Junot Díaz, MFA ’95, came to America from the Dominican Republic as a young boy speaking no English and quickly learned the language from books in the public library.
“Like many immigrant kids, I had a very blended experience” growing up in New Jersey, said the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, who returned to campus Reunion Weekend for the 2015 Olin Lecture, June 5 in Bailey Hall. “You find ways to survive in a place that pretty much goes out of its way to hate you. … I figured out nobody could say s--- about your accent when you are reading inside your head.”
The lecture was a “discussion of life and work” between Díaz and President David J. Skorton. “One of the most innovative writers of his generation, or any generation,” Díaz has had “a remarkable trajectory” from his early beginnings, Skorton said in his introduction.
Asked about his early schooling, love of books and fascination with apocalyptic stories, Díaz, 46, said that reading helped him “to understand a new country.”
“I was 11 when Ronald Reagan was running for office,” he said, and on his paper route he’d devour the newspaper coverage of “the sort of nuclear, chauvinistic saber-rattling that went on during that election. … I was convinced the United States and the Soviet Union were going to incinerate each other. The reason I loved more movies and books and stories where the world ended was because I figured I needed the training.”
Díaz’s MFA thesis became his first novel in 1997, “Drown” – and his second book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2008. He made its titular protagonist, a pop culture geek of Dominican heritage, apolitical – but Oscar represented all of the complexities a person of his ethnicity faces living in America. “This Is How You Lose Her,” a National Book Award finalist, was published in 2013.
Díaz is fiction editor of the Boston Review and a professor of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2012 he received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly known as a “genius award.”
When he came to Cornell in the 1990s, the writing faculty was less diverse than it is now, he and Skorton pointed out; and Díaz joined a group of Latino students who set out to make change on campus.
“The years we were here were an extraordinary time,” he said. “It felt like we were the first generation to put everything on the line. We ended up getting six faculty lines in U.S.-Latino studies, and we ended up getting a Latino Living Center.”
In the Q-and-A following the lecture, Díaz talked about the importance of bi- and multilingualism in promoting understanding, and in preserving culture and community even in the face of anti-immigrant sentiment – and “the dread monolinguists” Vladimir Nabokov once bemoaned.
“I quickly learned English, then lost all of my language, and then had to re-acquire my Spanish,” he said. “And now, I don’t have any idea what an original language is anymore. But who wouldn’t want to encourage a young person to learn two languages? … The more we keep alive, the more we will have the chance to give the future the tools it needs.”
A book signing on Bailey Plaza followed the program.