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The world according to Díaz


“I was 7 years old and I was translating for my mom, writing letters for the superintendent,” he said. “I was lawyer, accountant, doctor, interpreter,” and the list went on.

But even with much of his time spent fulfilling these many responsibilities, Díaz became an avid reader.

“I always enjoyed reading tremendously,” he said. “For me, writing is just part of the fact that I love to read.”

He developed a habit of reading whatever he could find at the local public library — not a particularly safe habit in his neighborhood.

“I grew up in a typical poor, kind of scary … community, man,” he said to the young students. “And I was lucky … my older brother protected me in a way that very few smart kids from my community were protected.

“I could walk around with a book and nobody would say s***, ’cause my brother’s dream would be to run a kid over in a car,” Díaz continued as the audience laughed. “He wouldn’t care. He would be like ‘Oh, somebody laughed? I’ll be right there.’”

Díaz graduated from Cedar Ridge High School in 1987. During his college years, Díaz’s love of reading awakened a passion for writing. He worked his way through college by getting menial jobs, such as delivering pool tables and washing dishes.

He graduated from Rutgers College in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in English and left three credits before completing a second degree in history. He told the Banner he may finish those credits next semester while at MIT.

In 1995, Díaz earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cornell University, where he wrote most of his first collection of short stories. A year later, he left his day job running a copy machine in New York after signing a six-figure contract to write two books for the Riverhead imprint of publishing company Penguin Group USA.

He quickly became a literary sensation. Newsweek named him one of the 10 “New Faces of 1996.” His short stories were published in The Paris Review and in The New Yorker, which included him on its list of 20 writers to watch in the 21st century.

Also in 1996, Díaz published “Drown,” a collection of 10 stories about his experiences as a youngster in the impoverished neighborhoods of the Dominican Republic and the urban communities of New Jersey. The collection — which deals with “eroding family structures” and their impact on young people whose worlds “generally consist of absent fathers, silent mothers and friends of questionable principles and morals,” according to Publishers Weekly — wasn’t heralded as a landmark work at the time of its release, but has received favorable reconsideration of late in some circles.

Eleven years later, Díaz published his first full-fledged novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” The work earned him a Pulitzer prize and mostly positive reviews. The main character, Oscar Wao — a Spanglish pronunciation of Oscar Wilde — is an overweight Dominican boy from New Jersey whose story is woven into the tale of a family curse that brings tragedy to their lives.

“It is Mr. Díaz’s achievement in this galvanic novel that he’s fashioned both a big picture window that opens out on the sorrows of Dominican history, and a small, intimate window that reveals one family’s life and loves,” wrote Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic, about Díaz’s book. “In doing so, he’s written a book that decisively establishes him as one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible new voices.”

Díaz is working on another book while he teaches creative writing at MIT and works as the fiction editor for the Boston Review. To those, like Castillo, who want to become writers, he suggests three things.

“First of all, read,” he said to the BDEA students. “The reason I suggest to read is not because I think reading is a virtue. It’s because reading cuts down the isolation. Everybody you read gives you a different person at that table who would help you when you write.”

“Like a typical writing nerd or reading nerd,” Díaz said, he has a lengthy list of favorite authors, including Nalo Hopkinson, Samuel R. Delany, Patrick Chamoiseau, Toni Morrison, Alejo Carpentier, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Anjana Appachana.

“And that barely gives an idea of who I really care about,” he said. “I could just keep rolling.”

Second, he suggests pursuing an intellectual interest that has nothing to do with writing. That is why he studied history, he said.

“If you become mono-focused, you become utterly inflexible,” he said.

Third, Díaz recommended finding a group of people who are also interested in writing in order to discuss your work.

“By meeting with a couple of other people twice a month, you’re [getting] ideas and insight that you might lose if you just trap yourself in a room,” he said.

But no matter how much good advice one has, Díaz said, deciding to become a writer is no easy task.

“Being bussed at school with a pack of white folks — that … was hard,” he said. “Learning English, that was incredibly hard. Working my way through college full time delivering pool tables, that sucked. Discovering my limitations as a person — discovering I wasn’t the smartest, the toughest, certainly not the cutest — that’s tough.

“But for me, making a decision to pursue the arts was probably the hardest thing I ever did.”

The difficulty lies partially in coming to grips with the nature of the pursuit. While most people are on “a journey of approval,” trying to avoid failure in careers like law and medicine, said Díaz, artists are on “a journey of discovery.”

“What I discovered is that if I didn’t embrace making mistakes, being an artist [would be] utterly impossible,” he said.

He believes that artists are here “to challenge people in a way that disrupts that easy relationship between approval, between applause, and what you do.”

“If you’re looking for approval or if you’re looking to make friends, every other career in the world is there for you,” he said.

During the lecture, Díaz urged young people to pursue the arts if they are interested in something “quite unlike anything else that [they] ever encountered.”

“Because what art does … why art is worth any rejection, why art is worth the struggle, is because in art we … not only are reminded that we’re human but … also that’s where we meet ourselves,” he said. “There’s no other space for [us to] encounter ourselves so deeply.

“You know that when that piece of art moves you, it puts you back together better than when you started before.”