“Being an immigrant is fascinating,” Junot Diaz said to the crowd. “They give you the American rule book and then you see the exact opposite happening on the ground.”
Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer best known for his novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” spoke to an audience of nearly 1,000 Penn students, faculty and Philadelphia residents last night in the Penn Museum’s Harrison Auditorium.
In September, Diaz published a collection of short stories titled, “This is How You Lose Her,” his first book since “Oscar Wao” in 2007, which tells the story of a nerdy Dominican boy struggling with his Dominican heritage. He was also recently awarded the prestigious MacArthur “genius” Fellowship.
The subject of Diaz’s talk covered his personal history, his thoughts on the Caribbean legacy and the lack of honest discourse on race issues in the United States. “I was an immigrant and the first thing I was taught was that if anyone brings up race, bring up economics. If someone brings up race a second time, say, ‘You’re obsessed with race.’ And my third lesson was if anyone brings up race a third time, say, ‘Well, that’s exactly what’s keeping you guys back. You talk about race too much.’”
Students and faculty alike appreciated Diaz’s honesty. College sophomore Camilla Brandfield-Harvey said, “I love how he discussed how those who are marginalized and those who are privileged intersect, how every group creates each other.”
“For another person, this is science fiction. For me, I’m like, ‘this is the Caribbean,’” Diaz said.
The event was hosted by the Penn Humanities Forum as part of a series on “peripheries,” that has already brought Immanuel Wallerstein, a sociologist from Yale and Margaret Livingstone, a neurobiologist from Harvard. “We try to come up with interesting speakers who represent various pieces of the humanities,” professor James English, director of the PHF, said. “We don’t have a preconception of what the humanities must be, or ought to be.”
The engaged audience responded to Diaz with murmurs of agreement as well as laughs, since the talk turned out to be funny as well as informative.
“I liked the way he blended serious intellectual aspects with what was almost a stand-up routine. I’m waiting for him to show up on Comedy Central,” College sophomore Jackson Kulas said. “He presented the ideas in a way that was very dialogue-based … without using the language of academia.”
College senior Lianna Brenner echoed this sentiment. “He’s really dynamic and fun to read, and speaks to this generation.”
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