The “Brief and Wondrous” Visit of Junot DÍaz

Junot Diaz spent an afternoon with creative writing students at the Rose O'Neill Literary House. Photo courtesy of Ashley Carol-Fingerhut.

By Emily Blackner

Elm Staff Writer

With its strongly personal voice and memorable characters, the first year book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” generated talk all across campus, whether students loved or hated it. The same intense style and personality was evident in the author, Junot DÍaz, when he came to Washington College on Nov 8.

DÍaz was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, before moving to New Jersey with his family. “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” took many years of hard work to write.

“The project was incredibly difficult; there wasn’t really an aspect of the pleasure principle, unfortunately,” DÍaz said. “For the most part that doesn’t happen. This book, I just grinded it out,” he said.

“The book has an extremely complex structure so it seems conversational. If you’re interested, you can read it as being told through a fixed set of devices. But there’s also a formal complexity, which withstands multiple readings. That was a challenge to keep up,” he said.

The hard work that went into the book paid off for DÍaz. His book won numerous awards, like the National Book Critics Circle Award, a spot on the ‘Best Books of 2007’ lists of such newspapers as the “New York Times,” the “Los Angeles Times,” and the “Washington Post,” and the Pulitzer Prize.

Those prizes aren’t as meaningful to him as they are to others. “I come from a military family; we were not taught to think like that, not raised to learn that one does things for applause. You do it because of duty.

“I won a Pulitzer, which is a big deal, supposedly,” said DÍaz. “But I didn’t take a break to celebrate. I’m very much my family’s son, so it’s hard to think of these things as meaning anything.” Additionally, DÍaz remarked that “winning doesn’t mean your book’s any good, and not winning does not mean it’s bad.” There was one award of which he was especially proud, however. “There was an award that I was given called the Dayton Peace Prize. I feel strongly about that because when I was given it, it acknowledged the power literature, and art, have in humanizing us. That’s how you stop wars, by humanizing. It recognized art as a peacemaker.”

DÍaz’s book blends the cultures of America and the Dominican Republic. However, he said that his background didn’t particularly influence his work. “One should remember that there’s this divide. I’m asked to make what is not a legitimate leap. My background didn’t generate this art, my train- ing and my diligence did. It’s what separates who you are and what you do from creating.

“This is not to say the preoccupations in place and time don’t have bearing on our interests as artists, but interest doesn’t get a book done. It requires absolute commitment and training.”

The author was somewhat hesitant about giving other advice to students. “Young people spend a lot of time hearing old people giving them advice. My experience was that I always wanted less advice and more support.”

He did share some thoughts with aspiring writers, however. “Some seem to have career tack that’s the same as my friends who want to be dentists. They want to go right from undergrad to grad school, in as little time as possible. It’s somehow a problem to take years off.

“Writing is about being in the world, not sheltering yourself from one institution to another. Experiencing the world and connecting to it gives you something to say about it. Real experience comes from being an adult, in a real narrative. The real world is an enormously powerful place to be; it takes strength to be there. And people are dying for news from the world.”

For students who do not want to pursue writing as a career, DÍaz offered this advice: “Life is so short that the only thing that makes it worth living is living your own dream. I spent a good part of my life living other people’s dreams— I’m not angry at myself about it. We live in world where a formula is set up for us.”

It isn’t necessary to follow the for- mula, however. “Ask yourself every semester, what is my dream? Find your dream,” DÍaz said.

He also advocated studying abroad. “That’s what college is good for, study abroad. Go to three continents and try to fall in love on each one. There’s no rush,” DÍaz said.

In the evening, DÍaz gave a reading to a full house at Decker Theatre, which included visitors from the community and from high schools in places like New Jersey and Southern Maryland. “If you wrote a transcript of me talking, you’d see the book isn’t really how I talk,” he shared with students. “Try saying one of those sentences to someone. It’s a book trying to convince you that it’s someone talking.” He also told them that he turned to books as a way to understand the world. “As an immigrant kid with a thick accent, I couldn’t go up to an American kid and ask them questions. Since I couldn’t look to my peers, I tried books.” Because of this, DÍaz understands the enduring legacy a book can have. “I became a writer because I wanted to be an artist. Will I create something that matters tomorrow? Relevance past tomorrow – that’s what I’m obsessed with.”

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