By Mel Gilcrest ‘19
30 minutes before Díaz walked on stage, Garrison Theater was already full to bursting. The event, “Junot Diaz in Conversation,” had been sold out for months: on the night of September 19th, “Scripps Presents” sponsored the much-anticipated conversation between Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World, and Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and many other works. The wickedly funny, often-profane Díaz quickly hit off a fast-paced and deeply moving conversation with Chang, covering topics as enormous as the power of “radical hope” in the age of Trump and as personal as the politics of love in Dominican families.
Chang’s first question was based in her own experience of Díaz’s first book, Oscar Wao, which she found so cross-culturally specific she ini tially believed she was “the only one in the world who could understand it.” Díaz discussed the hybrid cultures of his home in New Jersey, a place where every disenfranchised group in the world seemed to “bring their grievances.” He claimed that, as he wrote Oscar Wao, he “truly” believed that “only eight people would ever read it”--a mindset he believed gave him the freedom to write without seeking approval, which he beieves is essential to the creative process (or at least his own).
Díaz was quick to point out the difficulties in navigating the world as a person of color, an immigrant, and as a marginalized young student in one of many “neoliberal universities” across the country--a gesture which clearly resonated with many students in the audience. His advice to those struggling with the burdens of expectations, whether from parents, peers, institutions, or our hegemonic white society? “Remember what you are here to do,” Díaz said. “You have a Promethean task ahead of you. You are here to steal fire.” To subvert the “demoralizing and dehumanizing” demands of a society which expects young people to fear and obey the old; people of color to worship and adore whiteness; and artists to “give up what is hard and what will bring delight” in order to seek someone else’s approval, Díaz compelled his audience to restore themselves and recall their agency. “Stop trying not to offend people who find your very existence offensive!” he proclaimed.
“Nothing will devour a person of color’s soul more than the imperative to love whiteness more than you love yourself.”
In a final, moving response to an audience member’s question about parental and financial expectations, Díaz talked for a while about love.
The question followed Díaz’s earlier request that “we first hear from women of African and Indigenous descent” (reminding the audience that those at the “intersections of communities” are often the most silenced); Díaz answered with a candid discussion of his own family’s trauma, poverty, and expectations, concluding drily that, “as our parents were disappointments to us, we must, in turn, be disappointments to them.” He continued, soberly: “At the heart of this is compassion and forgiveness.”
Díaz and Chang left the stage to a thunderous ovation. “I just teared up,” Chang laughed, and she wasn’t alone. Leaving the auditorium, I exchanged laughing and awestruck glances with the people around me, as though we had just witnessed something that, these days, feels almost miraculous: genius, humor, genuine compassion, and a truly radical politics of hope.