Renowned Dominican-American author and activist Junot Díaz spoke on issues of identity and oppression, in addition to reading a brief excerpt from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” on Sept. 12 at VCU’s Cabell Library.
Díaz, a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also spoke to a smaller group of mostly Spanish students and VCU Spanish professors before the larger event — often switching between Spanish and English.
Díaz, who is known as a casual speaker, cut VCU Spanish Professor Dr. Robert Sims’ formal introduction short at the smaller event, saying it wasn’t necessary.
“Save your applause…we’re in dark times” Díaz said.
His evening audience flooded the library’s third-floor lecture hall — the additional seating brought later on wasn’t enough to give a chair to every attendee of the free event and left many standing along the walls.
All three of Díaz’s works, “Drown,” “This is How You Lose Her” and the aforementioned “The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” were heavily influenced by Díaz’s own background, centered around the Dominican immigrant experience in the U.S. Some of the trauma expressed in his work is his own and it wasn’t until writing about it that a discussion within his own life was prompted, he said.
“You get so brutalized by these systems (of oppression) that you don’t want to talk about it,” Díaz said. “It is hard, even in our own communities, to bear witness to ourselves.”
Díaz is also an outspoken activist. He has been openly critical of human rights abuses committed by the Dominican Republic against its Haitian immigrants. He commented on the status of racial identity in his home country, saying that in the Dominican Republic “there is a hate against everything African,” despite the prevalence of African ancestry in Dominican people.
Díaz lightened emotional moments, which were frequent throughout the evening, with his sense of humor. He spent a few moments getting to know the audience, asking if there were any students, Dominicans, immigrants, people from the Caribbean or people of African descent in the audience, asking each group a few questions.
Issues surrounding women’s rights were also discussed by Díaz. He made the claim that in an apocalypse, if only books by men survived, there would be no proof the patriarchy ever existed.
“The patriarchy works most effectively because of the myth of the one good guy. There’s no good guys, there’s only patriarchy,” Díaz said.
Díaz said “it takes an enormous amount of courage” for immigrant youth to attend college, reflecting on his time as a student at Rutgers College, saying he worked a full time delivery job, like many of his peers, to support his studies.
“We’re not supposed to graduate,” Díaz said.
Díaz encouraged his audience, particularly immigrant students, to “look downhill” for inspiration rather than “uphill.” That is, to draw strength from those who have less and work to better their situations rather than to be motivated by anger at what others have.
Despite his accomplishments and awards, Díaz would rather discuss the trials faced by his ancestors of African descent.
“My sense of self-worth tends to relate a lot more with the fact that I’m Dominican,” Díaz said. “[Writing and activism], that’s just something I do. That’s not something I am,” Díaz said.
Georgia Geen, Staff Writer