Last week, I attended an event for my Introduction to Speech Communication class to fulfill a requirement. The assignment was to attend an outside speech and then critique it using knowledge from what we may or may not have learned the past few months in the class. Many people found events on campus or at the Museum of Science down the street, which is all well and good. However, I consider myself very lucky to have been able to do a little digging and find gold.
This event was The Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s 8th Annual Hellerstein lecture. The speaker? None other than the Dominican-American, Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz. I went into the lecture having only read a good 30 pages of his award winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The novel’s conversational style, coupled with crippling self-awareness has since propelled me headfirst through the entire thing. Now long finished with it, and I’m already planning to move back in time to Drown, his first collection of short stories. After that I’ll be working my way forward again to take a look at This Is How You Lose Her, Diaz’s newest set of short stories, which features the protagonist Yunior, who also appeared as a character in Drown, and who acts as the narrator in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
So, besides good writing, why have I cleared my “To Read” list, and made way for only Junot Diaz for the next couple of weeks? Because he’s not only an extraordinary writer. He’s a speaker, a teacher, an activist, a feminist, and a friendly human being all in one. The fact that he was able to exude these qualities during this lecture - which lasted for not even 90 minutes – that was the amazing part.
At the lecture, after several rounds of recognition of professors and faculty was finally through, Diaz took the stage. The first thing out of his mouth was, “Why are you guys in the dark?” This began a playful hour and a half long battle between Diaz and the lighting technicians, and though the audience may not have noticed it at first, it put everyone at ease – it made one feel like they were being spoken to, rather than talked at.
One facet of Diaz’s personality (and probably why everyone who likes him is simultaneously scared of him) is his ability to call bullshit. He does it to his home country, the Dominican Republic, he does it to the United States, he does it with himself, and, in the case of this lecture – the faculty who is hosting his appearance. At this particular event, as with any formal gathering, there were seats reserved for important faculty members. When Diaz started speaking, not even half of the seats had been filled, while the rest of the auditorium was pretty packed. “Do you ever notice that the cats who reserve seats never show the fuck up?” asked Diaz. To which he received a round of applause – not even 5 minutes in to him taking the stage.
Joking aside, however, he picked up a copy of Oscar Wao, and read an excerpt for the audience. For those who don’t know or haven’t read the book, it encapsulates the history Oscar Wao and his Dominican American family. Oscar is a smart, overweight teenaged nerd who “dreams of becoming the next J. R. R. Tolkien.” The book examines the family’s American experience in relation to the “fukú,” a Dominican curse that haunts the family all the way back to their current home in Patterson, New Jersey. Diaz read an excerpt from the beginning of the book that is told from Oscar’s older sister, Lola’s, point of view, when she discovers that her mother has breast cancer. Diaz’s reading style is slow, staccato, and emphatic. After a couple of particularly meaningful sentences Diaz would look up casually, make eye contact with a couple members of his audience, and then resume reading.
After finishing this particularly dark passage though, Diaz seemed eager to lighten the mood. The way in which he presented himself on stage was youthful and energetic. He wore a dark zip up hoodie and jeans – not the attire one would immediately think of when imagining a “lecturer”, but it was clear that attire was not even near the front of his mind. After the reading, he immediately jumped into a question and answer session that ranged from his writing style, to his inspiration, to his own life experiences.
My ears honestly perked up when a high school aged audience member asked if it was difficult for Diaz to write from the perspective of a female, as he did in the excerpt from Oscar Wao he had read to the earlier. “To be honest,” Diaz responded, “Men write really shitty women. And conversely, women write really great men.” Diaz then said, “Women are raised their entire lives to see men as human beings, while men – they have to spend their entire lives unlearning what society has told them, which is that women are inhuman.” This statement wasn’t just so he could cater to a largely liberal audience either – Diaz genuinely believes this. In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, he repeats that this is not only what he was told in his Dominican-American household, but “by the larger culture… by people around [him], by people on TV.”
His words stayed with me, especially as I made my way through Oscar Wao. His male characters are sometimes stereotypical pictures of their gender, so his statements that aligned so much with feminist beliefs surprised me. But I realized that every character of his has to go through a journey and an evolution to reach enlightenment. In This is How You Lose Her, the adulterous main character, Yunior, ends up alone and unloved. Diaz defended his choice to not have his character’s development “consummated” by ending up in a relationship, instead arguing: “I don't think that this book's representation of heartbreak would be so aching, would be in some ways so rough if this wasn't a person who was longing for love… what we're left with is a character who, for the first time in his life, I would argue, is capable of being in a normal relationship, has the tools, has sort of the imagina[tion], has the heart necessary.”
I, too, left the evening alone, making my way back on the T with only my thoughts. But I left that lecture hall on with my own tools, made of Diaz’s words, and the project of delving into genuinely good writing awaiting me, and hopefully awaiting so many other attendees of this lecture as well.
Madelyn Reese is a Freshman at Emerson College, majoring in Writing, Literature and Publishing. Her loves include her family, golden retriever, two cats, writing about and listening to music, coffee, tea, and writing lists.