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Author Junot Díaz on immigrants, family, criticism

According to his family, a smart immi­grant kid like Junot Díaz was sup­posed to become a doctor. If he failed, he could become an engineer.

So it was incred­ibly hard for Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-​​winning author of the novel “The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao,” to tell his mother that he was going to become an author.

“It was a big shocker. And I won’t lie: Believe it or not, my family is still pro­foundly dis­ap­pointed,” said Díaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. “Those cul­tural acknowl­edge­ments you get as a writer don’t mean any­thing to immigrants.”

A Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology pro­fessor of writing and fic­tion editor at the Boston Review, his new col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, “This Is How You Lose Her,” debuted this fall as a New York Times bestseller.

Díaz addressed stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff on Thursday in Blackman Audi­to­rium for an event in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties’ Dean’s Lec­ture Series. It was co-​​sponsored by the Human­i­ties Center and the Boston Review.

Like his writing, Díaz’s talk was funny, frank and fre­quently crass.

He read the title story from his new short-​​story col­lec­tion — pausing at one point to urge a parent to cover her young child’s ears for a par­tic­u­larly spe­cific ref­er­ence to sex. He then fielded ques­tions from audi­ence mem­bers, who broached topics such as his family, his edu­ca­tion at Rut­gers, the pur­pose of his writing and the role his immi­grant status plays in crit­ical per­cep­tion of his work.

Díaz said he has been pegged as a writer of “immi­grant fic­tion,” a term he shuns.

“There happen to be immi­grants in the book, so you’re an immi­grant writer,” Díaz said. “That’s like saying, ‘There happen to be [people] with hats in you’re book; you’re a hat writer.’ ”

Díaz explained that he writes books that address a wide range of topics com­prising family, mas­culinity, writing, and yes, immi­gra­tion, knowing that readers are capable of making nuanced judgments.

“I knew that for a man of color, a man of African descent, an immi­grant from a very poor com­mu­nity, I knew that surely my allies were not going to be the shib­bo­leths of crit­i­cism,” Díaz said. “My allies had to be readers because I am a reader. And readers are incred­ibly gen­erous. Readers fall in love with the strangest [stuff]. You’ll fall in love with a book that’s 20 per­cent Elvish. You just will.”

“Readers are incred­ibly gen­erous and they’re incred­ibly tol­erant,” he con­tinued. “Have you ever tried to talk a reader out of a book they love? No, just give it a shot. Try to talk them out of their favorite book and you’ll encounter the kind of ortho­doxies that make some of our reli­gious abso­lutists look mild.”

Most of the audi­ence mem­bers were Díaz fans, but the author also asked stu­dents to raise their hands if their pro­fes­sors required them to attend the lec­ture, the same way he’d asked New Jersey natives and immi­grants to iden­tify them­selves at the start of his talk. He often requires his stu­dents to attend events or per­for­mances that they might oth­er­wise skip.

“I do think it’s OK to sort of compel stu­dents to go see artists,” Díaz said. “Basi­cally we live in a cul­ture that thinks of art as at best a friv­o­lity and at worst as a kind of dan­gerous and absurd pas­time. And yet of course, anyone who is really inter­ested in the arts and takes the arts seri­ously … knows that the foun­da­tion of what we call our civic society is what we call the arts. The arts have a way of opening up dis­cus­sion and dia­logue in a way that very few prac­tices do.”

– by Matt Collette

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