Junot Díaz Speaks at Amherst on Immigration and Family
Issue   |   Tue, 03/06/2018 - 20:59
Photo Courtesy of Jacob Gendelman '20
Award-winning author Junot Diaz (right) spoke on March 2 at Lit Fest, a three-day literary festival founded by The Common editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker ’00 (left), who facilitated the conversation with Díaz.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz spoke to the college community on March 2 in Johnson Chapel. The event was a part of Lit Fest, a three-day literary festival that celebrates the college’s literary history by inviting distinguished writers to campus. Lit Fest is sponsored by Amherst College-affiliated literary magazine The Common, the Emily Dickinson Museum and the Center for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI).

Martha Umphrey, director of the CHI, introduced Díaz as “one of the most remarkable writers working in the U.S. today.” Díaz’s writing melds together Spanish and English and explores combinations of different styles, including academic prose and street language, as well as science fiction and melodrama, according to Umphrey.

Díaz is most renowned for his works “Drown,” “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “This is How You Lose Her,” all of which have won several prestigious writing awards. Díaz received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008 and the title of National Book Award Finalist in 2012.

Díaz began the talk by reading his essay, “Money,” which recounts childhood memories of his mother sending money back to the Dominican Republic. Upon returning home from a short vacation, Díaz’s family discovers that neighborhood thieves had stolen their remittances. Díaz learns that his friends were the thieves, and after going to great lengths to reclaim the money, Díaz proudly presents it to his mother. He receives no reaction from his mother, however.

After his reading, Díaz transitioned into a conversation with The Common Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Acker ’00. Acker began by asking Díaz why he chose to write about this particular episode in “Money.”

“I think that most of us know the particularity of most of our lives that we don’t hear in literature,” Díaz answered. “It spends more energy erasing lives of people of color or immigrants than it does in any way presenting them.”

Díaz said that even a small thing like remittances begins to show the everyday details of those experiences and speaks against the shortage of narratives about immigrant lives.

Acker then proceeded to discuss the children’s book Díaz is currently working on, “Island War.” The book follows a young girl named Lola as she completes a class assignment for which she has to draw her home country. As Lola tries to collect details about a place she doesn’t remember, she must use her imagination to fill in the gaps. When asked asked why he chose to write about a young girl seeking information about a home she doesn’t know, Díaz responded by comparing the different experiences among siblings from immigrant families.

“Some siblings remember the place they’re from, others don’t. Some siblings are fluent in the language, others say they’re fluent until you test them,” Díaz said. “It’s a good reality, a good conflict that many of us carry.”

The conversation then moved to discussing Díaz’s already-published books, and Acker asked why most of Díaz’s characters aren’t middle-aged adults. Díaz noted that for many parents, especially immigrant parents, most of their time is spent working to support their families. “I was just trying to capture that reality,” he said.

Díaz also discussed the odd dynamics surrounding age, in which society “fetishizes youth” and simultaneously “pathologizes aging.”

“I think it’s a way that society makes sure that nobody gets respect,” he said as he reflected on the ways both the young and old are mocked.

Acker also asked about how Díaz developed his writing style, which consists of “insider” details about the Dominican Republic and informative footnotes to catch up uninformed readers. “We model what we expect from readers by having been readers ourselves, and not every book makes the same expectations of us,” Díaz said.

He emphasized that the experience of reading a text that resists the reader is ultimately rewarding, despite its difficulty.
Díaz talked about figuring out how to accurately present a scenario, like his family’s Christmas Eve or watching the first Star Wars movie with his siblings. “You try to find ways of representing deeper issues and deeper themes,” Díaz said.

Acker followed up by asking how Díaz uses language to convey difficult and intense emotions. Writers struggle with conveying character, Díaz answered, especially those not often seen.

Díaz used the example of the intense, seductive Dominican girl. “If you’ve ever had the strange pleasure of that seduction, you’re in for it,” he said. “For those of us who haven’t, it’s hard to communicate it.”

Acker concluded the conversation by mentioning an essay Díaz wrote after the 2016 election titled, “Under Trump, Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon.” She asked what Díaz meant by that phrase and how he puts it into practice.

Díaz referenced the work of University of Chicago professor Jonathan Lear, whose research centers around indigenous communities. He stressed the “radical hope” indigenous communities had in spite of their circumstances and suggested that we hold the same hope in our ancestors. “If your community that helps create hope inside of you only includes the living, you have a very specific set of parameters for where hope comes from,” Díaz said.

The talk ended with a Q&A session, during which Díaz discussed respectability politics, misogyny in his books and being romanticized as a person of color. The Q&A was followed by a book signing.

Zavi Sheldon ’18, who attended the event, said she enjoyed how Díaz described resistance.

“He was talking about breaking small rules, and how when you’re asked to break a really big rule, you’re already warmed up and ready to say no,” Sheldon said. “I really liked that.”

Robin Kong ’21, who also attended the event, was surprised to by the contrast between Díaz in person and Díaz as an author.

“My only knowledge of the author was based off of his books … so I was shook to see how nonchalant he was and how willing he was to break that stigma of respectability,” Kong said. “That really gave a certain ambiance of familiarity.”