August 17, 2018 | ° F

Alum attributes success to U.

Photo by The Daily Targum |

Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz spoke to the University community last night in the Multipurpose room of the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue Campus.

Pulitzer Prize winner and Rutgers College alumnus Junot Diaz received enthusiastic applause from the audience yesterday after he praised former Douglass College and the former five-college University, but noted that the school is turning into something less unique since the time he resided there.

"You know Rutgers was a far more interesting place when it didn't resemble all of the other big-box universities on the east coast," Diaz said, adding that the University is changing to attract the upper-middle class.

"Getting rid of what was unique and kooky really ruined Rutgers," he said.

He said if it wasn't for experiences he had at Douglass College and the rest of the University, he wouldn't have had the perspective he does as a writer.

Diaz, a Dominican immigrant, wearing black-framed glasses and a buzz cut, held public afternoon and evening discussions in the Multipurpose Room of the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus, answering questions from a small crowd. He described the University as he remembered it: a place where people from all different social stratas and races mingled - where students who went to private high schools coexisted with students who barely made the admission standards.

"The human beings that we are, the moment the music gets good, we want to switch stations," he said in reference to the merging of the University into two schools.

"There were 10,000 kids [there] who under the current administration could never get into Rutgers [now] even if they bribed somebody," he said.

Diaz also spoke about the uniqueness of Livingston campus.

"Livingston was a wild-ass place that was the utopian dream of the '60s," he said.

Diaz uses the University as a setting often in his writings, and cited his undergraduate experience there, among varied students, as something he can never forget.

Diaz also read excerpts from his award-winning book, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," to a packed crowd of both students and faculty. He admitted that besides the novel, a lot of his writing cites the University.

"We take pride in that his experience at Rutgers helped shape his career," University President Richard L. McCormick said as he introduced Diaz, and later, Diaz agreed.

"I think everything I write has Rutgers in it," he said.

During the afternoon discussion, he noted that he fell in love at the University as well, which stands out in his mind, and he regrets, 20 years later, the ending of that relationship.

In addition to his experiences at the University, his novel also draws from his experiences as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic relocating to central New Jersey, and the struggles that come with it, as well as the struggles that many of the immigrants found living in a dictatorship before emigrating.

Diaz's novel also contains both English and Spanish words interwoven together. He said it reflects the United States in this fact.

"Unless you never leave your house it would be hard to imagine an America that's not pugnaciously multi-lingual," Diaz said.

Diaz also had advice for students and faculty on their own creating writing projects, using a metaphor.

"The thing with salsa is, you [can mess] up and stomp your partner," he said, and also noted during the afternoon discussion that one begins learning salsa by counting one's steps, and then, once one gets it down, one can answer the cell phone at the same time one is dancing.

And that is when your unconscious is in the driver's seat, he said during the evening reading, and you have your creative-writing process down.

English Department chair Richard Miller said that the department chose Diaz, as they think he is a terrific writer, and it would be good for students to hear from a Rutgers alumnus who has produced such original work.

"I think what is extraordinary about Junot's work is the way it brings together a literary genre with a historical concerns, so he writes about the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century and so its embedded in that historical context," he said.

Michelle Walbaum

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