Section: Arts

Junot Díaz deconstructs the complexity of identity

Junot Díaz deconstructs the complexity of identity

For Junot Díaz, our current political climate — beginning with the election of President Donald Trump — gives him “muchísimo para pensar.”

“These, as you’re more than abundantly aware, are both disturbing and profoundly unsurprising political times,” he said during his talk at Kenyon.

Díaz, a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, spoke to a packed Rosse Hall on Monday evening. He is also the author of two collections of short stories, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. Even so, his talk focused less on his life as an accomplished writer and more on his identity as a man of color and an immigrant. Over the course of the evening, he forced audience members to confront their own identities as well.

After an introduction by Associate Professor of English Ivonne García, Díaz began the talk with a series of questions that he explained identified groups to which he belonged: Who in the audience came from outside the Kenyon community? From New Jersey? Who was an immigrant, Latinx or Dominican? Who was of African descent?

When he opened the talk to questions, Díaz said he was limiting the first round to those from “women of African descent.” Juniper Cruz ’19 asked about the 2007 film I Am Legend, which features Will Smith as the last human in New York accompanied by a horde of nocturnal zombies; Díaz had discussed the figuration of zombies previously in his talk.   

In an interview with the Collegian, Cruz, who also spoke on a student and faculty panel discussing Díaz’s work on Tuesday, said she appreciated how Díaz opened the floor for questions in the way that he did.

“I thought the idea of letting black women speak first and ask questions — and almost only black women asked questions — was such a beautiful and empowering moment,” she said. “I know … people of other identities probably felt left out and things like that, but I think in a time where we are usually never given the opportunities to speak, I think somebody giving the whole floor to us was such a beautiful time.”

Díaz made liberal use of the stage at the front of Rosse, moving across it in long strides while gesturing to the audience with his hands. His manner of speaking was casual, as if the students and the rest of the audience were privy to some sort of personal conversation, not just another academic lecturer. His most poignant statements — usually presented in the form of an off-the-cuff joke —  hit home, producing sporadic bursts of applause from those in attendance.

Díaz framed his current mindset by discussing the symbolism of Donald Trump’s signature campaign promise: the wall he wanted to build along the U.S. border with Mexico. He said he attended some campaign rallies for then-presidential candidate Trump and heard the crowd chanting “Build the wall, kill them all.”

“That little hateful poetics [of the chant] speak to the heart of what is energizing both this success and the history behind the wall, which is this larger and deeper and older history of race war in the United States,” Díaz said.

He offered an interpretation of the popular television show The Walking Dead that demonstrated the racialized nature of the zombies in the show. Presently, he said he was trying to conceptualize a new way to figure zombie and supernatural characters that subverts the old history of white supremacy inside these stories while also making readers aware of how dangerous current presentations of these stories are.

These days, Díaz is the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he recalled his own college experience at Rutgers University for the students in the room.

The year was 1992. Then, he said, students had more power, were “less saturated with the cash nexus” and had more free time. They didn’t walk around campus so constantly afraid; school was cheaper and more financial aid was available.

Díaz described how in college, many students arrive on campus and perform caricatures of themselves to others. In doing so, he said, we forget our complexities.

“If people would put down their masks and would approach each other not only with complexity but with a tolerance for each other’s complexity, all of us would be in a different place,” he said.

Díaz responded to a question from Chloe Hannah-Drullard ’20 about the debate surrounding free speech by saying that he thought this discussion is a distraction on the part of universities from the reality on college campuses. This reality is one in which large scale harm is enacted upon students.

“The narrative of this generation being sensitive and being snowflakes is to obscure the colossal, institutional violence that frames every student’s experience,” Díaz said.

He posed other questions instead: If universities are committed to democratic ideals like free speech, why are they not more democratic themselves? Why are corporations and not students represented on various university boards? Why are these institutions not more responsive to their students, and why have they become “neoliberal instruments of profit extraction”?

García called Díaz’s response to Hannah-Drullard’s question a  “juxtaposition” to the recent Center for American Democracy (CSAD) conference, which covered issues of free speech and civil discourse. Although she was not able to attend the CSAD conference, García said she felt the scheduling of the two events aligned well based on what she heard from students and faculty.

“To have a pretty sort of conservative viewpoint expressed in a way that some students and faculty felt was not inclusive, so this idea of people of color engaged in victimhooding, and to have Junot Díaz criticize the very structure that allows those conversations to happen … I thought well, this is Kenyon, because we’ve got them both,” she said. García is the faculty advisor for the Collegian.

Returning to the theme of our political climate, Díaz spoke to how troubling it is that our president has so intensely targeted immigrants of color during his time in office, and advocated for stronger solidarities with those groups going forward. He thinks that we must acknowledge and be honest about our privilege, and then put it to use.

“The truth of us is that the only person who isn’t colonized hasn’t arrived yet,” he said. “She is waiting to be born.”

Gabrielle Healy contributed reporting. Visit kenyoncollegian.com to read a full-length interview with Junot Díaz.

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