Over five hundred people, not just students and professors but members of the public as well, filled the VCU Cabell Library lecture hall last night with an electric energy of anticipation and vibrating hum of excited chatter. Most clutched well-thumbed copies of identical novels and wore giddy grins, as they lined the walls and perched precariously on windowsills, trying to catch a glimpse of Junot Díaz entering the hall.
Díaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yesterday the VCU Humanities Research Center launched its speaker series for 2017-18 with a public reading by Diaz. The event was co-sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of the Dean for Humanities and Sciences, and the Creative Writing Program. Diaz read from his award-winning novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” followed by a Q&A style discussion and book-signing. Dr. Richard Godbeer, Director of the Humanities Research Center, described Diaz as one of the most exciting voices in literary fiction today.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Díaz and his family immigrated to New Jersey when he was six years old. His experience growing up an economically disadvantaged immigrant and person of color in America features prominently in Díaz’s work, which addresses the familial relationships, traumas, and everyday lives of immigrants in America.
“As someone who came to the states as an undocumented adolescent with barely a word of English in ’81, I am grateful to find in Junot Diaz’s work such an accurate and powerful depiction of so many of the experiences that many economically disadvantaged immigrants encounter not just upon arrival, but for the rest of our existence in this country,” said Maribel Moheno, Ph.D., Spanish instructor at VCU who introduced Díaz to the crowd.
Díaz’s brutally honest, beautifully articulated depictions of life as an immigrant give voice to a community that has historically been oppressed, abused, and ignored. This event took place less than a month after white nationalists held a highly-publicized rally in Charlottesville, and just over a week after President Trump announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, leaving the fate of 800,000 undocumented immigrants in the hands of Congress.
“What has been happening these days has outdone, as an artist, my dystopian imagination,” Díaz said.
He connected the rise of white supremacy in America to the defunding of education over the last 30 years, which he said created a generation of people ready to be manipulated by dangerous and disturbing political ideologies. Díaz also criticized what he called the capitalist corporate structure of neoliberal education, that underfunds and overworks the average student in a frantic race to become a profitable employee.
During the Q&A discussion, Díaz spoke about the stigma of mental illness among minority communities, the myth of the “good man” which he said acts as a tool to support and reinforce the patriarchy, and the inaccurate perception that millennials are lazy.
Díaz also talked about how, despite growing up in extreme poverty, he was always acutely aware of those in his community who had even less advantages than he did. This perspective is what Díaz says saved him as an artist and a writer.
“There are people in any of our neighborhoods that look at our detested lives and say, ‘I wish I had that’,” said Díaz. “If you want to have a good life that’s not consumed with rage and resentment and grievance, then you should compare yourself with people that have less than you.”
Díaz is the cofounder of Voices of Our Nation Art Foundation, which supports emerging writers of color with workshops and mentoring by established writers of color. He is also active in other community organizations including Freedom University, which provides tuition-free post-secondary education to undocumented immigrants.