Junot Diaz Speaks About Identity, Race, and Being an Immigrant in America


By Melody Nielsen, for Global Philadelphia -- Junot Diaz is not would you’d expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner. He’s not what you’d expect from a MacArthur Fellow, either, or a professor at MIT, though he teaches creative writing at the storied institution. He’s not even, come to think of it, what you’d expect from a Dominican immigrant, though he moved from Santo Domingo to New Jersey when he was a boy. He is equal parts sociological jargon and foul-mouthed hood-speak, comic book nerd and academic elite. Without even reading a word of his prose, it is clear what Diaz is all about: blurring the lines and bringing the fringes to the center.

I went to see Diaz speak on November 27 at the Penn Museum, as part of the Penn Humanities Forum on Peripheries, which featured speakers who seek to highlight individuals or groups on the social margins. Diaz was the final speaker in the series, and was ostensibly to speak about his work in documenting the identity of the Caribbean people, who have always been on the historical fringes.

Characteristically, Diaz began with a disclaimer that he had no idea what he was doing, and that the audience had better “embrace the suck” and move forward as best as possible. Over the next hour, however, he was absolutely captivating, discussing his origins as an aspiring Caribbean historian, the lack of historical documentation in the Caribbean, and the conflict in grappling with immigrant identity in the United States.

In the middle of the session, Diaz began to field questions from the audience, many having to do with race. Though he was careful in his answers, his position was clear: without pushback from those whose identities are doubted or demonized, those on the margins, they will continue to be marginalized. “White supremacy is carried out by all of y’all, not just white people,” he said, encouraging students of all races to acknowledge its existence and to fight against it. When answering a student who said his identity as a Mexican was challenged in Mexico, and vice-versa, he replied simply and forcefully: “You have to keep that conversation going. You have to keep saying, yes I am.”

Toward the end of the presentation, Diaz read from the introduction of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In his lilting rhythmic cadence, pronouncing Spanish phrases, he read about a curse from Santo Domingo, fuku americanus, which, legend has it, spawned from the colonization of the Caribbean and spread to the world. It was this curse, he said, which Dominicans feared most of all, and this curse also which sought revenge on colonial powers, from the soldiers who illegally invaded Santo Domingo and went on to fight in Vietnam to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Equal parts funny and tragic in Diaz’s voice, this deceptively simple story, told so poetically, made clear why he is one of our most celebrated authors.

Toward the end of the presentation, a student stepped up to the microphone to ask Diaz why it is that he uses so much “geek” culture, so much science fiction and fantasy analogy, in his work. He explained it in terms that were both immediately understandable and strikingly novel. “How do you explain a person like me?” he replied. “Fantasy makes so much more sense than reality. If you’re the first person in your family to go to college, Harry Potter getting that letter to Hogwarts makes so much more sense.”