My Brief Wondrous Rendezvous with Junot Diaz


“I can’t believe it! Junot Diaz is coming here!” were the sort of excited squeals that could be heard around Clark leading up to September 30th, part of a high pitched, giddy enthusiasm that would find at a One Direction concert. Having read only a few short works of his, and curious to explore more of the Junot phenomenon, I was determined to attend this session. Junot Diaz addressed the Clark community as part of the Presidential Lecture series for 2014—an initiative organized by the President’s Office to bring in visionaries and doers who embody the values of Clark. A great number of students seemed to think that Junot Diaz was a terrific choice judging by the crowd that staked out the best seats in Atwood Hall hours before the lecture, and the even bigger throng that filled the hall to full capacity. President David Angel welcomed the audience to the lecture and Professor Paul Posner of the Political Science Department introduced the speaker. Junot Diaz stepped onto the stage at this point and began his lecture. The first few words he uttered put an emphatic end to the formalities that had been observed junot2earlier, as he asked something to the effect of “Yo, what’s up homies?” This was an unexpected turn of events, and I could see a number of those in the audience laughing and shooting one another quizzical looks simultaneously. Presidential Lecture speakers are not expected to talk like a 19 year old college student, was perhaps the thought running through their heads. But this, as we have come to know through his writing, is Junot’s style. His mix of colloquialism and grandiloquent language is no affectation, it is part of him. And so we were treated to over an hour of this remarkable combination, peppered with (the fairly frequent) expletives. What is most astounding however, is how smooth his speech is. My assumption had always been that almost all authors are better represented on paper than in the flesh, yet Junot Diaz brought this notion crashing down in a pile of rubble. He was eloquent at all times, employing a vast vocabulary and interesting turns of phrases to state unique perspectives on a number of topics. I was particularly struck by three large meta-issues that he spoke of – misogyny, cultural intersectionality and the state of living in the margins. I was fascinated by his thoughts on misogyny, of it being a consistent and continuous phenomenon the world over. “It’s almost like it has a diplomatic passport.” He went on to elaborate that misogyny exists in the developed world – with a different face, perhaps – as much as in the developing world. Additionally, he believes feminism to be as much a construct of the developing world, embodied by grassroots level movements, as it is the brainchild of liberal democracies in the western hemisphere. His views on immigration and cultural identity were no less interesting. Junot spoke of how, as a Dominican-American “living on the hyphen,” he was constantly presented with the ultimatum – choose one culture/identity or the other. He called this out as a fallacy, stating that we should move away from forcing this choice and start thinking about simultaneity—the process of multiple, perhaps antithetical, cultures and elements of identity existing at once. Lastly, he addressed the concept of living in the margins – from Haitian immigrants being the “afterthought of the afterthought” in the Dominican Republic to New Jersey being so near and yet so far from the Big Apple. There was much that he hadjunot3 to say on the topic, but the most salient point he made was by quoting another to say that while the most profitable and salable art is produced in the center, art that is more sublime – the poignant and deep – comes from the margins. His lecture ended all too soon, leaving me to ponder his one-of-a-kind wisdom. I left Atwood Hall a little bit wiser, a little more informed, and grateful for the opportunity to absorb the words of one who has seen and understood so much. Oh, all that and a copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with a rather personalized autograph.
                                                                                               – Themal Ellawala
– Photo credits: Carlos Deschamps

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