Author Junot Díaz talks immigration, white supremacy, and science fiction

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EVANSTON, Ill. - Northwestern University's Ryan Auditorium buzzed with excitement as students and community members awaited the arrival of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz. The Dominican American writer has penned books such as Drown, This is How You Lose Her, and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He was featured Jan. 28 at Northwestern's Contemporary Thought Speaker Series, where he addressed a variety of topics regarding race and politics.

Díaz's persona and politics embody the central themes of his own literature, which include both a celebration of the Latin American/Caribbean diaspora and the broken promises of immigration in America. It is not uncommon for him to casually switch to Spanish mid-conversation, often drawing laughter from the crowd with his blunt sense of humor. In a wide-ranging interview with People's World, and in his discussion at Northwestern, Díaz explored the ways in which governments have failed immigrants, and spoke about how white supremacy plays a role in identity politics.

Díaz recently stirred up controversy when he was stripped of his Order of Merit - an honor he had garnered in 2009 from the New York consul of the Dominican Republic (D.R.) - over comments regarding the D.R.'s harsh policies toward Haitians migrating to the D.R. Díaz well understands the politics of scapegoating immigrants. When asked during the interview why xenophobia was so commonplace in American politics, he said: "One way to distract and mobilize the masses is by provoking an anti-immigrant movement. It's an easy target. It's easier to get infuriated at the idea of a colored person, rather than dealing with the reality of economic hegemony." Díaz's politics have also been heavily influenced by his upbringing: He migrated to the United States at age six, four months before the 1975 fall of Saigon, when anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S. were at a peak.

The immigration crisis Díaz has at the forefront of his mind, though, is not the one that attended his own migration to the U.S. Nor is it the one currently underway in this country. Instead, Díaz refers to a crisis that was triggered in 2013 when the Dominican Supreme Court ruled that individuals who were born in the country between 1929 and 2010 to non-citizen parents did not qualify as Dominican citizens. This decision caused thousands of people to retroactively lose their citizenship, and prompted outcry among human rights activists. Most of the people affected by the changes were born in the D.R. to Haitian parents, many of whom did not have the proper paperwork to establish their identity and prove that they arrived before October 2011. (Many Haitians fled to the D.R. following the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010.) Approximately 45,000 undocumented immigrants registered with the Dominican Republic to have their citizenship reinstated. Capacity limitations in the government program, however, have only allowed about one-fifth of these applicants to receive licenses thus far. It was this situation, that prompted Díaz to make the public comments that led to his being stripped of his award.

Promoting decolonization

Díaz frequently emphasizes the importance of "decolonizing," a term used today in many social justice circles. Decolonization specifically refers to the act of dismantling white supremacist structures and withdrawal from colonial power dynamics, both in society at large and on an individual level. It is this political and economic independence that Díaz believes empowers disenfranchised populations. "If we send our politicians to act upon hegemonic subjugation, we will wait forever," he said during the interview. "We need to decolonize. Our issues must be fought by non-governmental collectives."

From a sociological perspective, colonization has been a destructive force in marginalized communities. Its conceptualizations originated as a byproduct of manifest destiny, but continue to survive within modern society in various forms such as gentrification, the school-to-prison pipeline, capitalism, and more. As a Latino who grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, Junot's consumption of American culture varied drastically from that of more mainstream children. "I had to learn all the rules of the racial system growing up," he says. "It was a lot like a role playing game." Using science fictional universes as a beacon, Díaz found that his knowledge of geek culture helped him to develop a clearer understanding of his role as a marginalized person in American society.

Responding to a question from a Northwestern student about the role of fantasy in his own literature, Díaz pinpoints the popularity of the genre as a means of exemplifying society's validation of racism and misogyny. "Fantasy is popular because it is the inclination to oppose logic. Racism is predicated in fantasy and no amount of logic can pry that ideology away from a white supremacist." He went on to express his thoughts on the way in which popular media platforms perpetuate rape culture. "Shows like Game of Thrones frequently depict brutal rape scenes," he says, "because we have no problem consuming that fantasy."

Despite his commercial success, Díaz continues to speak out against xenophobic politics and white supremacy, even when his dissent comes at a personal cost. His politics and his unconventional upbringing have shaped his literature in unique ways, have earned him critical acclaim, and landed his work on the top of reading lists around the world.

As Díaz wrapped up the discussion at Northwestern, he addressed the crowd with a parting message: "Ultimately the revolution against the system is won when people of color find self-love," he said. "That's the funniest part, this struggle of ours is, in fact, a romance novel."

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP