From the moment Junot Díaz began speaking during his reading on Monday, he did not hold back. Gripped by the very sentiments he used to propel his career, Díaz inspired the ’62 Center audience to speak up by speaking up himself. After a flattering introduction from Visiting Professor in Democratic Studies Nelly Rosario, Díaz took off.
A Dominican-American writer, professor at MIT and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the MacArthur Fellowship Award and the Hispanic Heritage Award, Díaz conveyed a series of fundamental truths by holding his identity close to his talk and his reading. Toward the beginning, he asked a lot of tough questions: What does it mean to be in a white settler colony tainted by a larger narrative of genocide? What is privilege? How should we think about race? He left these questions open for the audience to grapple with while he read passages from his books This is How You Lose Her and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. After a brief reading, he moved on to a question and answer session where audience members, after confronting his tough questions, returned to him a few tough questions of their own.
The first question posed to Díaz was related to how people of color should hold their history, particularly on an international scale, where we see different ways in which people of color hold to their traditions and cultures. The asker used the particular example of Cuba. Díaz’s response first acknowledged the complexity of the issue and remained modest in his response. “My knowledge on the Caribbean is very limited,” he said. “We are in a dialogue, but dialogues can be useful.” Díaz mentioned living in a poor neighborhood in New Jersey as a reference point for visiting the Caribbean. He asked a question – why would any poor person be happy to see you? – and then answered it himself. Impoverished people don’t know who you are. In fact, they often see their neighbors as having predatory tendencies. “You can’t just walk in because you’re a cutie. It took me a long time before people were like, ‘Cool.’ They test you.”
Díaz described the relationship in question as one of privilege, especially between study abroad students and places like the Caribbean. “When we come from places of vast privilege to places that have less vast privilege, the interaction is privilege,” he said. While he acknowledged the possibility for this relationship narrative to change, he also acknowledged the difficulties in doing so. “One has to prove one’s relationship. If you go back to Cuba 20 times, something will begin to change,” Díaz said.
After noting this disconnect between visitor and location, he explained its source: Places like Cuba were the sites of racialized dictatorships. While an individual in America may celebrate blackness, he said, being anti-black in a place like Cuba was a matter of survival. He provided the example of Haiti; when individuals sought to create relationships around blackness, white people sabotaged their attempts to create a unified state. “Society brings hell down upon people that are black,” he said. “Black pride means one thing when your kids are going to be chopped down with a machete.”
The next question asked about divides among the Afro-Latinx community and the resentment between people of lighter and darker skin colors.
First, Díaz acknowledged the problem of privilege. “Certainly, there is a remarkable corpus of privilege. I know many of people who are dark-skinned but have European features. There are people who are of visibly African descent but have hair that gives them bonuses, bodies that give them bonuses.” Díaz recognized the fact that everyone is privileged; “all of us are eating someone else’s lunch,” he said.
He finally suggested an interdisciplinary approach to the issue. “None of us are a pure victim,” he said. “We have all hurt people. If we think we have not availed ourselves of privilege, we begin to answer for some of the stuff we did in the past… Are we talking about orientalism? Are we talking about what it means to be a part of a white settler colony?”
He wrapped up the discussion by talking about Imposter Syndrome. “Imposter Syndrome is hilarious because, when you think about it, you’re at, like, the top 0.1 percent,” he said of students at the College. He recognized the root of this problem as the cult of inauthenticity most destructive for women, women of color and people of color. He then suggested a solution: “Do you have an active map of when this negative self-talk [occurs]?” He proceeded to suggest a series of ways to record negative self-talk. By counting it, he explained, one can bring down the number of self-provoked insults. He also talked about the ways that we all “whip” ourselves. The default response to difficulty, he said, is to attach more barbed wire and whip harder.
He suggested compassion as the answer, reminding the audience of the importance of friendship. “You cannot survive this place with people who are not friends,” he said.
Díaz’s final piece of advice was to focus on the present. He referenced sports as a perfect example of this. “At the ends of today’s fight, we’ll talk about what this season looks like,” he said. “Focus on your life, your living.”