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CPL hosts Pulitzer Prize winning Junot Díaz

By Arooj Ashraf, La Prensa Correspondent

Cleveland Public Library hosted Pulitzer Prize winning Dominican writer Junot Díaz for the Writers and Readers Series on Oct. 19, 2008. “We are really excited to have him here because we booked him before he got all these awards,” said Holly Carroll, Interim Director at CPL.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Díaz autographs his book for fans.

The Cleveland Foundation recently awarded Díaz the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, a prestigious honor bestowed upon writers whose work builds bridges of cultural understanding and tolerance.

Díaz’s critically acclaimed first novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, the John Sargent Sr First Novel Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2007 Best Novel. It was one of three novels nominated by CPL for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Díaz read a few pages from his Pulitzer winning book before fielding questions from the 250 audience members. His writing style is poignant and he engaged the audience in a deep fun conversation while he imparted “smartpanty wisdom” upon them.

Though the main character is a young man, the novel is dominated by strong women and their experiences. He said while the mainstream vision of the Caribbean immigration and influences is dominated by men, the real survivors of history are the women. “It is often difficult for the son to integrate his mother’s history into his own,” he said.

Díaz said his penmanship is a product of hard intellectual research, combined with all the books he has ever read, discussions with literary peers, and the creativity of his subconscious.

“I never know why I work like this,” he said. It is not easy he warned. “People have this notion that being an artist is this cute thing like drinking all the time, where you travel and wear weird clothes—this shit turned out to be a ton of hard work,” Díaz said candidly, as laughter bursts from the audience. “Creativity is nothing until it passes through the engine of your intellect,” he said.

Díaz moved to New Jersey with his parents at age six. His father abandoned the family in the mid-‘80s, and the family was plunged into a period of severe poverty. He described a complicated with his older brother, a trained boxer who loved to pick on nerdy kids in the neighborhood and often beat the daylights out of him.

“My brother was the reason these neighborhoods get a bad rap,” he said. Díaz reconciles this as a blessing in disguise; “because of who my brother was, I was allowed to be as nerdy as I was.” This meant he could immerse himself in books and absorb information that helps his masterpieces today. “My brother was, in a way, my sickle cell anemia … because even though it’s awful, it protects you from something worst,” he said. 

Holly Carroll (Interim CPL Director), Junot Díaz

(author), and Angel Galván.

Díaz completed his BA at Rutgers College in 1992, majoring in English. He earned his Masters of Fine Arts from Cornell University.

His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, which listed him as one of the 20 top writers for the 21st century. He has been published in Story, The Paris Review, and in the anthologies, The Best American Short Stories and African Voices.

He received a Eugene McDermott Award, a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the 2002 PEN/Malamud Award, a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and more.

He predicts there will be no more short stories from him, simply because short stories can be perfect and he thrives in the complexity of novels that mirror the difficulty of real life. Readers often complain his work is too complex and would benefit from a glossary. “If you want something easy, watch a TV show, but not all because some are really tough,” he said.

For Díaz, a novel’s purpose is to stimulate the mind and he urged the reader to seek companions for discussions and acquire further knowledge. He said the society in the United States is one that punishes lack of knowledge so when people encounter something they don’t understand they are threatened by their insecurities and shut down the possibility of learning. “This isn’t a test,” he said. 

Díaz’s work does include an academic feature: footnotes. He said the purpose of the footnote is to brag about ones intellect but in ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ they appear as factual anecdotes that immerse the reader further in his work.

“He just throws you into a different culture,” said avid reader and fan Teresa Sroka. She said his astute observations about life, cultures, and family dynamics transforms the reader.

“We really need to get out of our little zip code; he doesn’t look down upon you, instead he just hands you the tools and encouraged you to take your own journey,” said Sroka. She first encountered Díaz through his first book, “Drown,” which is a collection of short stories that became a national bestseller.

Sroka said she would love to take a class with Díaz, who teaches creative writing at MIT. Díaz refers to “Drown” as the loyal friend who defended and supported him through the eleven years it took him to write his latest novel.

Díaz lives in New York and is active in the Dominican community. He credits the respect he has earned to the degree of honest reflection and respect for the community that his work embodies.

Díaz is fascinated by the conflict within the cultural ethnicities that comes through his characters. Through his writing, Díaz has increased his own awareness and sorted out how he truly feels about his own history, community, and personal relationships.

“You can’t hide from yourself; who you really are will reflect in your art,” he said. Díaz relinquishes ownership of his books to the reader, “I, as the author, have no authority to dictate how anyone should read my book; it is yours to read and interpret as you like,” he said.

For more information on CPL’s Writers and Readers Series visit: writersandreaders.cpl.org





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