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Junot Díaz Comes to VCU

On Tuesday, Sept. 12, acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz came to Virginia Commonwealth University. Díaz read his prize-winning book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao“. The event was co-sponsored by the Humanities Research Center in the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Office of the President, the Office of the Dean for Humanities and Sciences and the Creative Writing Program of the Department of English. Díaz gave an impassioned speech on today’s youth, specifically students of color and the problems facing them by attending neo-liberal universities

Díaz spoke of how universities do not cater to students who need to, or have to, work to put themselves through school while taking classes. Díaz himself, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, attended Rutgers University and needed to work to put himself through school.

“Those of us who have actual jobs (and are taking classes), we’re really not supposed to graduate,” Díaz said.

Díaz started his hour allotment in the James Branch Cabell Library lecture hall by asking who in the packed room was not from the VCU community, of which about 10 people raised their hands. He jokingly asked them: “what the f*ck are you doing here? Why are you here?” He then asked who was from his home state of New Jersey, who was of African descent, who was from the Caribbean, who was Latinx, who were immigrants, who was Dominican, who was from VCU and, finally, who was there because it had been assigned to them. When about 20 people raised their hands, Díaz laughed and told the audience, “I’m a f*cking professor (at MIT), I do the same sh*t to my students.” 

Díaz asked the people of color in the room how they were treated at VCU, when he was answered with laughs and “mmmmm,” he laughed in agreement. “Sounds about right. I noticed people of color are on a lot of fliers here,” Díaz said. “They love us on fliers.” 

Díaz addressed the recent acts of white supremacy in Virginia, specifically, the riot in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. 

“I’ve been super interested in the state of our country, especially in Virginia,” Díaz said. “Your white people have lost their sh*t. It’s like they’ve lost their sh*t in the whole god d*mn country.

“You only need to be poor and enraged to experience white supremacy. You only need to be a kid of color at a neoliberal university, these universities are often more f*cked up than the homes we’ve left.”

Díaz, who is a known critic of Donald Trump, spoke candidly of what he thinks of him.

“This country really showed its ass with Trump, and the reason is, Trump is the end result of what you experience — 30 years of defunding education,” Díaz said. “You can’t defund education like this country has and not be ready to be manipulated, ready to fall for some of the most odious, disturbing political fantasies of all time.”

Before reading from his book, Díaz opened the floor for questions from “young sisters of African descent.” He added, before answering his first question, that “you’d be surprised how often I’ll say that and a white dude will raise his hand.” 

The first question was whether Díaz identified as an author or as an activist. He answered that writing is just “something I do, that’s not what I am.”

“Neoliberalism teaches you that your occupation is what you are,” Díaz said. “I want to encourage folks that you are much more than what the f*ck you do. My sense of self worth is much more linked to that I am Dominican and a few hundred years ago my ancestors were enslaved.” 

The second question, which took Díaz a moment to answer, was where he drew his inspiration from talking about mental health with the main character in his novel, Oscar. He candidly answered that he grew up with a masculinity that was “nuts.” He admitted that “I’m a 50-year-old bald little nerd now, I wasn’t always like that.”

He spoke of how he would go to the gym at Rutgers and lift weights for up to three hours, every single day and how that toxic masculinity almost destroyed him.

“This system is organized to make you go absolutely out of your f*cking mind,” Díaz said. “Depression is real, I didn’t have any of those conversations. I had to wait until I was out of grad school (to begin talking about mental health). How can you not be depressed when you’re taking a full load and working? It’s a difficult conversation because it’s a stigmatized conversation. I was losing my f*cking sh*t, y’all. If you’re not entirely focused on your reconstitution, this society will f*cking kill you. Reconstitution requires a conversation.”

After these questions and several others, Díaz read a moving passage from his acclaimed novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”which focuses on what being an immigrant living in New Jersey is like, then reopened the floor for questions from anyone in the audience.

One of these questions was how he felt when he began writing “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”and if he ever felt, as an artist, that he had to filter his work.

“I write very slowly,” Díaz said. “I take a very long time to work, and the process is far more subterranean (than for other authors). I get lost for seven, eight, nine or 10 years at a time. If you’re gonna take 11 years to write a book, you’re not thinking about the audience. I’m so lost in the material, it’s deep for me.”

After several other questions, Díaz’s time was up. He thanked his audience for coming and then opened up to more one-on-one questions from audience members, as well as a book signing. 

Sources: cover photo

All other photos taken by author

Emily is a part-time coffee addict and a full-time English and Public Relations student at Virginia Commonwealth University. She enjoys all things punny, intersectional feminism, Chrissy Teigen's tweets and considers herself a bagel & schmear connoisseur. You can probably find her either listening to the Hamilton soundtrack or binge watching The Office for the thousandth time
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