A report by Dan Glaun for Mass Live.
Author Junot Diaz delivered a raw, funny and bracingly uncondescending talk to a crowd of high school and college students at Springfield Technical Community College Tuesday morning,
Diaz, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant, urged his audience to value art and personal authenticity, opened up about his background growing up in a poor Dominican family in New Jersey and discussed the barriers that faced him as he sought to become a writer.
“I often think about the absolute odds that were against folks like me and folks in my community to receive an education,” Diaz said. “There was absolutely no money for education, and nobody was slipping us even a hundred dollars to go buy books.”
Diaz, a creative writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, answered a number of questions with reflections on how the intersection of emotional struggles and societal racism and sexism made his personal story so unlikely.
In between moments of levity — “I don’t know if you’ve ever done any public speaking, this shit is terrible,” he said early in the talk – Diaz held little back, describing a cultural “derangement” that makes discussions of race and class difficult in America.
“I teach at MIT, and they’re considered the brightest and best. Students will be like, there’s no sexism. And forget a conversation about racism,” Diaz said. “We still have a large group of people that are literally on the crack pipe on denial.”
The exhaustion facing students who work their way through college, compared to those who can focus on their studies due to their parents’ financial support. Self-hatred that afflicts minority students when they learn from an early age that they are not expected to succeed in school. The legacies of overt racism and housing discrimination that make a college education seem unimaginable for many.
All are challenges that black, poor and Latino students must reckon disproportionately reckon with, Diaz said.
“My mom didn’t have any idea what college was. For her, it was an abstraction more than anything — something that was good,” he said.
He survived through competitive grit, he said. He knew what it was to work – he grew up in a military family that expected kids to get jobs early and help out with the family finances. But that drive did not immediately translate into academic skills he had not been exposed to as a child, he said.
“When I got to grad school with kids who had gone to Harvard, Yale and Cornell, I felt it,” Diaz said. “There’s no way a class room is going to defeat someone who survived being poor in this country But it takes learning you might have a deficit in skills.”
Diaz has earned popular and critical acclaim for his fiction, which often centers on the immigrant experience, Dominican American culture and the complexities of his characters’ interpersonal relationships.
He was driven to write by both his love of books and absence in those books of people who looked like him, he said – poor, Latino, immigrant, Dominican.
“It looks like if I don’t write this, ain’t nobody going to write it,” he said. “There’ s nothing like being a perpetual ghost in your own country to create in you a desire to alter that reality.”
Diaz also said students should work to shed the fears and personal “masks” that stop them from sincerely engaging with their education, their passions and other people. Too many of his students waste energy trying to be “cute, smart or cool,” in the classroom, and too many men –himself include — wall themselves off from appearing vulnerable, he said.
“Your dream is the one you dreamed all by yourself, and that really scares you, because you’re not going to get support for it,” Diaz said.
He described art as a form of cultural transgression. And as if to prove the point, Diaz read his short story “Alma,” an elegiacally sad and sexually raw tale of infidelity that drew nervous laughter from the high schoolers in the audience who had never heard anything that explicit on a field trip.
“Art allows you to have access to your best self,” Diaz said. “What we have done as artists is we have preserved for a little bit longer what is valuable about this whole civilization, which is our humanity.”