Lines formed outside Garrison Theatre at Scripps College on Tuesday, Sept. 21, as students from each of the 5Cs and members of the Claremont community gathered to hear author Junot Díaz in conversation with journalist and writer Jade Chang.
Díaz, the Dominican-American author of “Drown,” “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and “This is How You Lose Her,” is known in the literary community for his relatability, use of slang in his writing, and colloquial tone. His fiction is praised for its political and academic awareness and simultaneous organic feel.
Chang recently released her debut novel, “The Wangs vs. The World.”
The conversation, part of the Scripps Presents program, drew crowds so large that many in line without tickets to the event were directed to the Balch Auditorium to watch a live stream.
In his discussion with Chang, Díaz advised students based on his own experiences with art and as a person of color. He encouraged his audience to avoid seeking validation from others for their art, speaking about his experience with his first novel.
“You can’t produce the same art when you sincerely want to be famous, and you sincerely want approval,” Díaz said. “When I think about [“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”], I was writing it under the impression that eight people were gonna read it.”
Díaz also talked about the assumption that being an author of color is synonymous with being an activist.
“I do not believe my art is my activism. I think there are a lot of people who say ‘my art is my activism, I do enough.’ I sit on panels with them all day long,” he said. “My sense of it is that since your art benefits first and foremost you, it’s not community work. Community work is what you do that benefits other people.”
Corrina Lesser, director of public events and community programming as Scripps, worked with Junot Díaz previously, and knew that he would fit the Scripps Humanities Institute’s theme of immigration.
“I just knew that this community would be so delighted to have him in their midst,” she said.
And delighted they were. Michelle Ramirez SC ’20, an event attendee, said Díaz is a figure many of people of color look up to in academia.
“As a woman of color in a predominantly white institution, hearing him recount his experience [as a] student in college really resonated with me,” Ramirez said. “Just to see that he’s coming back and giving [students of color] that incentive to keep going in academia, that was really powerful to me, and I really enjoyed how honest and how raw and how genuine he was.”
Jaicel Ortega SC ‘18 agreed, and noted a similarity between her experiences and Díaz’s.
“I think Scripps is doing well with their [Scripps Presents] series in terms of encouraging dialogue on campus, but as a student of color here on campus, it’s important to come and show support, because that’s the only way Scripps will continue to host speakers like this,” she said. “When [Díaz] spoke about his experience, in a primarily white, neoliberal institution, especially his analysis of being poor and a first-gen college student, that gave me a lot of the strength I needed to finish my last year here at Scripps.”
Díaz also discussed President Donald Trump’s administration and the fear many students of color feel in the wake of the election.
“Despair is very easy and very attractive,” Díaz said. “But I’ve always liked the idea that, unless you can see the future, there really isn’t a reason for us to despair. This idea that you only fight when victory seems certain, that you only fight when things are going your way, that’s the talk of our victimizers, that’s the narrative of the people who predate us.”
He told students not to lose hope.
“We have to always fight from the losing position, and often we have won,” he said. “We do not have a democracy in this country because the powerful and the triumphant were able to have their way; we have a democracy in this country because the most marginalized, the most denied fought for it against all odds, and overturned the nightmarish regime that held a huge part of the population down.”
Emeka Ochiagha PZ ‘18 appreciated this sentiment.
“I think that a lot of the wisdom [Díaz] came with was very relatable, very needed, very on time,” Ochiagha said. “I think for me personally what he was talking about in terms of not defaulting to despair in this very dark time was super inspirational.”