Speaker Spotlight: Junot Diaz

We are thrilled to welcome to campus another literary sensation as the third speaker in our 2017 series, Undercurrent. Junot Diaz has captivated audiences since his short story collection Drown in 1996 followed by Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2007. Diaz regularly contributes to The New Yorker and is a recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Grant. Diaz will be joining us Wednesday, February 22nd at Shriver Hall so catch up on all of his fantastic work and make sure to bring a copy of a book (or two) for a signing!

Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2008): The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Synopsis: Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú — the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim - until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last.

With dazzling energy and insight, Junot Díaz immerses us in the uproarious lives of our hero Oscar, his runaway sister Lola, and their ferocious beauty-queen mother Belicia, and in the epic journey from Santo Domingo to Washington Heights to New Jersey's Bergenline and back again. Rendered with uncommon warmth and humor, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and the endless human capacity to persevere - and to risk it all - in the name of love.

This is How You Lose Her (2012)

On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness--and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own.

In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”




The NeW Yorker: "Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon"

Image courtesy of  The New Yorker

Image courtesy of The New Yorker

In the days following the election of President Trump, Diaz penned a letter to his sister calling for resilience in the face of immigrant backlash. Here is an excerpt of the letter:

So what now? Well, first and foremost, we need to feel. We need to connect courageously with the rejection, the fear, the vulnerability that Trump’s victory has inflicted on us, without turning away or numbing ourselves or lapsing into cynicism. We need to bear witness to what we have lost: our safety, our sense of belonging, our vision of our country. We need to mourn all these injuries fully, so that they do not drag us into despair, so repair will be possible.

And while we’re doing the hard, necessary work of mourning, we should avail ourselves of the old formations that have seen us through darkness. We organize. We form solidarities. And, yes: we fight. To be heard. To be safe. To be free.

For those of us who have been in the fight, the prospect of more fighting, after so cruel a setback, will seem impossible. At moments like these, it is easy for even a matatana to feel that she can’t go on. But I believe that, once the shock settles, faith and energy will return. Because let’s be real: we always knew this shit wasn’t going to be easy. Colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit. We have to keep fighting, because otherwise there will be no future—all will be consumed. Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it is, in part, our past. And we know that by fighting, against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe. Our ancestors did this with very little, and we who have more must do the same. This is the joyous destiny of our people—to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.

But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. “What makes this hope radical,” Lear writes, “is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as “imaginative excellence.” Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future.

I could say more, but I’ve already imposed enough, Q.: Time to face this hard new world, to return to the great shining work of our people. Darkness, after all, is breaking, a new day has come.

Love, J ♦

NPR Interview With Terry Gross

On why slang is so important in his writing:

Well, you know, part of the thing that really interested me about the reading experience is that a lot of times we forget that a large portion of what we’re reading we don’t understand. And most of the time we just skip over it because it’s sort of implicit. We don’t understand a word, we’ll just skip over it and keep going. But, you know, that’s like a basic part of communication, you know, unintelligibility. And so if you’re an immigrant, you’re so used to not being able to understand large chunks of any conversation, large chunks of the linguistic, cultural codes.

And part of what I was trying to get at when writing this book is that, you know, I wanted everybody at one moment to kind of feel like an immigrant in this book, that there would be one language chain that you might not get. And that it was OK. Like, it might provoke a new, like, a reaction to want to know. And that’s good because it’ll make you go look and read other books and start a conversation. But life, and the experience that most of us have in the world is that we tend to live in a world where a good portion of what we hear, see and experience is unintelligible to us. And that to me feels more real than if everything was transparent for every reader.

Chicago Humanities Festival: on Immigrants, Masculinity, Nerds, and Art