Novelist Junot Díaz talks writing, immigrant experience

Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Junot Díaz, the author of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “This is How You Lose Her,” spoke at this year’s Krieger Lecture. The annual Krieger Lecture honors Alex Krieger ’95, who was killed in a car accident during his first year at Vassar./ Courtesy of Vassar College

In 2008, author Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” In 2012, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially referred to as “the genius grant.” On April 18 of 2018, Díaz came to speak at Vassar. The lecture was not scheduled to begin until 8 p.m., but by 7:30 p.m. more than half the seats in the Villard Room were filled with excited members of the Vassar and greater Hudson Valley communities.

Dean of the College Christopher Roellke spoke first, briefly detail- ing the history of the lecture series and thanking the benefactors who helped bring Díaz to campus. Díaz’s talk was the latest installment in the annual Krieger Lecture series. Each year, parents Betty and Lewis Krieger sponsor the lecture in honor of their son Alex Krieger ’95, who was killed in a car accident during his first year at Vassar. Past speakers include Tom Wolfe, Oliver Sacks, Michael Chabon, Gail Collins, Mo Rocca and, most recently, Zadie Smith.

When Roellke introduced Díaz, the audience erupted into loud aplause and shouts of excitement had died down, the author opened his talk by describing the time he spent as a student in college working to bring artists and speakers to campus. Díaz then began to read a piece of his that had been published in The New Yorker in 2011.

The story, entitled “The Money,” gave a window into his early life in the United States and his mother’s decision to send money home, similar to that made by many other immigrant families. He read, “My father was always losing his forklift jobs, so it wasn’t like [my mother] ever had a steady flow. But my grandparents were alone in Santo Domingo, and those remittances, beyond material support, were a way, I suspect, for Mami to negotiate the absence, the distance, caused by our diaspora. She chipped dollars off the cash Papi gave her for our daily expenses, forced our already broke family to live even broker” (The New Yorker, “The Money,” 07.13.2011). He went on to detail the theft of this money while his family was on a road trip. He described discovering who stole the money,reading, “So that was how I solved the case of the stupid morons.” Following the story, which wound together poingency, humor and truth, Díaz opened the lecture up to questions from the audience.

Díaz’s writing style is conversational, weaving a mix of Spanish and English to tell a story. When the questions began, the first audience participant asked, “Are you used to writing in the way that people talk? Were you able to write this way in the classroom?”

In response, Díaz explained that knowledge derived from one setting may be applied to an-other. He said, “Ultimately, as students of color, people who are from communities that have traditionally been oppressed, being tricksters is essential for our learning. It’s not like boning up on your whiteness isn’t going to help you with all your registers.” Knowledge gained through learning in an oppressive, racially charged at-mosphere can still help with creative writing that breaks the bounds that normally restrain it in an academic setting, Díaz explained. Or, as he said, “All education adds to us.”

Díaz then began to speak about emotional imbalance resulting from these atmospheres, stating, “The more angry and positional we get, the less education we get, the more the system wins.” After a few more questions, he read another passage of his work, this time an excerpt from his 2012 novel, “This is How You Lose Her.” The story, which showcases the col-loquial nature of his writing, became a Finalist for the National Book Award and was labeled one of the 100 most Notable Books of 2012 by The New York Times (New York Times, “100 Notable Books of 2012,” 11.27.2012).

He read, “I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost everything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties freestyle hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.”

Following the reading, he took more questions. The first concerned Díaz’s new children’s book titled “Island Born,” published earlier this year in mid March, When asked where the motivation to write the book came from, Díaz explained that more than 90 percent of children’s books are written by white authors (Five Thirty Eight, “The World Of Children’s Books Is Still Very White,” 03.06.2015).

“Island Born” tells the story of a young Dominican girl who left for the United States before she had the chance to form memories. As well as discussing the lack of diversity among children’s book authors, Díaz described being inspired by his younger sister to create the story, as she had no memories of Santo Domingo, while he remembered everything about the home he lived in until age six.

While Díaz came to the United States at age six, the next question came from Yorkiris Marmol ’21, who moved at age nine. She said, “There’s a certain view that when anything’s tough we just have to get over it. Do you resent the way that the Dominican culture raised you or are you grateful about it? Because at the end of the day we’re more resilient.”

In response, Díaz broadened the scope from Dominican culture, stating, “I think that main-stream national cultures are really really problematic. These are complex societies, and there are things that we must value and things that we try to change. I just try to change as much as I can, that’s the game.”

When asked how he defined himself as a writer, Díaz explained the impact of his cultural identity on his person, but stressed that he’s not defined by a single term or description, stating, “I think like most of us, I’m a subject in the making.” He described the representation of this in his writing, through which he has searched for his own identity. He explained, “I feel that I am trying to tell a story that permits me to make sense of myself.”

The last question for Díaz was about creative writing, prompting him to offer advice for aspiring storytellers. Díaz responded by quip-ping, “There is more advice for creative writers than there is porn.” On this note, he did not provide writing advice, but rather life advice. He said, “If you’re really interested in being a creative writer, live more life. The future has no use for people who are anti-life. Of that much we are certain.”

After ending the hour-long lecture with the final piece of advice, Díaz remained at the front of the room. As some audience members trick-led out, a number formed a line, clutching copies of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “This is How You Lose Her” for him to sign.

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