The award-winning Dominican-American writer encourages students to embrace their linguistic roots.

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Author Junot Díaz Speaks to a Packed Audience at Brooklyn College

Nov. 4, 2013

Dominican-American author Junot Diaz was at the Whitman Theater as part of the Brooklyn College Freshman Common Reading experience.

Dominican-American author Junot Diaz was at the Whitman Theater as part of the Brooklyn College Freshman Common Reading experience.

Renowned writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz visited Brooklyn College last week to do a reading and participate in a Q&A session with Professor of English James C. Davis.

Díaz's celebrated novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, 2007), was required reading for all entering first-year students at the college. It appeared, judging from the ardor of the crowd, that the book had been well received.

So too was the author.

"Some of y'all actually read that?" joked Díaz with the audience about his book, after scanning the packed auditorium.

The sought-after speaker employed an approach that felt at times like a cozy conversation between a group of young people and their favorite uncle. He cursed, cracked jokes, and pointedly, though politely, answered questions from a long line of students. He read an excerpt of his short story "The Cheater's Guide to Love" off of his iPhone, standing at the side of the lectern in his signature black-rimmed glasses, a fleece jacket, rumpled pants, and black sneakers.

He was at once accessible and a rock star. A sea of cell phones from the audience recorded his every gesticulation, and students yelled out to him from their seats. ("I just came up closer so I could see you," said one. "Sorry, I'm not cute," Díaz retorted.)

He offered profound one-liners—"The Internet of your soul, young people, is writing,"—and sage advice: "Education offers us the opportunity to be transformed."

He spoke of his hardscrabble upbringing in New Jersey, the Dominican history and culture that shaped him, and honoring the linguistic resources that Brooklyn College students bring to class.

When a student asked what had made him think a general audience would relate to a book like Oscar Wao, which is so coarse with Dominican idioms and immigrant barbarisms, Díaz quipped back: "How do we do it?" He pointed out that members of ethnic populations are constantly required to navigate and relate to the broader culture.

"We're so used to being alienated that when we see ourselves projected, we're confused," he said. "Our racism and our divides have nothing over our imagination."

The book and Diaz's appearance are part of the Freshman Common Reading experience, in which first-year students read the same book, write their own memoirs or other critical responses to the work, participate in a panel discussion by faculty members, and engage in other activities.

The excerpt that Díaz read is from his third book, This is How You Lose Her (Riverhead Books, 2012), a collection of short stories. He had planned to read from Oscar Wao, he said, but he left his book in the taxi on the ride over. "I keep thinking the taxi driver will take the book and read it," he demurred.

Oscar Wao won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Diaz, 45, is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (the "genius grant"), among many other accolades. He has been a university professor for 17 years and currently teaches writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It's a life, he said, that he was able to realize only after a lot of struggles that dawned in an awakening.

"One of the things you get for free is a dream," he told the students.

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