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Author Junot Díaz on immigrants, family, criticism

According to his family, a smart immigrant kid like Junot Díaz was supposed to become a doctor. If he failed, he could become an engineer.

So it was incredibly hard for Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” to tell his mother that he was going to become an author.

“It was a big shocker. And I won’t lie: Believe it or not, my family is still profoundly disappointed,” said Díaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. “Those cultural acknowledgements you get as a writer don’t mean anything to immigrants.”

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of writing and fiction editor at the Boston Review, his new collection of short stories, “This Is How You Lose Her,” debuted this fall as a New York Times bestseller.

Díaz addressed students, faculty and staff on Thursday in Blackman Auditorium for an event in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Dean’s Lecture Series. It was co-sponsored by the Humanities Center and the Boston Review.

Like his writing, Díaz’s talk was funny, frank and frequently crass.

He read the title story from his new short-story collection — pausing at one point to urge a parent to cover her young child’s ears for a particularly specific reference to sex. He then fielded questions from audience members, who broached topics such as his family, his education at Rutgers, the purpose of his writing and the role his immigrant status plays in critical perception of his work.

Díaz said he has been pegged as a writer of “immigrant fiction,” a term he shuns.

“There happen to be immigrants in the book, so you’re an immigrant writer,” Díaz said. “That’s like saying, ‘There happen to be [people] with hats in you’re book; you’re a hat writer.’ ”

Díaz explained that he writes books that address a wide range of topics comprising family, masculinity, writing, and yes, immigration, knowing that readers are capable of making nuanced judgments.

“I knew that for a man of color, a man of African descent, an immigrant from a very poor community, I knew that surely my allies were not going to be the shibboleths of criticism,” Díaz said. “My allies had to be readers because I am a reader. And readers are incredibly generous. Readers fall in love with the strangest [stuff]. You’ll fall in love with a book that’s 20 percent Elvish. You just will.”

“Readers are incredibly generous and they’re incredibly tolerant,” he continued. “Have you ever tried to talk a reader out of a book they love? No, just give it a shot. Try to talk them out of their favorite book and you’ll encounter the kind of orthodoxies that make some of our religious absolutists look mild.”

Most of the audience members were Díaz fans, but the author also asked students to raise their hands if their professors required them to attend the lecture, the same way he’d asked New Jersey natives and immigrants to identify themselves at the start of his talk. He often requires his students to attend events or performances that they might otherwise skip.

“I do think it’s OK to sort of compel students to go see artists,” Díaz said. “Basically we live in a culture that thinks of art as at best a frivolity and at worst as a kind of dangerous and absurd pastime. And yet of course, anyone who is really interested in the arts and takes the arts seriously … knows that the foundation of what we call our civic society is what we call the arts. The arts have a way of opening up discussion and dialogue in a way that very few practices do.”