Junot Diaz speaks at Carnegie Mellon

Last Monday, author Junot Diaz visited campus in an event presented by AB Lectures. Addressing a more than half-empty auditorium, he tried to have a conversation with the audience on being writers, learning in an ultra-technical environment like Carnegie Mellon, and existing outside of culture.

Diaz began by reading the short story “Boyfriend” from his 1996 collection, Drown, that describes the relationship between a man and his upstairs neighbor who has just been left by her boyfriend. He read this first as a way to jump into one of his main philosophies about writing, which is showing humans through their relationships. He said it was “almost impossible to see a character outside of their relationships” and that pages of description can never accomplish the same effect as the interaction between creations.

Diaz has a gift for describing these interactions. His use of conversational dialogue, body language, and creation of what can best be described as awkward moments give reality to his fiction. But these relationships also describe class, race, and personal differences between his characters, themes that drive his work.

Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to New Jersey when he was 6. He understands well the idea of being an outsider, but suggests we are all outsiders to certain cultures. This is where The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, his first novel, succeeds. By creating a novel that shifts between conditions of a Trujillo-dominated Dominican Republic, the trials of puberty in Jersey, and the science-fiction and comic-book world of a socially inept teenage boy, Diaz gives readers enough context to find something to connect to, while leaving plenty of other elements open for exploration.

While his novel has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Sargent First Novel Prize, Diaz remains humble and maintains that he is not yet in the class of writers who can, in his words, get “that square-bottled Hawaiian water at their readings.” And even though he isn’t there, he likes the lower pressure of not being a top-tier writer. He can continue to write whatever he wants without constant revisions by editors — and can keep reading, an activity he believes necessary for modern writers.

On life at Carnegie Mellon

Apart from reading and writing, Diaz focused in his talk on life at Carnegie Mellon. Diaz currently serves as an associate professor of creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Teaching at such a technology-focused school has made him aware of another culture, that of the students who change their lives to fit in at such a place. He spoke of the discipline required and the huge sacrifices students have to make to succeed at universities, but he worries that compassion and empathy are the first things students remove from their lives. He joked that this dedication could drive students to inexplicable things. He said of these students, if their hand was stuck in a trap they would immediately volunteer seemingly straightforward solutions like “I can saw this shit off.”

On the same day Diaz visited us, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao was announced as the winner of The Morning News’ (www.themorningnews.org) Tournament of Books, an Internet hipster book contest, something the tech-obsessed Carnegie Mellon populace can likely align themselves with. Yet the crowd’s questions focused more on his writing process, what to read, and how closely Oscar’s life mirrors Diaz’s own.

The empty chairs in the room represented all the students who couldn’t tear themselves away from their own work to come hear a popular writer speak. Diaz’s words seem to ring true: The discipline required to cut it at Carnegie Mellon keeps people away from the seriously talented speakers who frequent our classrooms and auditoriums; students are too busy amputating their own limbs to survive.

On reading

Diaz devoted part of his lecture to recommending other novels for students to read. If you need some help getting started (and decide not read Diaz’s own novel) here are some books that he recommends:

Texaco — Patrick Chamoiseau
Midnight’s Children — Salman Rushdie
Almanac of the Dead — Leslie Marmon Silko
A Fine Balance — Rohinton Mistry