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Author: Young people caught in 'nightmarish experiment'

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Junot Díaz shared with an Elon University audience on Tuesday his approach to writing, his concerns about the way minorities are marginalized in the United States - and how he thinks American youth can change the world.

Junot Diaz on Sept. 10 read a brief excerpt from the chapter "Wildwood" in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

Junot Díaz didn’t spend much time reading from his critically acclaimed work Tuesday evening when he visited Elon University as a guest of the Liberal Arts Forum.

In fact, he didn’t even carry a book onstage. Moments after taking the podium in McCrary Theatre, Díaz asked a student seated in the front row if he could borrow a copy of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” from which he recited a brief excerpt detailing a mother’s discovery of breast cancer with the help of her teenage daughter.

That tale of the two fictional Dominican immigrants living in New Jersey set the tone for the rest of the hour as Díaz answered questions from an audience wanting to know more about his writing process, his inspirations, and his views on minority representation in literature and film.

The Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow didn’t disappoint in a presention aptly titled "A Brief Wondrous Evening with Junot Díaz."

Likening his prose to other forms of art, Díaz started his conversation with the crowded auditorium by explaining how quality writing arises from the opposite approach that colleges teach students.

“What makes our talent possible is just absolute glorious strings of mistakes, the absolute reversal of everything you learn in college,” Díaz said. “Part of my writing process is making just endless mistakes and throwing away a lot of stuff. If you’re a controlling person who hates making mistakes, art is a really bad gig for you.”

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Diaz has penned three books: “Drown,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and “This Is How You Lose Her,” a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist.

Díaz’s notable accomplishments include the receipt of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award.  A graduate of Rutgers, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He also is the cofounder of Voices of Our Nation Workshop, a multi-genre workshop for writers of color that provides a place for developing writers “to explore their craft in an atmosphere of support and understanding.”

His Sept. 10 appearance was the first event this year hosted by the Liberal Arts Forum, a student-run and Student Government Association-funded program that brings to campus each year guests who foster conversations about current interdisciplinary topics.

Díaz also addressed the dominance of white men in film and literature when the United States, he argued, is so much more diverse than how it’s reflect in popular culture. He cited a recent study that showed nearly every Hollywood film over the past summer featured men in leading roles, leaving women to “play no role other than to be there to convince everybody that the men are not gay.”

“If you think this is happening with women, this of course is also happening with people of color,” he said. “The problem is, as anthropologists would say, certain representations of whiteness are in circulation, and we are all addicted to them.”

A native of the Dominican Republic, Diaz spoke to a crowded McCrary Theatre about his writing process, his identity, his family and his views on current art and literature.

The talk segued into his views on the treatment of Latinos and, by extension, other minority groups in the United States. Díaz pointed to the overrepresentation of Latinos in the armed forces, compared to their overall percentage of the population, and their critical role in agriculture and construction industries.

It’s not white people who are picking the lettuce or building big new homes these days, he said. Americans can’t seem to deal with the Latino presence when they talk about what it means to be an American.

“If you remove Latino labor and Latino bodies from this country, the same way if you removed African-American bodies, this country would fall apart,” Díaz said. “But you would think we burned D.C. and killed every child on the planet the way this country responds to us. It’s a profound deformation of the national character.”

The biggest impediment to change? It’s the way young people are treated by adults. The younger generation is caught in a “nightmarish experiment,” Díaz said, where childhood has been disrupted by adult anxieties. That’s a change from when he was a child and his parents never bothered him with so much emphasis on testing and grades and organized sports or activities.

When he was through with school, he was free to explore. “If I saw an adult on any given day, that would have been a big damn deal,” he said. “When school was over, that was it. My mom would be like, ‘Try to come back alive. Go do what kids do. Have an adventure and try not to get killed.’”

Now, parents feel the need to prepare their children for college and a job before they even reach middle school. An adult focus on testing and career readiness has led to atrophied values, like civic-mindedness, in younger generations.

“Basically, parents have outsourced their neuroticism to kids,” Díaz said. “Most of us are convinced that if we make one mistake, we won’t get the right jobs to keep from starving to death. … Part of what needs to happen for any real change in this country is for the de-instrumentalization of young adulthood, to understand that this is not a time only to get a job, but for you to discover who you are.

“As soon as we get a more civic-minded sort of climate, I think the kind of changes we need will happen.”

Eric Townsend,
9/11/2013 11:50 AM