Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Speaks in Campbell Hall


Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Casey Chun/ The Fordham Ram.

By Joe Vitale

Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Casey Chun/ The Fordham Ram.
Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Casey Chun/ The Fordham Ram.

When author Junot Diaz visited Fordham’s two campuses in 2009, his talks were sponsored by the creative writing program and his remarks focused mainly on his most recent novel, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” He talked about his writing process, his inspiration and the historical aspects of his novels.

Six years later, Diaz again visited Fordham’s campus, but this time with a decidedly different focus. At an event sponsored by El Grito de Lares and Academia Hispania, and co-sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, he discussed the challenges of race and identity in an increasingly complex world.
During the event, titled “‘You Are Not Dominican’: Race, Identity and Diaspora,” Diaz, with an aura of informality and undercutting humor, spoke mainly about personal identity, the pressures of higher education and structural supremacy in our culture.

The acclaimed author of the two short story collections “Drown” and “This Is How You Lose Her,” opened with no prepared texts, choosing instead to field questions from the crowd.

He began with a survey of the students, expressing curiosity in their ethnic and geographic backgrounds. Diaz was curious, mainly, about those similar to him, searching for students from New Jersey and students of Dominican and African descent.
When few students raised their hands to say they were of African descent, he responded with visible exasperation. “Five folks of African descent,” he said to the room of nearly 50 students. Using an expletive, he asked what was “going on with recruitment here,” met with applause from the audience.

Diaz, a professor of creative writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the fiction editor at Boston Review, proceeded to take audience questions about education, identity, social media and his heritage.

Referring to the group of students as “gang” and speaking with the same potency found in his expletive-riddled writing, Diaz spoke at length about identity and the perception that it is formulaic and singular.

“We have become deeply addicted to these forms,” he said, speaking about strict cultural, national and gender identities that pervade the modern world. “We are looking for excuses to reject people.”

Diaz, who said he identifies with his Dominican heritage and his African heritage, reminded the audience that he was equally critical of both. Instead of using knowledge and technology to become “deep allies,” he suggested that opposing ethnic groups have chosen to become “competitors.”

Rina Hernandez, president of El Grito de Lares, organized the event, and was in touch with the author in order to coordinate the event.

Hernandez said she was looking to bring an engaging and popular speaker and to create “a welcoming space to have the Fordham community engage in a relevant, much-needed discussion (regarding race, identity, community, perceptions, activism, etc).”

Citing “deep, meaningful exchanges between Junot and the attendees,” she said the event achieved these goals.
The event also offered Dominican food, including picadera (finger foods) like carne frita (beef), queso frito (fried cheese) and tostones (fried green plantain).

One of Diaz’s biggest focuses was on the pressures that today’s college students face. He noted that when he was a college student at Rutger’s 25 years ago, he was not seen as a “customer,” but someone with more freedom.

“I had four years to surround myself in the arts and with artists and think about what it is like being a person,” he said. Speaking to higher education more broadly, he continued: “It was less about making money but ‘what the hell do I really care about.’”

“Mr. Diaz is one of few professors to have addressed the issue of university being turned into a business that profits from the students who have more recently become its “customers,” said Erin Ward, GSB ’18, who was present for the event. “It was refreshing to hear the acknowledgment of this unspoken practice and to understand that it is up to us to change our experience and allow ourselves the time to grow as individuals in an institute that seems to constantly look at us as an investment rather than individuals.”

Diaz, in answering audience questions, was quick to connect his talking points with some of the characters in his own work, namely the title character in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

The “big joke” of the novel, he explained, was that the protagonist constantly experiences rejection.

Using words that cannot be printed in The Fordham Ram, he used the opportunity to disparage the “scripts” that other people write for us, and that many try to conform to over their lifetimes.

“Many of us are not friends to ourselves,” he continued. “We want to fit in a neater box, a cuter box. It’s not worth it.”

“Freedom,” he said, “is not cutting pieces of yourself off.”

Ramon Cabral, FCRH ’14, who is the former president of El Grito de Lares, suggested that the event was an opportunity for students to expose themselves to an author of color.

“I think that American readers are not as exposed to different authors of different perspectives as I believe they should be. In an ever increasing diverse population, one of the ways that Americans can try and identify with them is by seeing things through their perspective,” Cabral said.

“An initial step,” Cabral suggested, “is to read authors of color, or females, or of the LGBTQ community because they give an insight to some of the struggles of that community, but also to go further and actually engage with these communities with an open mind and an open heart.”

Alyssa Melendez, FCRH ’16, who is the treasurer of Academia Hispana, said the event helped her better understand her college experience.

“As a senior it made me reflect on my journey and how much I struggled to find myself and what I wanted to pursue,” Melendez said. “Mr. Diaz said that the difference between a student and customer is that students are not meant to be made to feel comfortable, because in order to grow there has to be moments of discomfort. Once I realized that it was OK to embrace the uncomfortable feeling of the unknown, I became a student rather than a customer.”

Diaz, who was born in Santo Domingo, recently made headlines when he was criticized by the Dominican Republic’s consul in New York and stripped of an Order of Merit medal. The reaction followed outspoken criticism of the Dominican Republic immigration policies.

Though Diaz was not asked about the criticism during his talk at Fordham, he decried the “simplistic” and constructed ideas of identity, saying: “People criticize the Dominican government, then they say you are anti-Dominican.”