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Acclaimed writer and author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

“Photographer, you know I’m not that cute,” author Junot Diaz said to a photographer in the front row. “I’m not even doing anything active!”

Diaz spoke Monday night as part of the Festival Latino 2010, a week-long celebration of Latino culture hosted by Penn’s Latino Coalition. The Dominican author, whose most well-known work The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won a laundry list of honors including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, read an excerpt and opened the floor for questions.

The first one question asked for any words of encouragement for the Latinos here at Penn.

“That is perhaps the central reason we’re here … [but] why don’t we try to get a little fucking warmed up,” he laughed.

He divulged several aspects of his writing process — his theory that the artist must keep fit mentally and emotionally for when “the zone” of inspiration comes, his help from the women in his life in writing such relatable female characters and his belief that 90 percent of art comes from the subconscious and that his conscious mind “is not smart enough to assemble a novel.”

But as the theme of the evening promised, race was broached.

“Is it tough here at UPenn?” Diaz asked the crowd.

He explained that as a teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has some minority students who are under a tremendous amount of pressure, knowing that if they failed out they would return to “a world of hurt.” He explained that as representatives of their communities at such a prestigious institution, there was extreme pressure to perform.

A School of Medicine student sitting near the front mentioned the feeling that if she didn’t succeed, it would mean to others that Puerto Ricans from Brooklyn can’t do well at a place like Penn.

“There are a lot of people here who have a lot at stake,” Junot acknowledged.

“The only thing that gets you through it is community,” he said, explaining how as an undergraduate at Rutgers University he was active in the Dominican and Latino communities, and that as a graduate student at Cornell University he helped establish a Latino dormitory.

He joked that he has often been asked how his “Dominican-ness” impacted his work, guessing that not being a minority has a greater effect on white authors’ work than his heritage has on his work.

The Latino Coalition was thrilled with the event’s turnout. “There [were] a lot of faces that I have not seen before,” Chair of Admissions and Recruitment and College junior Jeffrey Then.

Latino Coalition Vice Chair and College junior Calina Cuevas noted that many people who “wouldn’t normally come to Latino events” were in attendance, which is one of the many goals of the Festival Latino.

Cuevas said that the Coalition is “very happy” with the support they receive from students, faculty and the administration and encourages all students to participate in the Festival this week.

“It has a little bit of everything for everyone … We welcome everyone.”

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