Junot Díaz Gets Real

Pulitzer Prize–winner discusses his love—and tough love—for libraries

February 11, 2018

Junot Díaz
Junot Díaz speaks at the 2018 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Denver. Photo: Cognotes

“A librarian gave me the gift of libraries, and to this day, I consider it one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.”

Junot Díaz, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, 2007), and the upcoming kids’ picture book Islandborn (Dial Books, 2018), delivered a love letter to libraries when he addressed a capacity crowd as an Auditorium Speaker at the 2018 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Denver. The talk was boisterous and effusive with praise and gratitude, but also contained much tough love as Díaz held the profession’s feet to the fire on many issues.

Díaz credits the library with saving his life many times growing up. He came to the US from the Dominican Republic at age six, and the library was the one place where he was made welcome, he said.

“I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if my elementary school librarian didn’t take me on a tour of our tiny school library,” he said. “The rest of the country was telling me that I didn’t belong, and here’s this librarian telling me that this world of books was mine.”

Díaz said that the library has been the one true constant in his life, especially during the darkest times of his youth when he was lost, deeply depressed, and disinterested in school. Díaz said that he would regularly skip school and walk four miles to the library three-to-five times a week, where he would escape into apocalyptic fiction.

“The harder the times were, the more library-rific I got. My ass would cut school and go to the library. Who does that?” he asked with a laugh. “You’re looking at him.”

Díaz credits those long walks to and from the library and the escapism provided by its books with saving him and providing guidance. They also led him to a deeper realization about the books he was reading. Not seeing people of color like himself in those books was painful, he said.

“It’s like living next to the ocean and never being able to put your feet in it,” he said about the lack of representation in literature. It was one of the driving forces that led him to become a writer, he said.

Díaz minced no words when he discussed lack of representation in the library profession today. He insisted that libraries must look inward and redefine themselves to truly reflect the diversity of their community.

“I wish that libraries would finally have a reckoning and know that [staffs that are] 88% white means 5000% percent agony for people of color, no matter how liberal and enlightened you think you are,” he said. “We have to decolonize [libraries].”

Hard truths notwithstanding, Díaz looks to libraries and librarians as symbols of the resistance in our current fraught climate of anti-immigrant racism and populist demagoguery.

“Libraries are the beating heart of a free democratic society,” he said. “Librarians are not perfect, not by a long shot, but I’d put my money on librarians over any of our politicians … I know librarians. Yours is not an easy calling. It can be thankless, poorly paid … but you will save us from the madness we’ve unleashed.”