It’s not often a bunch of students get to hang out and talk with an award-winning rising literary star whose book they’ve just read.
And yet that’s exactly what happened on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in McCullough Social Space when Junot Díaz was in town.
Díaz is a Dominican-American writer who holds a prominent place in the realm of provocative literature. In 2008, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize and The Dayton Literary Peace Prize for his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was selected this year as the common reading assignment for all incoming first-years. It’s a culturally contemporary story of a young immigrant, Oscar, who is often described by Díaz as a “science fiction, comic book, fantasy-loving overweight nerd.” The immigrant experience has always been central to Díaz’s work, and it’s no coincidence that his characters’ lives bear strong similarities to his own as a young transplant to Paterson, New Jersey.
No stranger to irreverence, his talk to the group of college newbies was peppered with the smooth profanity of casual conversation. And when students asked those predictable questions about “what something meant” or “the author’s intention,” Díaz tossed the questions right back at them—“What do you think it meant? What does it mean to you? I’m just the writer. You’re the ones doing the reading.” And later, as one student admitted to not really “getting the point,” Díaz railed against the college-student must-know-it-all mindset and said, “Listen, it’s normal not to understand everything all the time. That’s the way life is.”
Due to lingering back pain, Díaz opted not to sit in the armchair provided next to Dean of the College and Chief Diversity Officer Shirley M. Collado for the “fireside chat,” as the first-year-only event was promoted. Instead he paced the stage, gesticulating as he spoke—sometimes emphatically, sometimes barely a mumble.
When asked why he thought Oscar Wao made a good choice for the common reading, he dove into what’s clearly a topic of frustration for him. “Nothing could be more community-oriented than getting a bunch of young people roughly the same age and locking ‘em up in a little strip of Vermont for four years to live and learn. That’s like some wild spaceship. But even that ideal experience has been contaminated by this larger cultural fragmentation, where people are separated from each other even when they’re together. You’re here at college, right? Well, 90 percent of your mind is somewhere else. You go to a club? Everybody’s on the phone.”
The audience, with their own buzzing cell phones jammed into pockets, laughed nervously, not quite sure where this was going.
“We’re not there,” he said quietly. “We’re not present. But a common reading, no matter what the book, is an intent to keep alive something that is important, which is that we’re all present in one space with each other at the same time. These are very precious moments, I promise you, and they’re not moments that are encouraged in the larger culture. The book, then, is an excuse to do something that we need to do more and more of, being present, being together.”
Later that evening, Díaz stood before a slightly larger audience in Mead Chapel. No less profane, his voice rose and fell over a range of edgy concepts, from the “culture of respectability” as a form of privileged oppression to the power of toxic authoritative narrative in dictators to Superman, with his unerring good will, as the perfect cover for a serial killer.
When he read a short section from Oscar Wao, his voice became sonorous and hyper-enunciated, giving breadth and depth to each word. The animosity and self-loathing that pervades the characters were palpable. There was a lot of quiet listening going on.
Afterward, he took questions. When one listener expressed an inability to feel sorry for the ever-suffering Oscar as a protagonist, Díaz jumped at the opportunity to talk about compassion. “Most of Oscar’s suffering, comes from people around him lacking compassion, and ignoring him. To have compassion means you can’t ignore. Most people on the planet endure enormous suffering. Does that mean they are less worthy? We could all do with a little compassion.”