Writers@Drew: Junot Díaz Talks Identity, Decolonization, and Dominicanidad

by Caitlin Shannon, Student Life & Arts Editor

Monday night Dominican-American author Junot Díaz, a New York Times best seller and National Book Award finalist, came and spoke at Drew as part of the Writer@Drew series co-sponsored by the English Department and the Casement Fund. These readings are generally held in Mead Hall, but such a big name merited a trip across the street to the Concert Hall to hear Díaz read from his work and answer questions.

Just like his characters, Díaz is honest, straightforward, and most importantly, familiar. Walking onto the stage empty handed and with his coat still on, Díaz immediately put the audience at ease with his laidback nature. Having forgot his book, he borrowed a copy from an audience member and somehow made a 440 seat Concert Hall feel like a casual conversation between friends. After surveying the audience for native New Jerseyans, Latinxs, and people of African descent (“Notice that those are all the communities I belong to,” said Díaz), he read an excerpt from A Cheater’s Guide to Love from his short-story collection “This is How You Lose Her”.

The rest of the reading involved Díaz fielding questions from the audience, not only about his books, but about the state of the country, male sexuality, public education and inclusion for marginalized communities. A question from an audience member prompted a long discussion of male sexuality, particularly how male sexuality is criminalized in POC, Latinx and Caribbean communities. Díaz referenced the 2016 election cycle in which a candidate declared all Mexican men to be rapists and then proceeded to be elected. Speaking to his own character, Yunior, Díaz said, “Is the way Yunior talks Yunior’s fault? Or is it the way we fucking raise boys in our society?” forcing the audience to think deeply about how the patriarchy is not only harmful to women, but also men, especially as they figure out their sexualities.

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The rest of the discussion focused mainly around education, after a public school teacher from Union City asked how she could incorporate more diverse literature into her curriculum to get her students involved and excited about reading and writing. Díaz then discussed how ‘diversity’ is such a hot term in education, but what we should really be pushing for is decolonization– “stop rewarding whiteness for whiteness sake,” he said. Bookshelves and public school literature/writing curriculums should be filled not only with stories about marginalized communities, but with the voices of those people themselves through a conscious decision to include more POC, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ authors. He acknowledged the difficulty of this due to the rigidity of standardized curriculums and conceded that public education is in peril. “We have starved young children of their future because we have starved public education,” he admitted.

The audience was filled with Drew students and faculty along with many members of the Madison community and a group of high school students with their teachers from Union City. Telling by the resounding applause at the end of the reading and the line that formed in the DOYO lobby as people waited for autographs and chances to speak with Díaz, the entire audience enjoyed the conversation. Aurie Flores (’19), one of those waiting for Díaz after the event ended, shared her thoughts on the talk saying, “I was shocked at how laid back he was and thought that what he said during his talk was very relevant and uplifting; especially considering that I’m Latina, his words meant a lot. He’s an amazing person and writer and I’m so happy I got to meet him!”

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