Junot Diaz: this is how you wow an Occidental audience


Author: Delarys Ramos Estrada

By 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 22, the line to hear author Junot Diaz speak at Thorne Hall had reached the Johnson Student Center. Students and community members from all over Los Angeles had arrived over an hour and a half early just to secure a seat.

Diaz received a standing ovation from a handful of audience members the moment he walked on stage. He started off the reading by saying, “Diablo, y esa gente que se pararon? Dominicanos? Wow, vinieron temprano, eh?” (or “Damn, and those people who stood up? Dominicans? Wow, you all came early, huh?”). His opening in Spanish didn’t come as much of a surprise for fans, as Diaz frequently incorporates the language into his writing. Spanish words like lambon, platano, chica and fuku, just to name a few, are part of how Diaz is able to accurately give his young Hispanic readers a voice they can relate to.

Diaz, a Dominican Republic native, initially gained critical acclaim with the short story collection “Drown.” His next novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, tells the story of a Dominican family in flux, contorted by social tribulation and personal anguish. These qualities, combined with subtle humor and political commentary, helped mix a cocktail of literary revolution.

During the presentation, Diaz read excerpts from “Oscar Wao” and his latest short story collection, “This is How You Lose Her.” He then opened up the floor for questions from the audience, many of which revolved around ideas such as intergenerational education, racial identity formulas and dealing with privilege.

Questions from audience members about potential inter-family conflicts arising from discussions of identity prompted Diaz’s discussion of intergenerational education. According to Diaz, intergenerational education means that, as a first-generation college student, one learns to share ideas learned in academia with their families and communities with delicacy.

Diaz, after learning about the history of the Dominican Republic through his schooling, came to recognize and integrate his African descent into his own identity. He explained that his parents, however, refuse to accept this part of themselves: they are children of El Corte (“the cut,” or The Parsley Massacre), a 20th century genocide carried out against Haitians, who generally consider themselves of African descent. In contrast, many Dominicans identify as having European descent.

“You have to be conscious of your parents’ and grandparents’ logic,” Diaz said. “You can’t just write them off as ignorant. To them, when they hear the question of whether or not they’re black, they’re seeing a machete.”

During the presentation, Diaz argued that people create racial identity formulas out of fear of misidentification. But he explained that in our generation of overlapping racial identities, these misidentifications are a farce in themselves.

“These formulas are the equivalent to handcuffs, trying to deny a certain part of your identity,” Diaz said. “That denial of one part of me is the denial of me entirely, and that means I don’t exist. That means I can’t hang with you.”

Later, a question of maneuvering through privilege prompted an account that seemed to particularly resonate with an audience primarily made up of people of color.

“As an undergraduate, I was really pissed off,” Diaz said. “I had three pairs of jeans and when the marketplace closed, I starved. But instead of looking at this unjust kingdom of privilege, look at the community you were once a part of, the struggling community, and offer your help.”

At a reflective discussion organized by members of La Raza Coalition Sept. 24 following the event, there was a collective appreciation for Diaz’s authenticity and relatability.

“I love listening to speakers that, once you leave the presentation, you leave wanting to do something,” President of the Black Student Association Diamond Webb (senior) said.

Diaz is able to elicit these feelings of inspiration in even the youngest of readers. Toward the end of the event, a young girl came up to the stage and asked, “Have you ever thought about writing a children’s book to help kids learn about their identity?”

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