Knowing Oscar

Each August, all first-year students receive the same book by mail. They’re asked to read and reflect on it before they arrive in September. Once here, they get together in groups or 15 or so—all from the same residential Commons—to discuss some of the issues the book raised.

This year’s “common reading” was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by award-winning author Junot Díaz, a native of the Dominican Republic who was raised in New Jersey. As Dean of the College Shirley M. Collado said, “The book is a particularly rich exploration of identity from more than one lens, and illustrates the challenges and rewards inherent in building community with others who may or may not see the world similarly. These are key issues for first-years, and they are central to many of the themes we covered throughout orientation. And we were so fortunate to have Junot coming in person to speak with the students.”

Díaz visited the campus on September 27 to meet with first-year students and also to give a public reading that evening in Mead Chapel. Middlebury Magazine spoke with Díaz about having his book become a conversational catalyst for young people beginning a new chapter of their lives.

“Books, like any act of art, do not work for everyone. But when a book does work, when it engages them, when it reaches into them, it can be a source of great learning, both about the world and about the readers themselves. A book cannot prepare you for the stupendousness of the world—for meeting 600 people from 70 countries—but it can accompany you on that journey; it can provide insight and solace and discomfort; it can start debates and arguments; it can unsettle and give peace; it can be ‘a friend of your mind,’ to quote Toni Morrison, and a friend of the mind is not a bad thing to have at the start of any great journey. Hopefully my book was that friend for a few of the students.

“Poor Oscar is bullied endlessly. Ours is a society of hierarchies and competition, and in a world like that there are always going to be losers. There have to be. Oscar is the kind of kid that, no matter what the regime, seems to always end up at the bottom. It’s less about Oscar, I would argue, and more about how little we like to be reminded of difference, vulnerability, strangeness.

“Even in the face of death, though, Oscar could never be anyone but himself. He never wore any masks; even at the point of his destruction he was true to himself, and given the damage that masks do to people in this book, I would argue that’s a good thing. But hey, that’s just me.

“Oscar’s family curse, the fuku, is about the role that history has in shaping our lives, even when we don’t know the history that has its hands around our neck. It’s also a way to address that most American of all preoccupations: whether one is blessed by the universe (which Americans seem to believe is the condition of our country) or whether one is cursed by the universe (which is something that Americans fear our country might in fact be).

“In the end, this is a novel. There are no single take-away messages. A novel attempts to duplicate the complexity of the world. Politicians and religions have messages. Corporations have messages. Novels seek to confront readers with the world and with their own humanity and in that confrontation hopefully raise the kind of questions that you can spend your whole life answering.”

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