Last night, the “Writing Lives” series at the Heyman Center for the Humanities, in collaboration with the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity’s “Artist at the Center” series, hosted an evening with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz.
Best known for his books “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” “Drown,” and “This Is How You Lose Her,” Díaz is currently a creative writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Díaz discussed his process, his life as an activist, the education system, and his Dominican heritage.
Díaz managed to flow seamlessly from topic to topic, taking on challenging questions about artistry and corruption all while managing to relay hysterical anecdotes and drop profanity along the way.
Those who are familiar with Díaz’s work know the importance he places on silence, and it is this silence that completely shapes his characters and the story.
“I begin everything I do by strategizing my characters around their silences,” he said. “When I create my characters I say ... ‘What are the things he’ll never say, the things he’ll never look at?’”
The supernatural, magical realism side of his writing cannot be ignored either, and Díaz was quick to praise other media, such as comic books with their “four-color visual operative weirdness,” for embracing these more imaginative genres.
“We need multiple lenses to see our complex realities,” Díaz said, emphasizing that realism is too limited to encapsulate every nuance of our lives—sometimes things just can’t be expressed literally.
The night concluded with some questions from the audience. However, it was during the last question about how to approach and correct racism and white supremacy that Díaz left the crowd with one of his most resonant comments.
“We’ve gotta save the people we can save. Start with yourself, then try to save someone else,” he said.
One of the highlights of Díaz’s talk was his emphasis on mentorship and the effect that the ever-increasing financial burden of college has on mentorship for students. He stressed the need for multiple mentors from different backgrounds.
“So much has been done to alienate student-faculty lectures that we rarely have opportunities like this,” Díaz said. “It’s hard to think of office hours when you’re wondering, ‘How am I going to get financial aid next week?’”
As an undergraduate student at Rutgers University in the late ’80s, he claimed that having the women’s college Douglass nearby helped define his point of view today, and that having a black, female mentor was indispensible.
Díaz’s time at Rutgers had a profound influence on his advocacy, the quality for which he said he would most like to be remembered.
The discussion of activism returned the conversation to student debt.
“You’re more truculent when you’re not constantly being economically destabilized,” he said.