Junot Díaz (Pulitzer Prize, The Brief Wondrous Adventures of Oscar Wao) and Edwidge Danticat (MacArthur Genius, Brother, I'm Dying) are apparently great friends. And it seems that their connection came through in a shared reading at the New Yorker Festival, where they had a fascinating conversation.
Jezebel tells the story:
Diaz said he'd been pilloried in the mainstream nerd press (only sort of an oxymoron) in a way that smacked of racism. He then made a point about scifi that doesn't get made often enough:
If it wasn't for people of color's experiences and women's experiences, the genre wouldn't exist.
Scifi frequently gets portrayed as a refuge for socially awkward white boys, but everything from Isaac Asimov to Battlestar Galactica is permeated with issues of otherness, or, as Diaz puts it, "questions of alien contact." Stories of new worlds and interspecies warfare can be a way of representing the experiences of immigrants — or of people whose bodies, for reasons of race or gender or size or shape or ability — don't conform to the established norm. People who write about scifi are starting to accept this — female science fiction and fantasy writers are getting more attention, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay brought the related issue of sexual orientation in superhero comics to the fore. But the nerd backlash against Oscar Wao shows how eager some marginalized groups are to marginalize others, especially in the literary world, and how jealously (and dumbly) geeks sometimes guard their
The writers go on to talk about how reading and writing teaches empathy; that is, that literature is "one of the clearest ways to come into communion with another subjectivity." While the Jezebel writer is skeptical of the idea that reading makes you a good person, I believe it. I feel it. Books are an opportunity to have a sustained experience in another character's consciousness, an experience that has few (any?) counterparts in the real world. In reading, I found myself feeling real, visceral empathy for despicable characters like Humbert Humbert, Bob Ewell, or Pecola's dad in The Bluest Eye. It is a sort of "love your enemies" experience that absolutely translates into real life. To say that reading teaches empathy doesn't diminish the complexity of literature, but rather, emphasizes it.