If the novel is dead, so are we.
Author Junot Díaz reminds us why fiction isn't just “nice to have."
Junot Díaz is a Dominican American writer, creative writing professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and fiction editor at Boston Review. He also serves on the board of advisers for Freedom University, a volunteer organization in Georgia that provides post-secondary instruction to undocumented immigrants. Central to Díaz's work is the immigrant experience. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in 2008. He is a 2012 MacArthur Fellow.
Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Díaz immigrated with his family to New Jersey when he was six years old. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University, and shortly after graduating created the character "Yunior", who served as narrator of several of his later books. After obtaining his MFA from Cornell University, Díaz published his first book, a short story collection entitled Drown in 1995. In 2007, he published his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for which he won the Pulitzer.
Junot Díaz: One of the functions that art has is not only is art didactic; art can be in many ways persuasive or seductive. But art is also transgressive and the transgressive function of art is fundamental in a society that often shies away from the difficult topics, the difficult subjects and the difficult conversations it needs to engage in.
We all live in societies that repress and silence what’s troubling, what’s naughty, what’s sort of, in some ways, I think threatening. But art has this way of provoking us. Art has this way of imposing these silences, breaking these silences and posing these conversations on us. And I think it’s absolutely important that we as a society think in ways that we often don’t imagine subjects that we often sort of shy away from and enter silences that we’re not often encouraged to do so. Because in these silences, in what’s disavowed awaits who we really are as a culture and a society. And I think art has been great for this.
But as people, you know, members of a civic society, we also have to push ourselves into the places that are not entirely comfortable. In silence is where tyranny and oppression really does its work and therefore the conversations that are often relegated to the margins, the conversations that are considered impolite, those are the conversations that are much more likely to lead to a more fair and just society. It’s not readily apparent to folks, but literature is one of our great artistic mediums. It’s one of our great innovations, which allows a reader to not only transport themselves temporally, but also spatially — that permits them to enter not just other people, but other worlds.
It’s the closest that we come to telepathy, to be able to inhabit other people’s minds. It’s a wonderful exercise in compassion and sympathies and when one thinks about it sort of, you know over the long term, a relationship with literature produces extraordinary effects in that it brings the reader not only in contact with other times and other places, but it brings the reader in contact with themselves. Literature opens inside of a reader a space of deliberation, which allows them to not only reconstruct their own subjectivity, but also to dialogue with themselves and with other conceptualizations of other selves. It’s an extraordinary art and I think that it’s one of the best ways that people can educate the soul. And simply because it’s not as popular as, say, as like Twitter doesn’t make it any less significant or any less important.
Literature, explains Pulitzer-winning writer Junot Díaz, is the closest that we've come to telepathy. It's through literature that we educate our souls by transporting ourselves into some other character's mind. It builds empathy. It allows for new perspectives. It triggers provocation in all the best ways. Novels aren't as popular a medium today as something like Twitter, but that doesn't mean they're not still hugely important.
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- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.