By Emily Blackner
CHESTERTOWN--With its strongly personal voice and memorable characters, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, selected as the first-year read at Washington College for the fall, generated talk all across campus, whether students loved or hated it. The same intense style and personality was evident in the author, Junot Díaz, when he came to Washington College on November 8. The author spent time visiting with creative writing students at the Rose O’Neill Literary House on campus, then gave a public reading and talk that evening.
Díaz was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, before moving to New Jersey with his family. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took many years of hard work to write. “The project was incredibly difficult; there wasn’t really an aspect of the pleasure principle, unfortunately,” Díaz said. “For the most part that doesn’t happen. This book, I just grinded it out,” he said.
“The book has an extremely complex structure so it seems conversational. If you’re interested, you can read it as being told through a fixed set of devices. But there’s also a formal complexity, which withstands multiple readings. That was a challenge to keep up,” he said.
The hard work that went into the book paid off for Díaz. His book won numerous accolades in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and a spot on the “Best Books” lists of major newspapers such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post.
He says those prizes aren’t as meaningful to him as they are to others. “I come from a military family; we were not taught to think like that, not raised to learn that one does things for applause. You do it because of duty.
“I won a Pulitzer, which is a big deal, supposedly,” said Díaz. “But I didn’t take a break to celebrate. I’m very much my family’s son, so it’s hard to think of these things as meaning anything.”
Additionally, Díaz remarked that “winning doesn’t mean your book’s any good, and not winning does not mean it’s bad.” There was one award of which he was especially proud, however: the Dayton Peace Prize. “I feel strongly about that because when I was given it, it acknowledged the power literature and art have in humanizing us,” he said.
“That’s how you stop wars, by humanizing. It recognized art as a peacemaker.”
Díaz’s book blends the cultures of America and the Dominican Republic. However, he said that his background didn’t particularly influence his work. “One should remember that there’s this divide. I’m asked to make what is not a legitimate leap. My background didn’t generate this art, my training and my diligence did. It’s what separates who you are and what you do from creating.
“This is not to say the preoccupations in place and time don’t have bearing on our interests as artists, but interest doesn’t get a book done. It requires absolute commitment and training.”
The author was somewhat hesitant about giving other advice to students. “Young people spend a lot of time hearing old people giving them advice. My experience was that I always wanted less advice and more support.”
He did share some thoughts with aspiring writers, however. “Some seem to have a career tack that’s the same as my friends who want to be dentists. They want to go right from undergrad to grad school, in as little time as possible. It’s somehow a problem to take years off.
“Writing is about being in the world, not sheltering yourself from one institution to another. Experiencing the world and connecting to it gives you something to say about it. Real experience comes from being an adult, in a real narrative. The real world is an enormously powerful place to be; it takes strength to be there. And people are dying for news from the world.”
For students who do not want to pursue writing as a career, Díaz offered this advice: “Life is so short that the only thing that makes it worth living is living your own dream. I spent a good part of my life living other people’s dreams— I’m not angry at myself about it. We live in world where a formula is set up for us.”
It isn’t necessary to follow the formula, however. “Ask yourself every semester, what is my dream? Find your dream,” Díaz said.
He also advocated studying abroad. “That’s what college is good for, study abroad. Go to three continents and try to fall in love on each one. There’s no rush,” Díaz said.
In the evening, Díaz read for a full house at Decker Theatre, which included visitors from the community and from high schools in the region. “If you wrote a transcript of me talking, you’d see the book isn’t really how I talk,” he shared with students. “Try saying one of those sentences to someone. It’s a book trying to convince you that it’s someone talking.”
He also told them that he turned to books as a way to understand the world. “As an immigrant kid with a thick accent, I couldn’t go up to an American kid and ask them questions. Since I couldn’t look to my peers, I tried books.” Because of this, Díaz understands the enduring legacy a book can have. “I wanted to be an artist. Will I create something that matters tomorrow? Relevance past tomorrow—that’s what I’m obsessed with.”
Washington College creative writing students were especially impressed by the novelist and his thoughts on writing. Kimberly Uslin ’14 of New Oxford, PA, said Díaz was “the most brilliant, inspirational speaker I have ever heard.” And her classmate Megan McCurdy, a first-year student from Philadelphia, commented that “hearing him read from and talk about his book made me appreciate it so much more. I want to go back and re-read it a few times. … And he inspired me to want to write a book. He’s just awesome in general.”
Christopher Stokes, a first year creative writing student from Sussex, N.J., agreed the author’s visit was “awesome.” “Junot Díaz was the most bad ass, smart, down to earth nerdy author I have ever heard,” Stokes added. “His talk was very insightful and made me look at how I should approach my own writing and novels in general.”
The winner of the 2010 Sophie Kerr Prize, Hailey Reissman ’10, came down from Wilmington for the event. “I kind of wish I could have Junot Diaz there every day to slam life back into perspective for me, to remind me why we read, why we write, why we’re not alone, and why we go back, again and again, to art, to people, to words, even when they can be so dark, scary, devastating, and hard to handle,” she commented. “It was a great reminder, something I definitely needed to hear in college and definitely still need to hear now.”
After the event, Junot signed books for over an hour and spent some time answering questions both from Washington College students and from high school students who had journeyed from northern Virginia, Delaware, and southern Maryland for the event.
This article is reprinted courtesy of The Elm, the student newspaper at Washington College, with additional reporting on student reactions from Lit House director Mark Nowak. For the full online edition of The Elm, please click here.
Photo: Author Junot Díaz visiting with students in the Literary House. Photo by Ashley Carol-Fingerhut