Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Junot Diaz dazzles Amherst College and leaves audience reeling

Diaz talks about serious and real issues

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(Junot Díaz/ Facebook)

(Junot Díaz/ Facebook)

(Junot Díaz/ Facebook)

By Isaac Simon, Collegian Staff

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Over one hundred people packed into to the Johnson Chapel at Amherst College on Friday, March 2, to hear from acclaimed writer Junot Díaz. Vivacious and organic, carrying with him a natural elegance for language and differing vernacular, Díaz roused the audience with a talk of his work, his past and the critical decisions involved with illuminating the immigrant experience.

Díaz began the talk by reading a passage of his work titled, “The Money,” a piece of non-fiction that for many of his readers deviates from his usual genre. This was followed by a conversation with Jennifer Acker, editor of “The Common,” an award-winning literary magazine which helps run Amherst College’s annual literary festival, showcasing accomplished writers and academics from throughout the area and across the country.

As speaker, Díaz displayed compelling command over his rhetoric. His ability to speak in a variety of languages, incorporating different dialects and perspectives, stems from his multi-regional upbringing;  even his incorporation of profanity can be considered elegant.

Writers are tasked with solving million-dollar problems with pennies, Díaz said.  There is a balancing act involved, whereby the writer has to appeal to both his readership while also maintaining the integrity of the story. Díaz has done this through his distinct style of diction, blending in his immigrant past while illuminating his greater American identity. Díaz is largely understood as a writer who showcases the power in the immigrant experience. Many of his stories wrestle with problems experienced by immigrants. This is exemplified through the fictional character Yunior, who appears in several of Díaz’s works. Through his talk, Díaz shed light on the dilemmas faced by people that live to see the end of dictatorships. How does one go about preserving culture and keeping it intact? How do people foster community upon immigrating to a new place?

“The particularities of most of our lives don’t appear in literature. Most of our communities are surrounded and victimized by silence.” Díaz said.

He spoke vividly about being raised by his poor grandparents and how their personalities were affected by enduring and escaping brutal dictatorships.

“The level of resilience and genius, and solidarity in that generation, they are worthy of our veneration and respect. My biggest regret is that I didn’t bend my knee enough. I wished I bent my knee. They were worth bending the knee for,” Díaz said.

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Díaz graduated from Rutgers University. He is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his 2007 book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” His other acclaimed works include “Drown” and “This is How You Lose Her,” a collection of short stories. He is currently a professor at MIT and a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship.

Díaz was perhaps most direct when acknowledging his own tokenization. During the question and answer portion of the evening, Díaz was asked to express his opinion on being known as the “Puerto Rican Messiah” of literature.

“The distance between a black man and Barack Obama is shorter than that of Obama and a middle class white boy,” Díaz said to the crowd. “So let’s not confuse ourselves with what’s really going on here.”

Díaz spoke both poetically and profoundly about the complexities of understanding racial progress in this country. His self-awareness was reflected in these comments. He also touched on the double standard of criticism levied upon literature that is largely absent from society. Those who are either blinded by racism in every day society but manage to pick up on it in books and criticize stories by that standard fail to understand literature’s relevance to civil society. “We live in a nation that spends more time erasing the lives of people of color,” he said.

Like the individuals and communities he serves through his prose, perhaps our job as readers is to begin bending our knee.

Isaac Simon can be reached at [email protected]

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