On Writing

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 19, 2011

How Reading Junot Diaz Can Help America Prosper

Everett Collection

When I teach fiction writing out here on the frozen prairie, many of my undergraduates come to my class from programs in food science, animal ecology or engineering. Very few of them have read much by the way of contemporary literature, and so I begin each semester by telling my students why we are going to be reading so many things that feel, in their terms, “depressing.”

I assure them it’s not some sadistic urge to make the month of February even more emotionally grueling than it is. Rather, I explain, we are here not only to read widely and write well, but we are here to train our hearts and our minds in the art of complexity. Things might get uncomfortable, I warn them. But you have to train yourself to deal with intellectual discomfort, no matter what professional destination you’re headed towards.

This semester, in one of my fiction workshops, we’ve visited the deep class tensions and consumerist malaise evident in the works of contemporary writers. It’s not always easy reading, and the conversations can take us into some rather dark places.

One morning, after we listened to a podcast of Donald Barthelme’s classic story, “I Bought A Little City,” one student, a veteran of the Iraq War, admitted that Barthelme’s vision was not unlike the aimless boredom and bureaucratic absurdity he experienced in Fallujah. He talked of shooting stray dogs without reason (just like the narrator in Barthelme’s story does), paying scores of young children twenty bucks a pop to sweep the street, and of the decision to rebuild a water park in the middle of the war-ravaged city.

Write about it, I told him. He seemed taken aback by the suggestion.

It was a profound moment for the rest of us in the room. Barthelme’s worldview can be screamingly funny on the page, but when we realize how close it comes to the truth of life on a post-industrial, war-weary planet, it seems prophetically chilling. It’s the truthful, chilling voices that often are the catalysts urging use to do better as a people and as a nation.

Another morning, after I lectured on Junot Diaz’s story “Nilda,” a heartbreaking coming-of-age story in which the narrator, Junior, learns that nobody is invincible, not even his once mythically heroic brother, struck down by cancer at seventeen. Despite Junior’s intentions on leaving his neighborhood and moving on, despite his obvious intelligence, the story ends with a scene, in which he, five years later, randomly meets his brother’s ex-girlfriend in a mini-mall Laundromat: both of them still wanting out, both of them still there.


“Sometimes you get stuck in a place you hate,” a student said to me in office hours the next day. “I never thought of that before. How easy it is to get stuck in a place that you hate.”

This science major has no intention of ever writing fiction again once he’s done with my class. But there is a very good chance that he’ll be working for a Big Ag outfit some day, and that he’ll have a better understanding of the paralysis felt by struggling family farmers increasingly beholden to both federal subsidies and corporate agriculture. He’ll understand, at least at the heart level, that the actions of the wealthy and powerful often have irreversible consequences on hard-working Americans. Whatever challenges he faces, personally or on the behalf of his country, I hope he carries with him the ability to stare at a complex situation and emerge with an answer, a realization, and a vision as simple and true as the one he had in my classroom.

Perhaps this is overly hopeful, but even in the relentless Iowa winter, I am hopeful. Many of my students seem to be responding to the dark edges of literature in a way I have never seen before. One class seems much more talkative than usual, more willing to accept the fact that life, politics, morality—all these things—hover mostly in the gray areas rather than in the black and white. Their insights often trump mine.

It could be that the continued economic malaise, endless wars, hateful political rhetoric, and senseless violence of the past decade have made their mark on this new crop of students. They don’t need to be convinced of life’s unfairness (they’re soon to enter the worst white-collar labor market ever), of the horrifying randomness of violence (school shootings have always been part of their landscape), and of the real dangers of climate change (their campus has endured epic floods twice in the past three years.) This generation might understand complexity better than I ever imagined they could.

So, this semester, despite my university’s focus on science and technology, and despite some state lawmakers’ insistence that the liberal arts are a luxury we can no longer afford—this is what I plan to do: to use literature to help my students understand their experiences in a new way and to understand the experiences of others with more empathy.

Some of what the budget-cutting decision makers tell me is true: as a novelist and English professor, I can’t teach these kids the scientific and technical skills they need to succeed—financially— in the changing global marketplace. But I can teach them to feel comfortable with the difficult thinking and critical reflection that will be necessary as they face the hard choices of an increasingly uncertain future, and as they gear up to meet the challenges of a new world, one we’ve not yet even begun to imagine.

Dean Bakopoulos is the former director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council and a professor at Iowa State University of Science & Technology. He is the recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation and his second novel, My American Unhappiness, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June.

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