Author Junot Diaz tells FSU students to ‘take off the mask’

College, said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, is not just about getting a degree.

“Degrees are cute,” he said, “but you’re trying to get a story about yourself for, like, the next 10 years of your life. And that story is kind of like your arc that’s going to take you somewhere.”

Diaz, the author of the freshman common reading book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” answered student and faculty questions in DPAC Tuesday, discussing topics ranging from the motivations behind his work to his career and personal past.

Diaz said that he is “very much interested in how we first begin to put into play the story of ourselves.” This, he explained, is what primarily led to him to write the characters of “Oscar Wao” as college-aged.

Originally from Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, Diaz graduated from Rutgers University in 1992.

“I just wanted to represent the group of kids I grew up with,” he said. Although he and his friends were from a poor neighborhood, Diaz made it into college, and was witness to the unique experience of college kids while there.

“High school is no preparation for college,” he said. “It’s f**king crazy how much independence you have in college, yet, how much is asked of us. … You’re simultaneously still a kid, but you’re also carrying adult responsibilities.”

For Diaz, college “seemed like a perfect place to stir the pot,” and he said that this is also a personal reason for speaking at colleges and universities like FSU – “to have students exposed to an artist.

“It’s extraordinary how many students will go through an undergraduate experience and never have much contact with the arts,” he said, describing the importance of “modeling” done for students by artists.

The arts, Diaz said after his talk, “are important for us to be. Not only do the arts help us think about big questions, but they help us deal with the complexities of being a person.”

This human condition is something Diaz discussed extensively during his presentation, especially when asked what message he had for the “Oscar Waos” of the world – those who feel they don’t fit in.

“It doesn’t seem to make any difference whether you’re a winner, in whatever terms you want to set up, or whether you’re a loser, in whatever terms you want to set up – most of us suffer from an enormous persistent sense of vulnerability,” he said. “Most of us, in our hearts, in those places we don’t like to show, are trying to find what it means to be alone, what it means to be scared.

“I think that being a human is just as hard for all of us, but we seem to pretend it’s not,” he said. “Oscar, I think, is at the losing end of the social economy. Oscar’s the dude everyone wants to steal on. Oscar’s the dude who, if you feel bad about yourself, you can call him whatever you want and get a big old laugh. Eventually, we end up being that dude to another group of people. There’s nobody who escapes from life.

“And when I think of Oscar, at the bottom of this totem pole,” Diaz said, “you can’t tell me you don’t have more in common with him than with Superman.”

Senior Ashley de Souza found this point deeply meaningful, saying that Diaz “came at the appropriate time to teach young adults about our victimizing culture, and how we should learn to be sympathetic of one another.”

Diaz was asked several questions regarding the nature of gender relations in the characters of his novel. He explained how it was his early home life that had gave him his particular perspective on women. He described his family as “hyper-masculine,” and boasting a steadfast military tradition.

“‘Kids don’t wanna go to school?’” Diaz said playfully, imitating his very conservative father. “F**k ‘em. Kids wanna be loud? Shoot ‘em.”

It was this hard line-attitude taken by the men of his family that Diaz said gave the women who influenced him early on the qualities that he admired.

“To survive as a woman in these environments requires a ferocity that I think most women who have to deal with men recognize,” he said. “Even if you’re in a family as extreme as mine, or if you’re in a normal family, to be a woman … to survive all of the sexism, all the patriarchal nonsense, the sexual abuse, the trials of being a woman … I’m very interested in that.”

When asked how one escapes this hyper-masculine reality, Diaz said that total escape is not truly possible, but that men need to realize they can finally stop fighting. Although he said he admired and learned from the strong feminist presence at Rutgers, Diaz said that the gender roles in his stories are never political but personal and realistic, and that both sides “are almost always getting played.” Thus, gender conflicts are not something that Diaz wishes to transcend or absolve in his fiction, he said, but rather to keep open for discussion.

Similarly, Diaz said that love plays a major role in “Oscar Wao.”

“In many ways this is a book about people finding love, but people having a lot of trouble taking off their face masks,” he said, in reference to the eerie and densely symbolic faceless man who haunts characters in the novel. “In a world where the great challenge is finding love, and the great challenge of love is being able to endure vulnerability enough to show who you really are, there’s probably no greater foe than a person without a face.

“The only way that you can have intimacy is if you show your face,” Diaz recounted as a lesson he learned from his college girlfriend, later translated into the character Lola. “Not your mask, not who you’re telling people you are – you’ve got to show people who you really are.”

Senior Hannah Paul described Diaz’s discussion as “genuine” and said, “I like how honest he was – he was just a regular guy.”

Senior McKenzie Vershon said, “I left wanting to go read his book. The big takeaway for me was that you have to remember to take the mask off. You have to be vulnerable to really live.”

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