About two weeks ago, I had an unexpectedly entertaining and inspiring evening at the MCA. Junot Díaz was the guest of the sixth edition of the Dialogue series, an annual conversation whose previous speakers include Bill T. Jones, Henessy Youngman, Michelle T. Boone, Naomi Beckwith, Elaine Heumann Gurian, and Mark Bradford.
Díaz is an award winning novelist, he received the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Among a myriad of other jaw-dropping distinctions, he is also the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.
Although I was familiar with his name and achievements, I had never read any of Diaz’s books before attending this talk. I walked out of the MCA that night thinking I had missed out on something huge, but feeling incredibly excited at the prospect of reading my future favourite books.
At first, Díaz appears awkwardly funny on stage, but this may only be a strategy because he ends up being one of the best speakers I have ever had to listen to. He is candid, direct yet tactful.
“Public speaking is terrifying,” he says, and then confesses that his icebreaker is to ask people in the audience where they come from.
Ten minutes in the talk, it seems like Díaz is actually performing a one man show: the crowd is laughing almost hysterically, clapping at every one of his jokes or witty remarks.
The talk is fairly unconventional as Díaz likes to start with questions rather than to keep them for the end. Among other things, he is asked about the Freedom University, for which he is a board adviser. Located in Athens, Georgia, Freedom University is a non-physical college providing education to undocumented students who were barred from entering the top five state schools.
Throughout the Q&A session, Díaz encourages almost all of the audience members asking him for advice to form thinking and acting groups with other attendees who face similar situations, to ally and actively work on solutions together.
The Dialogue series are meant as “a conversation on museums, diversity and inclusion.” Without a doubt, Díaz was a perfect guest for this event and nailed what the MCA hoped to achieved with it.