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Junot Díaz, bound for Buffalo, on abuse, authority and the power of forgetting

Few have written more eloquently about abuses of authority than Junot Díaz.

He took it on in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," a withering critique of American imperialism embedded in a story of aspiration and brutality. He faced it down from many directions in his short story collections "Drown," from 1996, and "This Is How Your Lose Her," which immediately preceded his 2012 "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

And he wrestled with it in his recent essay in The New Yorker, "The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma," in which he wrote with devastating clarity about the lifelong impact of his rape at the age of 8. The essay went viral upon its publication, lauded by readers and critics for the author's honesty and insight into the impacts of sexual abuse.

Díaz, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, is perhaps the exact thinker for Western New York at this moment. As the area reels from our own painful version of the Catholic church's global sexual abuse scandal, Diaz will appear on April 20 in Kleinhans Music Hall to read as the final event in the current season of Just Buffalo Literary Center's Babel reading series.

During a recent phone interview from Cambridge, Mass., conducted before his New Yorker essay was published, Díaz spoke about the abuse scandal. As a cultural Catholic raised in the Caribbean Catholic tradition, he said, the betrayal of trust Western New York Catholics have been grappling with is an issue he consciously explores in his work.

"A lot of people take advantage of the ways that we give up authority. And nowhere do you see that kind of confusion and agony that arise when one realizes that one has given away more than one should have to flawed, troubled, predatory individuals than in this instance," Díaz said. "Most of us grew up in the tradition that these are the instruments of the lord, these are the agents of the lord."

This blind trust, he said, "has hurt us very deeply."

"We need a new covenant with our churches. We deeply need a new covenant. But that'll be hard to create and sustain because as you see everywhere, people deeply want to give up their authority. They deeply want to fantasize about a perfect leader, a perfect mentor, a perfect shepherd. And religions thrive on that deep longing in people."

The same, in Díaz's estimation, goes for political leaders -- both democratically elected or militarily installed.

That connection, between an incurable human desire for authority and a regime or personality who understands how to exploit it, undergirds much of "Oscar Wao" and the rest of Díaz's small but remarkable body of work.

Key to the power of "Oscar Wao," and deeply applicable to the current political situation in the United States, is its evergreen commentary on the failures of cultural memory. Echoes of European imperialism and of the brutal Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic -- of many different kinds of violence ancient and new -- reverberate in the novel's contemporary setting, where this omnipresent propensity of violence sits just under the surface, just out of view and just beyond memory.

"Remembering is not as powerful an engine for the creation of identity as forgetting is. Really, one cannot emphasize enough how profoundly we are shaped by what we decide to forget," he said. "We can't always have the resources for every battle, but I just think it's convenient how what we choose to forget always seems to be strongly in line with what our political elites would want all of us to forget."

Díaz's latest project, a children's book about a girl called "Islandborn," also deals with this question. Its lesson? "Just because you don't remember a place doesn't mean it's not in you."

For kids, the lesson is a purely positive one. But for adults, as this author's work has always shown, it's a bit more complex.

"The United States, for a long time we've allowed all sorts of anti-democratic politics and movements to eat from our banquet, to feast from our banquet, to roost in this exquisitely vulnerable space that we've created," he said. "I think we're seeing the consequences of it."

To get get past the difficulties of the current moment, he added, "it's going to take a lot more struggle than I think most of us would care to contemplate. That's the way these things always are."

Event Preview

Junot Díaz appears as part of the Just Buffalo Literary Center's Babel reading series at 8 p.m. April 20 in Kleinhans Music Hall, 3 Symphony Circle. Tickets are $10 to $35. Call 832-5400 or visit justbuffalo.org.

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