Pulitzer Prize Winner Junot Diaz Speaks at All-School

Rather than hearing about politics, ecology or community service, the Phillips Academy community sat down during All-School Meeting and listened to a detailed description of a woman’s chest. Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came to speak this Wednesday at ASM. The excerpt he read came from his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. Diaz worked on the novel for 11 years before it was published. The novel follows the personal and family life of a teenage Dominican immigrant living in New Jersey who finds out that his mother has breast cancer. Diaz described the novel as “somewhat autobiographical.” Inspiration for this novel came from his own traumatic childhood experience of a family member’s battle with cancer. Diaz immigrated to America from the Dominican Republic when he was nine years old. He discovered his passion for writing in college. Diaz cited his mother and father as his main influences. Growing up in a military family, he found his “escape hatch” in reading. Diaz, who did not want to become a part of the military, said, “Art was an alternative.” In addition to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz published a series of short stories – Drown. “Art breaks through the myths that we tell ourselves, the myths society tells us… We need artists now more than ever. We need people who are… trying to reach into the heart of what is human, who really believe that you can find the truth,” Diaz said. Diaz said that active participation in the arts leads to better self-understanding. As a result, people will be able to follow their own dreams rather than be forced into careers. Following All-School Meeting, Diaz taught a master class at Tang Theatre to students from Phillips Academy and the Lawrence Performing and Fine Arts High School. Diaz talked about the writing process during the master class. “If you’ve never written a novel before, you’ve never really seen one. You just piece it together. It might not be cute, but it works,” he said. During the master class, a student asked Diaz how to become a great writer. Diaz said, “Forget it, and go live. Fill your heart with the world. If you really have something to say, it will find you.” Many English students are reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this term. Stephanie Curci, Instructor in English, selected the book for her English 300 and 520 classes to read. Curci said, “It fits perfectly for [English] 300 [which is spent studying tragedy and romance]. I think Diaz had the Greek tragic model in mind.” For Curci, Diaz’s novel exposes the readers to another part of the world and teaches an important lesson about dealing with failure. Rei Konolige ’10, a student of Curci’s, said, “[Diaz’s novel] talked about some very serious issues in a very funny way.” Students praised his informal writing style, enhanced by the use of footnotes and Spanglish. Dhariana Gonzalez ’08 applied for an Abbot Grant on the behalf of Alianza Latina last year, before Diaz won the Pulitzer, to invite Diaz to speak at All-School Meeting. Joel Gonzalez ’09, Co-Head of Alianza Latina, said “I’ve wanted to bring Junot here since I first read his collection of short stories, Drown. I was really excited that he was able to come because one aspect of his books that I really admire is that he gives the spotlight to a group of people that really never get it.” In his master class, Diaz related with Latino audience members, saying that he thought both in English and in Spanish. When asked how presenting to Latinos differs from other presentations, Diaz said, “I don’t have to explain anything. It’s like being at home.” Ashley Felix, a senior at the Lawrence Performing and Fine Arts High School, said, “It’s good to see somebody who grew up like us and is of our heritage to succeed like that.”