The Mildred & Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall nearly filled to capacity on April 7 as College students enthusiastically welcomed Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Dominican native Junot Díaz.
Many attendees filed in toting Díaz’s most notorious work, “Oscar Wao.” The free event was organized and sponsored by Unión Latina as a part of Latino Awareness Celebration Month.
Lisa Ortiz, professor of English, who teaches both Díaz’s short story “Drown” and “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” in her classes, proudly introduced the New Jersey native.
Díaz, she said, “knows how to write as if his life depends on it.”
Díaz approached the podium and read an excerpt about infidelity from his new book, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars.” As the audience erupted into laughter, Díaz continued reading, bringing color to the stark hall.
“If you put a little cheating in anything . people will read that crap . we’re soap-opera-like beings,” Díaz said.
“That is exactly why I enjoy his work,” Kacey Reichhard, senior nursing major, said. “He takes a serious situation and finds the humor in it. For me, novels are a way to escape everyday life, and Díaz’s books successfully achieve this.”
During the question and answer session, Justin Mancini, freshman English major, asked Díaz about the effect his novel’s success has had on him.
“It is a great honor,” Díaz said, “(but) it doesn’t mean anything.”
Díaz, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for “Oscar Wao,” explained that writing is not a muscle you can build up and train.
“Someone with no experience can come out of left field, have incredible talent, no experience, and hit it out of the park . You are essentially a beginner every time,” he said. “This makes him more terrified than humbled, proud or celebratory.”
Díaz, who has an undeniable love of the art, believes that writing is a field in which you spend “a lot of time lost.”
Throughout his presentation, Díaz maintained a lighthearted atmosphere through purposeful articulation and audience-appropriate language.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with someone, who clearly has mastered the English language, using curse words in his art. It’s a style decision that enriches his work and gives it character,” Jennifer Lubin, senior accounting major, said.
When Robin Shoblock, senior special education major, questioned whether his word choices would make his book appropriate if presented to 16 year olds in an educational environment, Díaz paused before replying, “That’s like asking me, so, are you ugly?”
His response, which prompted instant laughter from both Shoblock and the audience, was meant to express that he has a personal investment in his book so he could not answer objectively.
Instead, he took this opening as an opportunity to discuss what he views as a bigger problem: the demise of art education. Díaz explained if real art education was thoroughly taught, nudity, language and sex would not be so shocking or taboo. He joked that students now are more equipped with knowledge about fire drills than art education.
“Our system punishes exploration whereas art invites you to make mistakes . to be wrong,” he said.
“If real art education was still taught it would be acceptable to make mistakes, because . you cannot find something new without being wrong,” he said.
Díaz grew up between Exits 9 and 18 on the New Jersey Turnpike. He said writing about New Jersey was like “showing up to a table full of food while everyone else runs to a restaurant that has no seats available.”
Díaz tackled all questions with thoughtful responses, even when he was confronted by a curious audience member about his casual use of Spanish words without footnotes.
He said, “It is not to illuminate your ignorance or to express superiority . it is to invite you to form community, to reach out to other people.”