Artistic Expression

Junot Diaz speaking at podium
September 17, 2010

Best-selling author Junot Diaz talks art, identity and inspiration at GW.

While he’s already won a Pulitzer Prize, Junot Diaz says he hasn’t begun to tell the stories he wants to tell.

GW’s month-long Latino Heritage Celebration was jump started last night with an address and reading from the author at Betts Theatre. Mr. Diaz, who teaches creative writing at MIT, took center stage after an introduction from former colleague GW provost Steven Lerman.

“It was absolutely unthinkable that I, that someone from my background, would become an artist,” said Mr. Diaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey.

“Where I grew up, it was not considered in any realm of the imagination normal for a boy to like to read,” he said. “My mom and dad were from a world where artists were revolutionary and seditious.”

Growing up, Mr. Diaz worked in a steel mill and had a job delivering pool tables. But early on he knew writing was his calling.

His books, Drown and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, explore the lives and struggles of Dominican immigrants. He said literature is barely scratching the surface of the immigrant and Latino experiences: “99.9 percent of our stories have not been told.”

Mr. Diaz read from two of his works—the first from a series of short stories he’s writing about “men who cheat” and the second about a pair of teenage brothers, one of whom has cancer.

He also answered more than a dozen questions from the mostly student audience, who asked about his inspirations, writing process and advice for young writers.

Mr. Diaz urged aspiring writers to read as much as possible and to work as hard as athletes. “Athletes pour their hearts and their bodies into their sports,” he said. “If you’re serious about being a writer, you better be working as hard as they are.”

Inspiration, he said, can be found in what you already know. “As a Dominican from New Jersey, I think the entire world can be told in New Jersey and Santo Domingo,” he said.

About his own experience as a writer, he said, “It was a struggle, but art always is. Anything that’s important to you is going to require a lot of work.”

And he said don’t necessarily expect to change the world. “You can’t be grandiose about these things,” he said. “If in your lifetime three people care more about art than when you started, mission accomplished.”

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