Pulitzer-winner Junot Díaz talks artistry, community at lecture

strongHayden Wright, Beacon Staff/strong

divJunot Diaz had a full house in stitches of laughter when the Pulitzer Prize-winning author spoke at the Bill Bordy Theater on Tuesday evening, as part of Hispanic/Latin American Heritage Month. Díaz read excerpts of his funny and poignant prose and imparted his wisdom to an audience of students and professors./div

divThe Dominican writer and professor has been published extensively in The New Yorker and teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MFA creative writing program. Many came to the reading eager for him to sign copies of his critically-acclaimed novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao./div

divLatin American/Hispanic student group Amigos sponsored the event as part of their programming to raise awareness of Latin American issues and culture. In addition to reading pieces of his work, Díaz spoke to members of the Emerson community about broader issues of artistry and life—even cautioning against taking the academic world he occupies too seriously./div

divIt’s really hard to be an artist when all of your contact with the world is institutional, he said. That is no way to form an argument about the world./div

divInstead of wallowing in acadamia, the writer suggested developing a sense of perspective by traveling, working odd jobs, and reading./div


Díaz, 42,  did not shy away from interacting with the audience, even before the question and answer session. At one point, he surveyed the audience for students from New Jersey, where he immigrated to in 1974, and lamented the state’s declining reputation in popular culture.

“Being from New Jersey is like being from the poorest family in town,” he said.

As Díaz read passages from his iPhone, his language was peppered with four-letter words, boldly confronting topics like sex, family, and identity. According to Dr. Flora Gonzalez, an Emerson professor of writing, literature, and publishing, profanity is part of Díaz’s charm.

“If you read his work, and also if you listened to him carefully last night, he’s using profanity with a great deal of humor and irony,” she said yesterday in a phone interview. “If you don’t get that, you get offended.”

Ultimately, Díaz makes a dynamic and provocative inquiry into themes of immigration and masculinity in Dominican culture, according to Gonzalez. She teaches emDrown/em, his 1996 collection of short stories, in her Latino American Literature course, and encouraged her students to attend the reading.

“This is the first author reading I’ve been to at Emerson,” said Nicole Nelson-Campos, a sophomore visual and media arts major who is currently enrolled in Gonzalez’s class. “We just read him. It was great to put back-to-back his writing and the way he is in person.”

According to Kimsley Avalo, vice president of Amigos, obtaining such a high-profile guest speaker was an easy feat to accomplish, since Díaz is a family friend. They met three years ago while working on politician Dennis Benzan’s bid for the Mass. State Senate in Cambridge.

“I was a huge fan of his before meeting him—I had read emOscar Wao/em, so it was really cool,” said the junior. “He is an inspiration especially because I’m a WLP major.”

Díaz commended the efforts of Amigos to arrange his reading, saying, “It’s unbelievable how often we are the beneficiaries of other people’s invisible work.”

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Avalo and Amigos President Juan Castillo-Then, a sophomore visual and media arts major, are fellow Dominicans, who say they are inspired by Díaz’s representation of their cultural community.

“He’s a Pulitzer-winner,” said Castillo-Then. “I’m really proud to see someone in our culture competing at that level.”

emWright can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @HaydenWright./em