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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Junot Díaz inspires doe-eyed freshmen

Published: August 27, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

Literary Celebrity: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz autographs copies of his novel for excited freshmen.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Mike Lovett/Brandeis  University</i>

Literary Celebrity: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz autographs copies of his novel for excited freshmen.
PHOTO BY Mike Lovett/Brandeis University

It’s Wednesday night in the Spingold Theater and the air is charged with anticipation. The crowd of students who had only arrived on campus three days ago were pulsing with excitement and even administrators sat on the edge of their seats.

Believe it or not, this extraordinary show of enthusiasm was for none other than the 17th Annual Philip and Helen Brecher New Student Book Forum, an orientation ceremony that in past years has led to much groaning and gnashing of teeth. The difference? Junot Díaz.

Mr. Díaz is as close to a hipster literary celebrity as Brandeis has ever seen. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American author of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” spoke with the kind of frank sincerity that seemed to resonate deeply with the new students.

“I’m always amazed that [educators] choose this book,” he joked before launching into a raunchy and uproarious short story entitled “Alma,” about infidelity in an ill-fated romance. Despite his prodigious use of profanity and explicit sexuality, Díaz never felt inappropriate or out of place.

He delivered an impassioned appeal for the importance of arts education, conscious of his role as an example of a devoted artist who achieved success in spite of resistance from his family and friends.

After reading “Alma” and a passage from his novel, Mr. Díaz took questions from the audience. “Who did you envision when you wrote the book?” one girl asked. “I mean, did you imagine a bunch of Jews at a university reading it?”

Although the author explained that he wrote the book to an audience of his four close friends, he noted that literature maintains the power to reach across boundaries to touch people at a human level. He urged the students to touch our shared humanity through the arts.

Questions about the novel itself yielded more questions than answers. Mr. Díaz emphasized that the silences and omissions in the book were intentional, providing gaps that each reader had to bridge in his or her own way. He admitted that certain questions remained unanswerable, for they sprang from a part of his creative unconscious to which he had no access.

He described his writing process as equal parts intensive research and intuitive spontaneity, a formula that should surprise no one familiar with “Oscar Wao” and its labyrinthian mixture of Dominican folklore, science fiction, and postcolonial historical exposé. His advice to aspiring writers was simple. “Love for your art form is what keeps you going.” Acknowledging the hardships and obstacles of his immigrant family’s past, he insisted that it was his intense passion for writing that saw him through.

If the freshman in the audience seemed deeply moved by his words of wisdom drawn from years of experience, he appeared equally invigorated by his audience. He bantered with audience members about their move-in experience, new separation from parents, and the challenge of maintaining relationships from home. The clap-happy responses and standing ovation seemed to flatter the worldly author, who reacted with a mixture of sarcastic humor and graciousness.

As I walked out of the auditorium, I heard an orientation leader speaking to one of his freshmen. “Well, after this point you’re on your own,” he said. I couldn’t help but think that this event was a perfect ceremonial entrance into a journey that is best described as brief and wondrous: college.