Junot Díaz recounts Rutgers culture, roots of award-winning career


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Rutgers alumnus Junot Díaz has won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and was granted a MacArthur Fellowship.


In Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” the narrating Yunior lives in Frelinghuysen Residence Hall, the spunky Lola participates in Douglass College activism and the troubled Oscar attempts suicide by jumping off the New Brunswick train bridge.

The author and University alumnus said he cannot help it — Rutgers inevitably creeps into all of his works of fiction.

“I can’t help but write about my time at Rutgers. For me, it was very, very important,” he said. “I came from a town that was nothing like what I was going to encounter on campus.”

In the past two decades, Díaz wrote one novel and two short story collections, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, was granted a MacArthur Fellowship and worked as a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But before all that, from 1988 to 1992, Díaz experienced a weird but enlightening four years as a Scarlet Knight.

He remembers working full time to pay for college, spending a crazy amount of hours studying in “The Roost” on the College Ave campus and, as recommended by a professor, spending spring break on the Six Nation Iroquois reservation.

Although many of these weird and enlightening experiences sneak into his writing, he hopes to one day work on a piece that focuses explicitly on Rutgers, including the complexities of dating a Douglass College girl and his wild memories of Rutgersfest.

And it was here, on the banks of the Old Raritan, where Díaz decided to become a writer.

Díaz recalled watching his athlete friends training three to four hours each day to prepare for their football games or track meets. He realized that if he were to become a committed writer, he would need to do some heavy lifting with his brain.

Neither class nor work nor social responsibilities stopped Díaz from setting aside time to write for a couple of hours per day. But despite his discipline, he experienced a great deal of doubt.

“I think I was more scared of that decision than I was scared of many of the challenging things that happened to be in my life. I gave up a lot,” he said. “I said ‘you know what, this is a really stupid idea.’ But for some reason or another I just kind of stuck to it.”

Luckily for Díaz, he surrounded himself with people he affectionately called the freaks — filmmakers, painters and other artists who aspired to be successful. This environment gave him a sense of courage he would not have had otherwise.

The years at Rutgers and his hours of discipline blended with his Dominican and New Jersey backgrounds led to the formation of the unique writing style in his highly acclaimed “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” a book that follows the life of a fat, Dominican nerd and his family.

Díaz said his books try to break the stereotypes that surround both ethnicity and masculinity.

“I just felt there was something about nerds like Oscar that could speak to all of us,” he said. “I really wanted to write about Dominican nerds because in general, when the average person thinks Dominican, they’re not thinking nerds … about how this nerdy, fat, awkward, haunted boy finds love.”

For Saskia Agustin, the assistant director of the Center for Latino Arts and Culture, the novel also serves as an example for people in the University community.

“He spoke of the Rutgers experience from such a true perspective, discussing what you go through as a student coming those small communities of North Jersey, and then you arrive to this big place and you’re absolutely shocked by everything — culture, politics, community, your friends. Everything changes.”

Agustin added that from a Dominican perspective, Díaz’s raw, but articulate writing style effectively gives others a glimpse of what the Dominican community looks like.

Being involved in the Latino American Student Organization and the Latino student newspaper as well as political and social movements on campus gave Díaz a very powerful sense that students need to be involved at a civic level.

“There’s no better way to spend your youth than being idealistic,” he said. “I gained a lot of insight in organizations. I’m sure that in many ways my utopian idealism, I mean I’m still a very idealistic person, and I think the vocabulary of that began at Rutgers.”

Díaz has remained an active citizen in society for his entire career. As an immigrant himself, he focuses especially on working for immigrant reform.

One of his biggest projects is working on the board of advisors for Freedom University in Georgia. After the state passed legislation that banned undocumented immigrants from attending some of its top schools, Freedom University was created to combat what Díaz said is xenophobic cruelty.

The university not only works to raise money and awareness to overturn this legislation, but also serves as an academic setting so students do not lose their education.

Díaz was inducted into the University’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni in the fall of 2010, said, Kara Cafasso, assistant director for Alumni Relations. She said the honor is given to those who possess some remarkable achievement in their professional life.

And although Díaz acknowledges that his Rutgers experience has helped him obtain his achievements, he said the rhetoric in this country surrounding college might be having a negative impact on students today.

He said this country cultivates young people’s fears, telling them that they will never be better than their parents, the job market is horrible and that they should only focus on things that will lead to landing a job. He urges University students to stray from this way of thinking.

“There’s no worse way to spend your college years than feeling always, perpetually on edge, perpetually afraid that there’s not going to be a job out there for you. … To give into that fear robs people of opportunity that might be present if they were more open-minded, if they were feeling freer, if they were feeling happier,” he said.


Alex Meier

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