Brooklyn BookBeat: ‘Oscar Wao’ Author Draws Overflow Crowd to St. Francis College

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Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” spoke at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights on Thursday. Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese

Junot Díaz fans spilled out onto Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights Thursday evening, eager to hear the Pulitzer Prize-winning author speak about his work at a St. Francis College event. While the fortunate ones packed the school’s Founders Hall, Díaz generously treated the crowd that was turned away to an impromptu discussion before the event began, expressing his gratitude that so many people turned up. The “overflow room,” as he called it, was able to watch the event live on St. Francis College’s Periscope channel.

Díaz, whose 2007 novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” was recently named the best novel of the 21st century to date by BBC Culture, was visiting St. Francis College as the latest speaker in the school’s Walt Whitman Writers Series.

Before reading, he took the time to get a feel for his audience, polling the crowd to see how many students, immigrants, Latinos, people of African descent, folks from the Caribbean and New Jersey people were present. “I’m trying to see how many people here are stuck in my categories,” he explained.

Díaz read from his first book, a collection of stories titled “Drown,” highlighting a piece called “Boyfriend,” which he revealed was inspired by his days spent living on State Street in Brooklyn in the early ’90s. “I wrote this story because of my crazy Brooklyn neighbors,” he shared, before launching into the passage, which features a narrator who keenly observes his downstairs neighbors, referred to merely as “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend.” Bringing the scene to life with an animated delivery of his character’s poignant, vulgar and often hilarious musings, Díaz drew a steady stream of laughter from the crowd.

“Spillover gang, I hope that you’re OK,” he called out at the end of his reading, remembering the faithful who were watching onscreen.

Díaz was joined by Isaac Fitzgerald, editor at Buzzfeed Books, for a discussion that focused largely on the underrepresentation of minority writers in contemporary popular literature. “Literature in the U.S. is so white it hurts your f***king teeth,” Díaz said, adding that minority writers are plentiful but are “not being given the space and the attention our community deserves.”

He spoke at length about minority women writers in particular, reflecting on a time when “women of color were completely revolutionizing literature … I still remember debates that were happening with Toni Morrison and Alice Walker … The folks we were so unused to hearing from were going to be the center of the conversation … [but] it turned out that [did not end up being] the case.”

When asked how we might address such issues, Díaz suggested that we “challenge the status quo” and “read more rebelliously … If you haven’t read a great novel by a queer writer, you’ve gotta do it,” he urged. He praised high school teachers for passing on good books to each other and to their students. “Art is not gonna survive unless we commit ourselves to it,” he added.

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Díaz infuses his books with a distinctly candid narrative voice that reflects his own background, allowing readers a raw and intimate view into the complex and compelling characters and scenes he constructs. In addition to “Oscar Wao” and “Drown,” Díaz has published the New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist This Is How You Lose Her.” 

He acknowledged the autobiographical comparisons that some of his characters invite, explaining that Yunior, the protagonist in several of his stories, “[is] a sort of alter ego for me.” Díaz spoke about his “traumatic” childhood, growing up poor and witnessing much violence and hardship. “I organized Yunior as a way to allow me to access that,” he shared, adding that while Yunior may lie to everyone in his life — particularly to women — “he always tells the truth to whoever’s reading the book. That contradiction felt very valuable.”

Perhaps Díaz’s characters are so compelling because of his commitment to “world-building.” “People don’t make sense unless we understand their world,” the author emphasized. “By understanding the world, we understand what it means to make the decisions the person under the lens is making.”

While he strives to make his characters relatable, Díaz acknowledges that writers cannot dictate whom or what a reader will identify with. “You guys love books about vampires … they don’t exist,” he joked.

When asked about whether he ever worries about his representation of Dominican men, Díaz quipped, “I never hear white writers being asked, ‘Do you feel weird representing white people?’ As people of color we have this unfair burden … we’re supposed to be this hyper-representation.” He also suggested that being super specific in the creation of characters is what makes them more accessible. “You will have universal effects in your work by being specific … even if people are different from us, we can feel connected to them.”

In spite of his remarkable literary career — for which he has received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and PEN/Malamud Award, as well as the Pulitzer and other accolades — Díaz’s demeanor is as down-to-earth and approachable as his writing. He made sure to thank the St. Francis community, specifically all of those who made the event possible but might not have been acknowledged. “There’s a whole bunch of people who do a whole bunch of stuff behind the scenes,” he noted.

He also paid particular attention to a group of high school students in the crowd, engaging them in conversation and ensuring that a couple of them had the chance to ask questions. In response to one student who asked a question very specific to a line in one of his books, Díaz said, “The answer is whatever you guys decide is the best answer. That is the nature of art; there are multiple answers, [but] you get something better than an answer … you get insight. I know that’s a sh*tty answer, but it’s really the one I believe in.”

Díaz was the 12th writer to visit St. Francis College for the Walt Whitman Series, which continues to bring top contemporary authors to Brooklyn Heights to share their work and writing experiences with students, faculty and the surrounding community. Previous authors include Charles Baxter, George Saunders, James Salter, Colum McCann, Ben Marcus, Dinaw Mengestu, Kate Christensen, Julie Orringer, Jonathan Lethem, Darcey Steinke and Rick Moody.

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