Symposium focuses on ‘Oscar Wao’ author

May 21, 2012, 2:02 a.m.

The Junot Díaz: A Symposium event held Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 19 in Margaret Jacks Hall brought together scholars from around the country and the Caribbean to speak about the significance of the work of Díaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and creative writing instructor at MIT.

“These two days are…a space of conviviality, inter-culturality, a forum for debate, a place to boast or simply just revel with each other,” said José David Saldivar, undergraduate program director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Saldivar was among the three principle organizers, along with Monica Hanna, associate professor of English at the United States Naval Academy, and Jennifer Harford Vargas, associate professor of English at Bryn Mawr College.

“We were acutely cognizant of the fact that we would be organizing the first major international discussion on this important writer’s body of work,” Saldivar wrote in an email to The Daily.

The two-day symposium consisted of four roundtable discussions as well as the annual Kieve Distinguished Speaker Lecture, delivered by Díaz. The Kieve Lecture, an annual event endowed by Anne and Loren Kieve ’69, aims to bring scholars and public figures from around the world to Stanford to address contemporary issues in race and ethnicity.

“I recommended Junot Díaz for this honor because his work has profoundly displayed the issues of race and ethnicity as part of the human imagination,” Saldivar said. “In my previous experience as a fellow keynote conference speaker with Junot Díaz, I had personal knowledge of his ability to articulate these issues in a creatively passionate way.”

In his address, Díaz first focused on issues surrounding race and ethnicity in his own fictional works “Drown” and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Stepping away from the podium, Díaz then moved on to a discussion of “The Lord of the Rings,” where he illustrated how he sees the novel as primarily centered on race.

“Junot Díaz remained very accessible in the last part of his talk, when he answered questions primarily from the undergraduates in the audience about how race was so central to his reading of Tolkien’s work,” Saldivar said. “He concluded with remarkable attention and focus on his audience, the undergraduates who had come to see this amazing contemporary writer…By using a book known to almost all of the undergraduates in the standing-room only audience, he was able to engage and discuss difficult issues with them, issues that are present in our society today: race, power, violence.”

The symposium was intended to be accessible to its audience, with the four roundtable discussions designed to create an open dialogue between panelists and audience members, Saldivar said. After individual presentations by each panelist, the conversation was opened up to the entire room.

“Symposium comes from the Greeks and means a space to drink,” Saldivar explained at the start of the event.

At the first roundtable, standing behind the last row of chairs and leaning casually against the back wall of the Terrace Room, Díaz watched and listened as scholars debated his work.

When the roundtable evolved into an animated discussion, however, Díaz became an active participant. Díaz lent his opinion on topics ranging from the interpretation of his own work to political issues of contemporary scholarship. After one panelist, Arlene Dávila from New York University, commented on the defensiveness exhibited by many scholars when writing about race and ethnicity, Díaz added his own thoughts on the issue.

“How many books published about racism do not have the term white supremacy in their indexes?” Díaz posed to the audience. “The real beast is still off the page – no one wants to touch it.”

The conversation was at its most animated after Silvio Torres-Saillant, a professor of English and Latino-Latin American studies at Syracuse University, posed a question to the panel. He asked the audience whether a problem existed in using literature to study the social sciences or vice-versa.

“The marketplace is voracious for paradigms that transcend everything until you don’t know where to point your finger,” Torres-Saillant said. “White supremacy disappears, everything disappears.”

Dávila was not as wary of the problem of intermixing these two types of studies.

“As ethnic studies, we never have the purity of translation,” Dávila said. “We are in a very exciting space.”

Torres-Saillant’s largest concern, however, was the common practice of treating Latin American texts solely as cultural relics, thereby neglecting traditional critical examination of the work’s literary elements.

“What happens to a work of art when it is treated strictly as an anthropological artifact?” Torres-Saillant said. “We need to admit that literature is a difficult thing that is not easily accessible, and that to study it requires as much training as an anthropologist does. We need to try to do them justice.”

This problem was met with much agreement among panelists and audience members alike. While the first roundtable ended shortly after Torres-Saillant’s piercing question, this interpretive problem was far from solved.

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