop culture–specifically the sci-fi movies, superhero comics and fantasy novels through which Diaz’s characters escape from the struggles of their everyday lives.

The accolades keep coming–This Is How You Lose Her, a paean to relationships loved and lost, has been barely on bookstore shelves for two months and has already been selected as a finalist for the National Book Award. Diaz’s other achievements include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Yet, despite being a bona fide literary rock star, Diaz isn’t an intimidating presence. In fact, when we arrive at the auditorium, it takes a few minutes for the student collecting tickets to realize that the baseball cap-wearing guy hanging around the door is the guest of honour, waiting to be let into the auditorium where a large crowd awaits him.

Much of the abundant praise of Diaz’s work is attributed to his distinctive narrative voice, characterized by its frequent shifts from English into Spanish colloquialisms (from reading his work, I have learned how to swear in Spanish). Diaz asserts that it’s the specificity of his subject that allows readers from all over to resonate with his stories, and language plays a large role in realistically depicting cultural communities through a concept he describes as “code-switching”. “We don’t have many tricks in literature to convince people that these little scratchings on paper are the real world,” he explains, “so code-switching is something we can use to get at the density of the real.” Diaz doesn’t believe that readers give up on books based on not understanding some of the vocabulary. “I mean, people read books that are one-third Elvish,” Diaz quips, citing Lord of the Rings. In his case, it’s Spanglish dashed with nerdspeak.

Stylistically, Diaz’s writing is also incredibly dynamic. His prose jumps frequently from beautifully poetic turns of phrase to the sophomoric libido-fueled parlance of its young male protagonists. The story “Alma”, for example, which Diaz read at the start of the RISD lecture, begins: “You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans. An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit.” These juxtapositions blur the lines between highbrow and lowbrow literature, with street-smart grit allowing the more elegiac passages to refrain from sentimentality, while earnest insecurity lies behind the swagger.

The conversational tone of his books carries over into Diaz’s presentation style–the intellectualism of an MIT professor regularly punctuated by profanities. Over the course of an hour, he answers questions from the audience and speaks confidently at length about issues of racism, ignorance, and the faults of the education system. But he casually kicked off his lecture by asking who in the packed auditorium was attending by choice, and who was forced to come by their English teachers. The query prompted laughter and several confessionally raised hands in the audience. His response to those bound by professorial obligation: “Well, I hope you get something out of this–we’ll try to make shit happen.”

Diaz’s visit was organized as part of RISD’s two-year-old Common Reading program, which assigns a book to all incoming freshmen to read over the summer before their first semester. Many other colleges across the country, including our neighbour Brown, have similar programs for new students, which aim to introduce students to the school’s academic culture. Oscar Wao, which weaves together the coming-of-age story of a Dominican-American sci-fi fanboy in suburban New Jersey with his family’s tragic history in the Dominican Republic, was tapped as this year’s book selection by a committee of RISD faculty members. Last year’s inaugural book was Providence hero H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, chosen for its local significance. Literary Arts and Studies department head Patricia Barbeito, who orchestrated Diaz’s visit, suggests that Oscar Wao serves as a compelling counterpoint to the Lovecraft text, with its more global themes and multicultural subjects. In her introductory address, she describes Diaz’s work as “confront[ing] the human dimensions and complexities of some of the central terms in our contemporary American vocabulary: the immigrant experience, globalization, and male power.”

Dominican-born and Jersey-raised, Diaz now calls New York home, but spends four months each year in Boston as the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT. In speaking about why he teaches creative writing at a school famous for math and sciences, Diaz explains that his students’ unconventional backgrounds and approaches to writing make for more exciting work than those bound by professional ambition. “My students think of creative writing as absolutely essential to their lives, and not essential to their careers,” he says. By contrast, last year Diaz was offered a job teaching at NYU, but he left after a semester, unhappy with the experience and the all-business attitudes of the writing majors. He speaks of the pitfalls of too much professionalization in pursuing higher education in the arts, a subject that hits close to home for RISD students. “Once you’ve staked your life and career on your art, it’s not play,” he explains. “You go to a playground and hold a gun to the kids’ heads and say ‘play’, and see if they fucking play.” Despite being incredibly tempted to stay at home in Manhattan, Diaz ultimately made the decision to stay at MIT, likening the NYU job to “dating a chick for her apartment.”

Such one-liners studded the evening, which revealed an author bearing many of the qualities also associated with his work: audacity, intelligence, irreverence and humour. Diaz kicks ass in reading his stories aloud; he reads with a distinctive cadence, slow with a bit of uptalk and substantial pauses between lines. He closes his lecture with an excerpt from “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”, the last story in This Is How You Lose Her. As with “Alma”, the narration is told in second person, with long lists of things that “you” have supposedly done: changing your phone number; quoting Pablo Neruda; quitting drinking and smoking. The least common point-of-view in prose, it places the audience in an interesting frame of mind. When Diaz says “you”, it feels as though he might actually be talking about you, even though you may have never cheated on a fiancée with fifty girls and tried to win her back by taking her to the New Zealand beach where they filmed The Piano. There’s an intimacy to the specific details conveyed, which begs the question of whether Diaz is actually employing the “you” to veil or abstract his own experiences, or conversely using it to ground the broader subjects of love and fidelity. And beyond the remarkable style and swagger, this seems to be at the heart of his writing–reconciling the deeply personal with shared community experiences.

You can find out more about Diaz’s books and other work on his website.