Two award-winning writers met for the first time Saturday night in a conversation to benefit Intersection for the Arts, and wasted no time on small talk delving right into race and the arts.
“I became very aware that as a writer of color in the United States, skin privilege is for real,” said Junot Díaz, the author of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It is now being staged as a play, Fukú Americanus at Intersection until July 12.
Related Story Review of Fukú: See here
Eggers, who made a splash with his first novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when he was 21 years old, also co-founded 826 Valencia, a tutoring program in the Mission District that now has similar enterprises in six other cities.
Fans of both authors packed Glide Memorial Church and listened intently to the one-hour conversation in which Eggers praised the visiting writer. For his part, Díaz delighted them by offering his views on everything from awards to the way in which the literary community looks at writers of color.
Díaz said that after winning the Pulitzer, reporters asked, “How do you feel your ‘Dominicance’ influences you as a writer?”
“Why are you asking me that?” he replied. “Why aren’t you asking white writers how their whiteness influences their writing?”
Díaz, however, acknowledged that writing about a “nerdy” Dominican boy is what made his book a success.
“You should always write to the most specific audience imaginable, and from there it becomes universal,” Díaz advised.
Although Díaz criticized the gentrification in the Mission District, which he referred to as “economic violence,” he acknowledged San Francisco’s early support of his work. Seven months before winning the Pulitzer, readers here put his novel on the best seller’s list — the only city in the country to do so in advance of the prize.
The 40-year-old writer also stressed the importance of a diverse writing community.
“I don’t just want to read writing from 27-year-old hipster dudes,” he said of the homogeneity of writing schools. “We all lose out — the literature itself loses out.”
He was talking to the right man. Eggers has masterminded several collaborations between established writers, such as Amy Tan, community volunteers and high school students in San Francisco that have drawn on the rich immigrant experiences of students here.
Díaz, who teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he also worried about creating a readership for diverse authors.
“I am going to have 25 writers of color fighting for one person who is going to buy one of the books,” he said. “We are basically in a crisis of the arts … young people are not being encouraged on an institutional level to go to museums, to see dance or even to read.”
Later Deborah Cullinan, the executive director for Intersection of the Arts, agreed.
“Art culture is at risk more than ever,” she said. “This is the first time we’ve been on the chopping block — the things that are taken for granted. If you like an arts organization, support it. If you like artists, support them. If it’s Intersection, great. If it’s Glide great. But just do it now — it’s the time to do it. “
Cullinan added, “We need arts and culture in our community, in our neighborhoods more than we ever have. “
Fellow educator and audience member Jennie Gray said she liked the tenor of the interview and that Eggers and Díaz were “honest without getting inflated with ideas about themselves.”
Others, like City College student Terry Hwang, said she had also been able to talk to Díaz after the interview ended.
“He is so humble, “ Hwang said. “He knows his roots and knows who his people are.
Eggers had his own thoughts after the interview.
“[Díaz] expresses very complicated things about writing better than I can,” Eggers said. “He was exactly what I thought — except he cursed more.”