February 20, 2009

Author Diaz '95 Returns to Cornell

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While the startling blue of Cayuga Lake could be seen by all those looking out the windows on the top floor of the Johnson Museum yesterday, most of the several dozen people in the conference room were not there for the view. The focus, instead, was to the front where a colorful group, including a composer, a documentary film aficionado, an education expert and a Pulitzer prize-winning author, sat on a panel aptly named “Arts and the Impact on Immigration.”
“Whenever I think about arts, I always think about politics,” said Prof. Helena Viramontes, director of creative writing, who introduced the panel.
Prof. Sofia Villenas, education and Latino/a Studies Program, Prof. Roberto Sierra, music chair, and Prof. Amy Villarejo, theatre, film and dance chair, lent their perspectives to the uniquely political and artistic discussion sponsored by the Cornell Council for the Arts and co-sponsored by the Latino Studies Program.
“I’m surrounded by chairs,” joked moderator Ernesto Quinoñez, creative writing.
At one end of the table sat the one member of the panel not on Cornell’s faculty, but an MFA graduate in 1995 — Junot Díaz. He has gone on to be one of the most successful authors of the nearly 105-year history of creative writing at Cornell, joining such literary giants as Vladimir Nabokov (a professor until 1977), E.B. White ’21, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. ’44, to name a few. By many measures of literary success, from the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to his bestselling debut book Drown, Díaz is, according to The New Yorker one of the top twenty writers of the twenty-first century.
The panel inaugurated the “Centennial Plus Five Celebration,” a “year-long festival” that will include readings by alumni poets and writers.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Díaz contributed his personal perspective to the panel, organized to “address the most pressing issues of immigration, its myths and its strengths,” according to the CCA. As a student at Cornell, Díaz contributed to an effort in the mid-1990s to improvethe Latino studies and experience on campus. As a result of this effort, the University established the Latino Living Center, according to the Cornell Chronicle.
Quinoñez began by diving into a question about the potential for a “super Latino” constituency, a united economic and political bloc he called “the sleeping giant.”
“We are awake,” assured Sierra.
“It’s certainly possible,” Díaz said, pulling the mic towards him after a few pensive moments. “But the way the current … narrative identities are constructed in the Americas … communities being fragmented at the speed of light … Anything that’s going to create a new possibility for a new productive collective is going to require a narrative that currently doesn’t exist.
“For me, what I think is happening,” he continued, “most of the folks being broken into 25 million pieces aren’t the ones being asked to help engineer the solution, aren’t part of the narrative that will bring us together … the only experts we have are the ones we’ve got downstairs cooking and cleaning.”
The diverse set of answers set the tone for the rest of the discussion, focusing on themes of identity, solidarity, multiculturalism, capitalization, education, immigration, the current economic crisis, the fragmentation and dissipation of culture and, in particular, the arts.
Sierra spoke to the current frigid economic climate for the arts.
“Every time I look at a publication, I see yet another cultural institution either falling or in trouble,” Sierra said. “As things get tighter economically I tend to think Latinos and minorities in general will be suffering … more because we are always at the tail end of the line. It has gone deep enough now to have a sense of … desperation … the ugly head of racism perking up … Who is actually legitimate? That will eventually be reflected in what we do.”
The panelists expressed a full range of opinion, from frustration, to grimness, to optimism, peppered with moments of the expression of blunt honesty, laughter-inducing humor and hope.
“Jesus, given the forces stacked against humanity,” Díaz said, “we’re doing a damn good job of keeping art in our lives.”
The panelists also took questions from the audience on similar topics broached in the discussion.
Paige Feldman ’10 came to the panel for her “love” of Junot Díaz and the Latino Studies program, spoke to the relationship between immigration and the arts.
“All human movement tends to impact the way we think about ourselves and the kind of art we produce,” she said.
“I think the arts has a lot to teach us about multiculturalism as content that needs to be included across the curriculum, as a way for students to identify themselves in the teaching and learning process,” Villenas said after the panel.
“The vast array of practices that can go under [arts],” added Villarejo, “I am optimistic those will continue to be vital in communities and political tasks as they always have been.”[img_assist|nid=35396|title=”I’m a huge fan…”|desc=Junot Diaz, after receiving the 2009 Eisner artist of the year award at the Johnson Art Museum, meets yesterday with supporters.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Quinoñez had this message for the Cornell community:
“There’s hope,” he said. “They’ve always been cutting arts — it doesn’t matter if times are good or bad. But the arts have always been free.”
Prof. Cecilia Lawless, romance studies, reminded the audience that the U.S. is “a nation of immigrants,” and called for, “find[ing] new strategies, new narratives, push[ing] away from the old strategies, with panels like this. New engagement.
“Let’s all do that,” she said.
Díaz also returned to Cornell to receive the Eisner Artist of the Year Award yesterday. The Committee on the Arts of the University Council and the Cornell Council for the Arts established the honor, given to an alumna or alumnus who has achieved national or international success, in 1997, to present and recognize such artists’ work at Cornell.
The celebration continues today when Díaz joins fellow MFA graduates Melissa Bank ’88, the best-selling author of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and Julie Shumacher ’86, author of Black Box and An Explanation for Chaos, for a 7:30 reading this evening in Schwartz Auditorium in Rockefeller Hall.
Díaz currently teaches creative writing at MIT.