Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz inspires students

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Photo by Maria Zepeda.

The forces of patriarchy and the legacy of colonialism are still alive in today’s world, according to Dominican-American author Junot Díaz, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

Díaz discussed his views on the state of education, the direction of art and the subjugation of minorities before a crowd of over 200 people at Saint Thomas More Chapel on Tuesday afternoon. Mixing academic language with informal slang, Díaz encouraged students to reject the pressure to do “the right thing” — and rather to view their time at Yale as an opportunity for transformation.

“From the questions being asked, all I hear is fear,” said Díaz. “It rolls off of you in waves.”

As a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Díaz said he feels that the use of higher education as a means of “accreditation,” a process directly oriented to helping the student become more employable, is particularly detrimental when it is applied to fields such as creative writing. He added that the “cash-matrix” — the depersonalization that occurs in a capitalist society — corrupts the formation of art.

A liberal arts education was never meant to be vocational, but rather a medium through which individuals can discover themselves, Díaz said.

He said that an individual ceases to be an artist and becomes a mere “entertainer” if he or she allows public approval to factor into their creative process. Díaz said he never planned to pursue writing as a career, originally thinking he would have a day job and work on writing during the evenings.

“Imagine your writing doesn’t work — 99.99 percent of us won’t be artists, because this culture hates art,” Díaz said, adding that society has grown to view life in terms of a series of stepping-stones towards careers and profits.

Díaz said he was offered an opportunity to teach creative writing at New York University, but turned it down in favor of a job at MIT because as a teacher he wants to help those who are not already convinced of the importance of writing discover its importance.

Beyond the intersection of art, education and corporatization, Díaz discussed the current state of minority relations in Western culture. Race, he said, needs to be a foremost part of campus discussion.

“If you don’t want to talk about race, then get the f— out of Yale,” Díaz said.

Díaz discussed the societal double standard in which only minority writers and artists are asked about how their backgrounds influence their work, adding that the race of white people plays just as large a role in their lives as it does for what society considers minorities. He said he is always tempted to respond to such questions in interviews with a question of his own: “How does your whiteness inform your motherf—ing stupidity?”

When writing about female characters, Díaz said, he is particularly cognizant of his starting point of prejudice. Society is conditioned to view women as subhuman, which leads male writers to reduce women to the simple fact of their sexuality, he said, citing the sheer number of female characters who are prostitutes in the “Game of Thrones” series by George R.R. Martin.

Audience members interviewed said they were inspired and entertained by Díaz’s bluntness and motivating advice. Several students interviewed noted their surprise at the dominance of questions on societal issues, rather than writing.

“He listens to [a] question and responds in a way that you don’t expect,” said Sebastian Perez ’10 GRD ’18. “That is what you come to learn when you try to probe intellect.”

Kerri Lu ’14 said she was most struck by Díaz’s discussion of how culture is perpetuated by fear, and the ways in which that fear influences the direction of higher education.

Carol Crouch ’14 said she found his statements to be dynamic and fascinating, although she noted that his tone was different from what she had expected.

In addition to the Pulitzer-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Díaz has also published the short-story collections “Drown” and “This Is How You Lose Her.”

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