Junot Diaz Wows Students at Tulane with Oscar Wao Required Reading
Melinda Palacio -- September 13, 2009
Junot Díaz spoke to a group of eager first-year Tulane students. The event was open to the public and to high school students in a packed auditorium at Tulane University in New Orleans. Díaz set the tone by asking of his latest novel, "Is this required shit?" His intro allowed him to slip easily from his Hip Hop, potty-mouth speak, to a more academic tone. He spoke candidly and thoughtfully on a variety of subjects and managed to answer every question from the long line of anxious students in the center of the auditorium. From Colorism to the Platano Index, to unreliable and manipulative narrators, the Dominican-American author kept his message "real" as he explained his intention for his complex novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The M.I.T. professor explained why he freely used long passages of Spanglish references and spoke specifically to a Dominican audience as a way to increase narrative tension. His equation is simple. As with his first book of short stories, Drown, Díaz achieved literary success by writing for and about the community he knew and grew up with. He used the old tried and true, write what you know. "I wasn't writing for an average white person," explained Díaz.
"The more specific an author makes his audience, the more naturally the author veers towards the universal. A novel is many things. At it's core it's an economy of audience. My thing was Dominicans. I wrote to a very narrow group, for the people I grew up with."
In enlightening comments on the specific to the universal, Díaz discussed racism within his own family. He gave the example of his extremely black relatives warning him to beware of black people. Much of the novel uses color to discuss colorism or racism, a universal problem that Díaz heightens by deliberately using every imaginable permutation of the N-word in English, Spanish, and Spanglish slang.
Part of the young, 40, Pulitzer-Prize winning author's appeal is his insistence on writing his vision of his world without any compromises. He sticks to the long conversations in Spanish, his heavy footnotes, and his nerdy fandom of Tolkien, Eighties music, comic books, and all things specific to the unique characters come to life in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
One of the best moments of his lecture to Tulane freshman was his answer to a student who asked why English classes were so boring. Junot's answer was to encourage students to think, discover, and challenge the brain over the next four years of college life. He stressed that universities, before becoming accreditation institutions, were traditionally learning institutions.
"Learning through discovery and education. Those are the muscles that get you through life. Whatever's your boring shit, for another person it's a source of joy. These four years are the only time someone is going to ask you to do something that falls outside your formula. They do it because they want to push your brain."