The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “Drown” came to UNC for Hispanic Heritage Month, the fifth annual celebration of Latino culture hosted by the Carolina Hispanic Association and the Carolina Latina/o Collaborative.
“Like many of us, I’m still kind of waiting for this country to start celebrating Latinos,” Diaz said. “It’s been a couple hundred years.”
Diaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, strode on stage wearing a sweatshirt and sneakers, holding an Alpine Bagel coffee cup, lacking a set of notes or one of his books.
He opened the talk with a handful of questions for the audience.
“It’s a Saturday night. I don’t know what you guys are doing here,” Diaz said, breaking into the frank and honest tone that characterized his entire talk. “We can talk about whatever you want to talk about.”
And that’s exactly what he did, avoiding the typical format of college lectures.
He challenged the audience to think about race and diversity, feminism and intersectionality, education and vocation.
“This generation is under so much pressure to brand themselves occupationally,” Diaz said. “You’re figuring it out, but you’re figuring it out under the weight of being a failed whatever.”
He spoke about his own experience with racial and ethnic identity.
“I’m often being asked to chop pieces of myself off to fit a box,” he said.
When it came time for him to read, he asked the audience if he could borrow a book, reading an excerpt from “This is How You Lose Her,” a compilation of short stories about intimacy — a topic Diaz said he is fascinated with.
“One thing I appreciated most was his brutal honesty,” said senior Ben Runkel, who attended the talk. “You don’t see that enough. He didn’t beat around the bush at all.”
Amos Fung, co-director of the Carolina Latina/o Collaborative, estimated about 650 people attended the talk.
“This is the largest keynote speaker yet,” Fung said. “We were pleasantly surprised to see so many students show up at the door.”
The talk was organized by the CLC in conjunction with the Carolina Union Activities Board.
Afterward, people who had read his books and those who just admired his stance on social issues formed a line leading outside of the Campus Y to get his signature.
“He asks questions. He doesn’t just answer questions. He asks them too,” said Carla Salas, co-director of the CLC. “He tries to engage people.”
As Diaz asked the audience to challenge preconceived notions and institutions, he also made room for his optimism about the future.
“What we don’t figure out, you will,” he said. “And that is the great hope always.”