- Melina Paris
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By Melina Paris, Contributing Writer
It was with good reason that author, Junot Diaz canceled his original speaking date in January at REDCAT. The Pulitzer Prize winner received an invitation from the White House to attend a private event during the last week of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Instead Diaz appeared on Feb.17, a night of heavy rains in Los Angeles. But showers and freeway closures didn’t stop this audience, which overflowed the theater’s capacity, from attending.
“There’s plenty of reason to keep your ass at home,” said Diaz congenially, opening the discussion. “Thank you for coming.”
The author wrote the critically acclaimed Drown, Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which also garnered the National Book Critics Circle Award and This Is How You Lose Her. Immigrant experiences and identity are at the heart of his work.
Diaz, a writer in residence at California Institute of the Arts Writing Program, was recognized in his introduction for his continuous demonstration in writing, thinking and activism.
He mentioned that he always checks in when speaking, to see if any of the communities that he is part of are present. The Dominican-born author first asked if immigrants were in the audience. About a third responded. He also asked if Latinos, Caribbean’s, Dominicans and folks of African descent were present. All were in attendance.
He did two readings from his books but Diaz made the evening mostly about his audience, which included his students. He opened the night with a Q-and-A, noting he would answer anything we wanted to ask him.
The author demonstrated a skill in responding quickly, but in depth to questions. A student asked if Diaz could talk about his concept of turning away from a dystopian future, which he previously spoke about at the California Institute of the Arts.
“We should be able to think of it that way, but also be able to switch and imagine better futures,” Diaz explained. “We have to fight to protect today.”
Diaz believes that our imaginations within society are not articulate or fluent in the understanding that we actually can overcome this “B.S” of a dystopian future. We haven’t imagined the overcoming of this future instead we tend to succumb to it, he said.
In interviews Diaz has previously spoken about growing up during the 80s, a time ripe with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narrative. Films such as Terminator and Blade Runner had come out. While teaching a class at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on post-apocalyptic literature, he realized that many young people were equally possessed and fascinated by this dread. He pointed out that bearing witness to what’s happening is perhaps the most important step for us to overcoming it.
He credits author, Ray Bradbury with giving him a way of bearing witness to his own experience as an immigrant going through a lot of the nonsense young immigrants put up with when in a very hostile society and climate, It is something he never forgot.
Volunteering is a priority to him. One of his main messages was about giving of your time and working with people, especially so for artists. The idea that an artist’s work is their civic contribution is an idea he does not buy. He believes giving back to the civic is to manage the interest on our civic debt.
His keen perception of this audience’s concerns opened this forum to safely tackling deeper issues and fears. One person asked how to filter what is happening in Washington D.C. Diaz continued with the idea of volunteering.
“Filter through exposure,” he said. “First get over your panic, then get to it. I just keep volunteering. Help others with less agency. As soon as you’re doing this, [Donald] Trump won’t piss you off so much.”
Diaz read from his multi-faceted novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which takes place in both America and the Dominican Republic. The story includes Oscars love trials, his love of comics and sci-fi, emigration, familial history and the supernatural. But one of its main themes explores the complexities of living in two cultures at once. It is the idea that one can carry inside them both the country of their origin and the country that received them.
But the overarching motif is the curse called “fukú” that has plagued Oscar’s family for generations.
Diaz read about fukú. His passage foretold of what could befall the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. It also described, with supernatural quality, the essence of this curse in the protagonist’s life and its effect on his family. Through the stories narrator, Yunior, Diaz’s descriptions were vivid explorations of oppression and violence.
“Fukú is generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the curse and the doom of the new world.” Diaz has explained. “It is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world.”
Diaz’s family moved from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when seven. His father came to the United States to work, then later sent for his family.
Díaz attended Rutgers University and earned his bachelor’s degree in history and literature. After graduating from Rutgers, Díaz earned a master’s degree of fine arts in creative writing at Cornell. While attending Cornell he began to write the short stories that eventually formed his first published collection, Drown.
Diaz said that the popularized notion that a person must choose between your home place and the new place is cruel and absurd. You can be two things simultaneously.
Diaz’s engaging speaking elicited a wide range of questions. Subjects from politics, to writing, to having immigrant parents, to dealing with people in your own family who voted for Trump came up.
He had a remarkable response to one of his last questions.
The audience member asked Diaz, regarding fear and identity, as a person with a high profile how does he think of his identity in situations such as his visit with Obama and in volunteering.
“What a marvelous thing it is to help somebody,” Diaz said. “To be human is to be in pain.”
Nothing diminishes his pain like helping another person.
“That’s how I balance it, Diaz said. “I try to keep people and different selves I’ve been front and center,” he said.
Diaz shared that he was slapped by his father. This is the self he brings to the White House with him, so that he can feel that love and excitement rather than locking that self up and forgetting him.
“Keep those lost selves around,” Diaz said. It takes more energy to forget than to remember.”
Diaz is the fiction editor at Boston Review. He also is the Rudge and Nancy Allen professor of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Diaz also co-found the Voices of Our Nation Workshop. Its mission is to develop emerging writers of color through programs and workshops taught by established writers of color.