At a reading on January 25, author Junot Díaz encouraged an open dialogue with the audience of mostly UVA faculty and students through two generous question-and-answer sessions. He advised students to read to become better writers, because “reading becomes your frame of reference that informs your own work.”
Díaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is visiting Charlottesville as the fourth Kapnick Foundation Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, from January 23 to February 11. In addition to the reading, as part of his residency he will join a public discussion with Njelle Hamilton on February 2 about the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, as well as a public lecture on February 7 on learning to stop “writing white” as a person of color.
Addressing the anxiety of some writers at the reading—that their work won’t be understood as they intended it—he encouraged releasing control as an artist once the work is finished. “The point of literature is that dictators are not welcome,” he said, adding that he delighted in varying interpretations of his own work.
When asked about his thoughts on the debate surrounding trigger warnings—whether they are coddling, or helpful—he warned of what is at stake when we are sucked into emotional warfare. It distracts from solving real-world problems, such as funding for public education. “The best distraction is an emotional one,” he said.
But perhaps the most powerful moment of the evening was when he answered the question of a young woman of color who asked for his advice to marginalized communities. Díaz, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, asked her to consider that she had survived childhood, when she was less equipped to handle the world than she is today. “There’s nothing this society throws at you that you can’t overcome,” Díaz said. “The child who survived is your ethical guide.”
In advance of the reading, Díaz answered some questions for C-VILLE via e-mail. In response to his powerful post-election essay titled “Radical Hope” published in The New Yorker on November 21, we asked what he thought the role of the humanities and writers is after such a political defeat.
“The Hill is reporting that Trump intends to complete the defunding of NEA and the NEH and the question is [why] do regimes like his find arts and humanities so threatening?” Díaz says. “Why are conservatives in general so hostile to arts and humanities education? In part I suspect because both art and the humanities are unmatched in their capacity to expose us to alternative ways of being and feeling and thinking. Arts and humanities encourage critical thinking, nuance and a civic imaginary, and are excellent antidotes to cynicism, impunity, injustice.”
His advice, then, to writers who fear threats to freedom of speech and expression is: “Organize but not only to defend literary culture—organize to defend our civic society,” says Díaz. And for those who imply that the personal can be separated from the political, he writes, “The person and the political are inextricably enmeshed. It’s fine that people say we should ‘get over it.’ And it’s equally all right if we don’t listen to them and continue to fight. I never take advice from people [who] offer me gags.”
So far, not only has his body of work encapsulated the immigrant experience, but a particular character, Yunior de Las Casas, has appeared in, or provided the narrative voice, in all three of his books. Díaz admits Yunior continues to fascinate him. “From everything I can sense inside myself, I have a lot more to say about Yunior. So many silences that he has maintained for so very long, I’d like to explore them before I’m through. But in all honesty I have no idea what the next book is about or who will be in it.”
Díaz’s residency at UVA follows that of James Salter, Caryl Phillips and Lydia Davis. Inspired by William Faulkner’s visit to the university as the Balch Writer-in-Residence from 1956 to 1958, the Kapnick Foundation seeks writers of international acclaim who will contribute to and invigorate the literary culture of the university. An interdepartmental search committee consisting of senior faculty and chaired by Creative Writing Program Director Jane Alison pulled together a “dream sheet,” Jeb Livingood, associate director of the program says. It had both Davis and Diaz on it.
“We’re thrilled to be hosting Junot Díaz for three weeks, during which he’ll be a vibrant member of our arts and social community,” says Alison. And for his part, Díaz said at the reading that the community was “very fortunate” to have the faculty at UVA host such events. Speaking both as a writer and a professor, he said, “We’re here to put you in touch with the human self in a culture preoccupied with surfaces.”