Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Friday November 14, Junot DÃaz, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, came to Swarthmore as a part of the Cooper Series to read a selection from his novel for a packed LPAC cinema.
DÃaz chose a highly emotional, personal passage in which twelve-year-old Lola discovers that her mother has breast cancer. In this scene, which is written in second person, Lola’s strained relationship with her mother, body image issues, and the terrifying moment of realizing things are about to change dramatically are all explored as Lola and her mother stand in their Wildwood, NJ bathroom trying to come to terms with this discovery.
After the passage, DÃaz conversationally and amusingly answered audience questions about his book, his writing process, and several other topics. He explained why he chose the particular passage he read, saying “Before someone in your family is diagnosed with cancer, you live in the normal world, but the moment someone is diagnosed with cancer, you’re suddenly transported to Cancer Planet.” DÃaz then spoke briefly about the harsh realities of Cancer Planet that affected him at age thirteen when a family member was diagnosed with cancer, and affect Lola throughout the book, as well as everyone who deals with the cancer of a loved one.
He also spoke more about several elements of the book as a whole. He explained how Oscar Wao shows his obsession with books. His title, which is a tribute to “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemmingway and to Oscar Wilde, is a prime example of this. He explained that Oscar Wao is in part a commentary on the work of Conrad, who, DÃaz says, “went to the heart of the colonial wound and saw how horrible we are as people.” Oscar Wao on the other hand, he says, goes to the heart of the colonial wound and shows the humanity that can be found there. He also discussed how the book treats our culture’s obsession with bodies, the relationships of characters who have experienced sexual abuse, and the effect of place on characters.
DÃaz also spoke about his writing process. He explained how his love of books first inspired him to write, because he wanted to play in books and just be a part of it. He compared this to how someone who really loves watching soccer will one day get down out of the stands and kick something around. He also gave some advice to young writers who are writing from their own experiences. He explained how in his largely autobiographical short story collection Drowned he had difficulty making his experiences come alive on the page, so he decided to distort the autobiographical elements in a constructive way. He rewrote everything giving himself a horrible facial disfigurement. This exercise allowed him to re-examine every element of his life and turn stenography into writing. Afterwards, he erased every mention of the disfigurement from his stories, but the writing remained changed. He recommended this strategy to anyone having similar difficulties in their writing.
Lang Haynes ’12 said of the reading, “I really enjoyed the mix of insights into his work and writing process with his view on the world. And, he was just really funny.” After answering questions, DÃaz signed copies of his book in the LPAC lobby.