By Nick Statt
Commons Day, highlighted by the summer reading assignment given to all freshmen, is intended to give Stony Brook’s incoming class a push in the right direction. It’s suppose to be inspirational, universal and a taste of what college will teach them about education and becoming a better person, like 2008’s choice God Grew Tired of Us by Sudanese refugee John Bul Dau or 2005’s The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, the coarse Vietnam veteran.
But this time around, Stony Brook opened its eyes to the fact that incoming freshman can be lazy, defiant and of the belief that the last thing they should be doing to get acclimated to college is read a book they have never heard of and listen to the author waste their pre- cious time for an afternoon.
That’s quite possibly why they as- signed Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a cultural master- piece about a nerdy Dominican under- dog who realizes his dreams after years of being walked on as a loser and out- cast. It was a complex and unexpected choice, but one that now proves to have been remarkable. It sparked an invaluable moment in Stony Brook’s Commons Day history when Junot Diaz gave an outstanding speech on the Staller Center stage on October 20.
Charlie Robbins, Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, introduced Diaz by listing a number of his awards and honors, from teaching creative writing at MIT to being fiction editor at the Boston Review. Diaz published only one short story collection, titled Drown, before writing Oscar Wao and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, another honor Robbins made sure to point out.
Diaz sauntered from behind the backdrop of red in a plain black hoodie, blue jeans and running shoes. His first words as he causally leaned into the mic –“That was some introduction…fuck.” The crowd of restless freshman erupted in laughter at having an expletive thrown at them in less than ten seconds, while the first two rows of reserved seating were a palette of dropped jaws and wide eyes.
It became clear from the get-go that Diaz wasn’t going to sugar-coat his words, talk down to his audience or pre- tend he wasn’t sitting in front of a crowd of 18 year olds who were forced to be there and half of whom probably didn’t even read his book. With one hand on his head and the other acting as a man- made visor to block out the bright lights beating down, Diaz reacted to his audience’s contract of attendance. “Holy shit man, that’s deep,” he said with a wide grin. “Well, I appreciate you being here even though you’re forced to be here.” Again, the audience exploded at his raw honesty.
Diaz was quick to jump into his im- migrant family life. Having moved from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Re- public to Parlin, NJ, Diaz’s life closely mirrors that of his title character, Oscar Wao. “The idea that one my parents’ kids would do something as impracti- cal as be an artist was considered in- sane,” he said. “They gave up everything for immigration,” he said, “not so I could be an artist.”
He outlined how growing up within a Dominican framework required him to follow a practical profession, like being a doctor or engineer. “I wanted to follow that dream, but I couldn’t…”
With the fluidity of a veteran speaker, Diaz changed his tone instantaneously, saying, “The safest thing you can do is live someone else’s dream.” The crowd grew silent, again caught off guard by the intensity of Diaz’s words. “It’s the most terrible way to waste your life,” he added.
“Living your own dream is very dif- ficult, “ Diaz said when an audience member asked him what inspired him to write Oscar Wao. “I was a kid trying to realize my mother’s dream…the book in many ways is part of the reason I couldn’t do it.”
“Nobody was writing about the Dominican Republic in any way that made sense to me…so I said, ‘Fuck it man. I can either live my Mom’s dream or I can be fucking broke and live my dream.’” He was quick to relieve the tension, saying that his mother still knocks on him for choosing the route of an artist by telling him that he “goes to shit in hoodies.” Diaz couldn’t help but laugh and shrug his shoulders.
With only a quarter of an hour left after a hilariously lewd short story reading from his new collection, Diaz ad- dressed education with an absolutely uncensored viewpoint.
“To be educated…is to be fundamentally transformed, so that the per- son who walks in would be unrecognizable to the person who leaves,” he said. “I spent my four years [at Rutgers University] keeping my guard up…I was afraid of being vulnerable.” Diaz explained that not until he attended Cornell University for his masters degree did he finally receive the education he should have gotten when he was an undergraduate.
“It’s okay to be accredited, but you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t receive an education.” He stressed a bold point in saying that professors and administrators cannot educate you in the truest form. “They pretend like they can… but you have to give that to yourself. Transform yourself, make yourself anew.”
As Diaz walked offstage, it was quite possible that he had just finished a routine speech, one given to any of the colleges on his tour list. But despite that, the gravity of his advice, the raw honesty and intensity poured into each word and the amount of true value they could prove to be to a campus body as culturally diverse as Stony Brook, was still unmatched.