It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen….” So begins George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, originally published in 1949. In 2017, nearly 70 years after being written, the novel has resurged to the top of several bestseller lists. Set in Oceania, a totalitarian police superstate controlled and heavily surveilled by the Inner Party and its odious leader known as ‘Big Brother,’ 1984 is a stark condemnation and cautionary tale of blind hyper-nationalism and governmental overreach. Readers across the United States seem to be turning to Orwell’s literary masterpiece in an attempt to find some explanation, some prophetic elucidation, of the current state of the nation and our world. As one reads the day’s news, plastered with alarming headlines of antithetical governmental action and the constant repetition of that name, there is certainly an aura of peculiarity — a total aberrancy and almost a perversion of reality; the thirteenth bell of the clock might not surprise any of us. This is why 1984 has succeeded in attracting readers almost seven decades after its publication; although on paper it appears far-fetched and somewhat apocalyptic, Orwell masterfully pinpoints human behavioral and ideological strains which evoke the possibility of a future in the United States not too distant from that of Oceania. Yet, as entrancing and captivating as the dystopian narrative of 1984 is, Orwell offers us arguably even greater meaning through his own life and in some of his other literary work.

Eric Arthur Blair, best known by his pen name “George Orwell,” was born in Motihari, British India, in 1903. When he was quite young, he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma; his experiences there inspired him to write his first novel, Burmese Days, in which he explores the dark nature of imperial and colonial society. This work marked the beginning of Orwell’s deep exposition and denunciation of oppressive governmental apparatus. In 1936, however, Orwell decided to take direct action. Deeply concerned with Francisco Franco’s uprising in Spain and the rise of fascism throughout Europe, he flew to Barcelona to join the Republican cause. In Spain, Orwell encountered a highly fractured and complex political situation; the legitimately elected Republican government was backed by an army composed of numerous factions with opposing strategic and theoretical views, the main ones being the anarchist-leaning POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) and the PSUC (Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia), the official wing of the Communist Party in Spain, which was backed by Soviet arms.

Having spent several weeks on the military front — although witnessing little action — Orwell was injured by a bullet to the throat, which narrowly missed his arterial vein, and was prompted to return to Barcelona. Tensions between the opposing factions had been high in the city and fighting eventually broke out in an episode that became known as the Barcelona May Days. This is when Orwell came into firsthand contact with the Communist propaganda machine, an encounter which would have profound, lasting effects on the writer. The Communist press had undertaken a campaign of lies and distortion against the POUM, the party which Orwell had fought for. They labeled the anarchist-leaning party as Trotskyists and accused them of collaborating with the fascists; seeing the propagation of falsehoods against those fighting for the same, supposedly revolutionary cause profoundly disturbed Orwell. As the situation deteriorated, the Communists tightening their grip on the Republican cause and banning the POUM, Orwell escaped Spain by train, eventually returning to England.

Orwell teaches us to never take our eyes off those in power, even if we ourselves have given it to them; a pertinent lesson for our times, if there ever was one.

His entire experience during the War is recounted in one of his best and most underrated works, Homage to Catalonia. The book received little attention and was largely neglected upon publication, being released in the United States only in 1952. At a time when the Stalinist — and Communist — status quo monopolized much of the revolutionary narrative across the globe, criticisms of the mainstream machine were automatically deemed counterrevolutionary. Nevertheless, Orwell unflinchingly proceeded to push his criticisms toward the machine. Herein lies one of his greatest qualities as a writer and literary figure: Orwell always writes his conscience. His prose flows out of his internal vision of the world and moral compass, regardless of partisanship or ideology, as especially evinced in Homage to Catalonia. He never writes for us, or attempts to impose on us a specific moral outlook on the world; rather, he simply writes what he sees, and how sees it, with brutal honesty. We are left to think for ourselves, to make our own conclusions about the world: all Orwell does is point the direction. Through this, Orwell provides us a powerful antidote for our own times. The increasing proliferation of polarizing partisanship consists heavily of imposing and adhering to certain pre-conceived moral narratives. In Orwell, however, it is essential for the individual to see the truth for himself and derive his own conclusions — a practice deeply lacking in our current political sphere, and one which might go a long way in combating the toxic dichotomous polarization that plagues us. Orwell’s experience in Spain would also inspire him to write another of his most celebrated novels, Animal Farm, which retains and emphasizes all his aforementioned qualities.

Animal Farm, released in 1945, is an allegorical story of the Stalinist era, and a hard-hitting criticism of its machinations. In the novella, Orwell depicts the popular, romantic uprising of oppressed farmhouse animals against their human owners, and then the complete distortion of the cause by its leaders, the pigs, once they attain power. Here, Orwell exposes his greatest qualities as a writer. He cuts deep into the Stalinist system and the false promises made at the expense of the hopeless through brilliant satire. He does not need to tell us how and why Stalinism is wrong, he does not need to pontificate; all Orwell does is lay bare and clear that which to him seemed obviously absurd, but that which to many was not. This is a sign of true genius; being able to see as obvious that which eludes so many others. Animal Farm, along with 1984, remains as one of the most relevant pieces of literature of our times. It reminds us of the power of rhetoric, and the enormous distance that can exist between it and the truth. It teaches us to be wary of those who promise, but provide little substance, and thus prey upon the hopes of the hopeless. Above all, Orwell teaches us to never take our eyes off those in power, even if we ourselves have given it to them; a pertinent lesson for our times, if there ever was one.

If 1984 is to be revived and brought into the popular cultural sphere once more, Orwell — his logic, being, and implications — should come with it. He, more than any other, reminds us of the power of literature and its capability to reflect and explore humanity’s relations to power. We should read Orwell’s masterpiece not because it fuels our cynicism of the current state of things, as grim as they may be, but because it provides us with the powerful tools to resist and overcome it. In times of vitriolic nationalism, undying allegiances to ideology and narratives, and the blurring of the line between truth and falsehood, Orwell is nothing short of essential. Although political action is of course pragmatically important, especially in these times, it is enduring works such as that of Orwell’s that help formulate a resistance much more profound in nature: a true, deep-seated, emancipation of the mind. It is this art that reminds us of the invisible foundation upon which power rests, the one rooted in our own individual minds; it reminds us that we are essentially in control, but that we surrender it much too quickly. Yet, our times, possibly some of the most tumultuous and volatile of human history, are almost completely drained of this type of art. We should continue to read Orwell, to propel his work, in order to inspire individuals to realize the capabilities that exist within themselves and thus do away with chains before they can ever manifest themselves and cut oppression from its deepest roots.

 

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Marilynne Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist, best known for her novels Gilead and Housekeeping as well as her writings on modern Christianity. She was named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in 2016 and graduated from Brown University in 1966. Robinson currently teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

 

What do you think the power of fiction is in a world that increasingly emphasizes empirical analysis?

 

I think we are too ready to characterize the world on the basis of what we might be seeing at any given moment, then to shape our lives and work around these assumptions, giving them a reality they would not have otherwise. A dominance of empirical analysis could be interpreted to mean that the ancient human craving for narrative is being starved and good fiction would be especially welcome. In fact, our culture is saturated now with fiction in the form of film and television drama. Very much that is represented as empirical would not bear scrutiny, being itself fictionalized by bias or commercialism. Any good book of any kind always has an honorable place, no matter what seems to be going on around it.

 

Why do you think religion has such a significant impact on American politics?

 

It saddens me to say that I see little evidence of actual religion in our politics now. I see factions who claim to be religious and who put the success of their particular faction far above the claims and obligations of religion. Faith, hope, and love are hardly qualities expressed in the conduct and language of those political figures who are most inclined to treat Christianity as if it were their personal property.

 

You have criticized American politics for being dominated by fear. You have also pointed out that America is a majority Christian country and fear is not a Christian frame of mind. Why do you think fear has co-opted both religious rhetoric and American political rhetoric?

 

I think this fear is largely a commercial product – highly paid loudmouths peddling dread and adrenaline, gold, and guns. They have insinuated themselves into the culture as journalists and political and religious figures and made a killing at it, exploiting the beautiful First Amendment to misinform and mislead the vulnerable.

 

In your essay, “Fear,” you cited the debate over gun laws and the Second Amendment as an example of unfounded fear driving policy. How do we overcome this fear in order to enact positive change?

 

We are in the middle of a great test of our culture and institutions. No doubt good minds are at work on these problems. One great help would be to end the obstruction of government, to put a stop to these recurring deadlocks and crises that make constitutional government look ineffective and unsustainable. Another would be to distribute wealth and economic activity more broadly through culture through better wages and development of infrastructure. Another would be to restore our magnificent public universities to the public by lowering tuition, so that they are the broad foundation of opportunity they were meant to be. Fear and resentment come most naturally to people who do not see a future for themselves. Sadly, they support those who work against their interests.

 

In recent years, Christianity has been used to justify an “us versus them” dichotomy in politics. Do you think this is a result of our political climate or some broader change in Christian values?

 

The history of Christianity is mingled, distracted, and corrupted by tribalism, which is at odds with its most basic teachings. Loving one’s neighbor is hard; loving one’s enemy is harder. But where there is no sign that the attempt is made, where Christianity becomes a pretext for hostility and judgmentalism, the religion is slandered by those who lay claim to it.

 

You have criticized the idea of “identity politics,” which implies membership with a specific group, preferring instead to acknowledge “the miraculous privilege of existence as a conscious being.” What would you say to marginalized groups that seek to find solidarity and understanding with people of shared identities?

 

Certainly marginalized people benefit from an awareness of themselves as a community. They should value their shared culture and assert their rights and interests. The problem enters when identity in this sense encourages the larger culture in the terrible habit of thinking of people primarily or exclusively in terms of gender, race, or ethnicity. That is the trap we all want to struggle out of.

 

Do you think that Americans take democracy for granted?

 

Americans do indeed take democracy for granted. There was nonsense around a few years ago to the effect that it was simply the end state of liberal capitalism, maximally and unpoetically efficient. In fact, it is an heritage, an ethos, and an art. We need to take care of it, respect it, and acknowledge its benefits and its brilliant potential.

 

You have commended President Obama for his leadership style. What role do you think his personal faith has played in his administration?

 

I think the president’s personal faith has given him endurance, resiliency, and inexhaustible hope. He has no more animating impulse than generosity.  His faith has also given him the wisdom to understand that events play out over very long stretches of time, that good things arise unexpectedly, and that violence sends shock waves down generations. History is in God’s hands. Within it we do what we can to help bend its arc toward justice.

 

 

Almost every year since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Committee has handpicked the figures that their voters believe represent the superlative in chemistry, literature, peace, physics and physiology. These laureates are then added to the annals of history, to be forever remembered as one of that period’s best and brightest, master of their respective trades. Indeed, past winners include many figures whose names are commonly found in history books across disciplines and across the world: Marie Curie, Jimmy Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Martin Luther King. However, this myriad of names was forever altered when, last week, the first prize ever given to a sing-songwriter was awarded to Bob Dylan in the Literature category for “having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.”

This unprecedented decoration in a field usually reserved for novelists, poets, and the occasional philosopher predictably sparked immediate debate and controversy. Members of the literary and editorial community spoke out emphatically both for and against the nomination, arguing heatedly over the merits and downsides of choosing a musician to represent a community of writers. While some argue that Dylan embodies the belief and emotion of an entire American generation, others claim that the committee’s choice is both unfair and disrespectful towards those who rightly deserved the award. The public contention over Dylan’s nomination will substantially affect the trajectory of the award, as well as the legacy of the recipient himself. The choice of Dylan to represent the literary community’s finest both reinforces the subjective nature of a merit based system and highlights the tendency of the Academy to push the boundaries and standards for otherwise limited awards.

In many instances throughout history, the Academy has redefined the position of the Nobel Prize in intellectual and scientific communities, and has chosen some highly controversial winners. Most recently, in 2009, Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize after less than a year into his Presidency: they cited his potential to bring about change as the impetus for the choice. This led to general outrage in the international intellectual community, and even prompted Obama himself to claim, “I do not feel I deserve to be in the company of such great leaders.” The committee also expanded the Literature category in 1997, when Dario Fo was chosen for his performance art pieces along with his written works.

In a sense, choosing Bob Dylan as the winner is simply a way of reinforcing the Academy’s efforts to push the boundaries of what is considered literature, especially because there is no section for music that he could be honored in. This has been done before in the other categories; after John Nash won the award for economics in 1994 for what was actually a combination of sociology and game theory, the category expanded to include these tangential fields, as well as the academic circles accompanying them. Some also saw Dylan’s win as a victory of inclusion for what is considered “low culture” – forms of popular and consumer culture not usually recognized by intellectual awards such as the Nobel or Pulitzer. As LA Times Journalist Carolyn Kellogg stated, “The Nobel, in recognizing Dylan’s work as literature, acknowledges that artists create works of popular culture with just as much care, control, courage and genius as Ernest Hemingway did sitting down at a typewriter.”

This categorization of Dylan as a poet rather than a musician is somewhat problematic for his own legacy, as well as for those of the other writers.

However, while choosing Dylan does seem to insinuate a stretching of the Literature category, we have reason to doubt that this decision will lead to an overall inclusion of music as part of the literature prize. After the Academy released the nomination, it stressed that Dylan was picked for his written word only, and not the musical aspects associated with it. According to Nobel Permanent Secretary Sara Danius, the justification for the award follows the argument that poetry has been accompanied by music since the classical tradition. She argues, “We still read Homer and Sappho [without music] and we still enjoy it. And the same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition.”

But this categorization of Dylan as a poet rather than a musician is somewhat problematic for his own legacy, as well as for those of the other writers. First of all, it presents him with an award that is supposed to recognize a lifetime achievement while honoring what is technically only half of his work. It seems artificial to attempt to separate the lyrical aspect of Dylan’s compositions from the melodic since they were conceived as a single, whole work. It also sidelines the achievements of those whose portfolios are produced solely in the literary field, effectively eliminating traditional writers —such as Philip Roth, who was considered a favorite for this year’s choice — from contention for an award that was created for them. It implies that “a byproduct of Dylan’s main job is as good or better than the life’s work of Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Adonis, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or so many other authors theoretically in contention.”

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not this is true must be left up to the individual. The anachronism “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has always held some truth, for better or for worse, and once a piece of art is created, the producer will never be around to justify it. Therefore, while criticism and analysis of certain works may have broad, sweeping trends, there is always room for a dissenting opinion. This subjectivity also makes presenting awards for the “best” of anything very difficult; someone will always think that another piece deserves the honor. In the end, the Academy has the power to expand their categories at their own discretion; they will always be able to justify testing the limits of the boundaries they set for themselves by simply adding on to the pre-existing precedents for the awards. So while Dylan may not be a traditional choice to represent the best of today’s literature, by giving the Nobel Committee the power to give the award at their own discretion, we have placed in their hands the ability to shape the classifications for winners as well.

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In early October, Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich became one of the few Nobel laureates recognized for nonfiction. Known for chronicling Soviet national tragedies through the collection of hundreds of individual interviews, Alexievich received the award “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius called her work “a new kind of literary genre” offering “a history of the soul.” Though her receipt of the Nobel comes at a politically charged moment for former Soviet republics and the international community, Alexievich’s recognition is more important for what it means to literature and the stories she elevates than for its partisan implications.

It has been over fifty years since a nonfiction writer won the prestigious award now bequeathed to Alexievich. The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch describes “a kind of lingering snobbery in the literary world that wants to exclude nonfiction from the classification of literature,” disparaging it as less inspired or visionary than fictional work. Yet Alexievich’s books render narratives of Soviet history with as much poignancy and distinctiveness of style as any work of fiction might. As Alexievich puts it, “The heroes, feelings, and events in my books are all real.” The voices of those she interviews construct images vivid enough and stories real enough to grip the reader as forcefully as any line from the literary canon, and cast history in the profound detail of humanity. Perhaps even more deftly than fictive writing, her work provides language to experiences and people previously starved for it.

Each of Alexievich’s books, which requires five to ten years to write, catechizes history through compilation of hundreds of individual stories. She documents events that individuals and societies deliberately forget, from the Chernobyl disaster to the catastrophe of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, Alexievich interviewed hundreds of women who fought as Soviet soldiers in the Second World War. By the 1980s, when Alexievich began speaking to these women, they had long traded their positions as combatants for roles as wives and mothers in respectable society. She often spent entire days easing them from the rehearsal of a stock narrative of the war and its triumphs into sharing their memories of their youth. Out of her subjects’ internalized myths, Alexievich uncovered their experiences of the war. It is this patient mining for oral history that characterizes her work, as well as what renders it so profoundly empowering. In her words, “Each person offers a text of his or her own.”

Alexievich chronicled the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the book Zinky Boys, an English title somewhat awkwardly translated from her Russian prose alluding to the zinc coffins in which young men were sent home from the war. The London Review of Books called it “sometimes unreadably sad,” a vivid record of the manners in which the conflict scarred those involved. Rather than interpose her own framing of the war, Alexievich simply renders her interviews as short narratives, literally allowing the people impacted by the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan to speak for themselves.

A later title, Voices from Chernobyl, opens with a woman’s memory of seeing her husband, a firefighter sent to mitigate the damage of the accident, literally crumbling to his death in a hospital. To the interviewer Masha Gessen, Alexievich described the woman’s account as possessing the quality of Shakespeare, but it took hours of interviewing to coax out the story. Again, Alexievich’s work made visible a story buried beneath public narrative, elevating a voice previously rendered powerless. The sheer number of people affected by the Chernobyl disaster has meant that countless individual experiences are lost in the world’s collective memory, especially because many of those affected lack an outlet through which to voice their accounts. Alexievich provided that outlet.

[For that,] [T]he Swedish Academy has gifted recognition to nonfiction as a valuable pursuit and acknowledgement to the articulations of people who are often rendered voiceless.

It is these monumental efforts to amplify the many, sometimes hidden voices of Soviet identity that the Nobel committee chose to recognize. The prestigious award constitutes not only validation of the importance of Alexievich’s work, nor only the recognition of nonfiction writing as a mode as aesthetically moving as fiction, but also an implicit bolstering of the stories Alexievich’s books attempt to highlight. At a basic level, her status as a Nobel laureate and the attendant international prominence will offer opportunities for her books and their stories to attract greater readership. The receipt of the award implies that the individual stories Alexievich documents are worthy of prestige. For that, the Swedish Academy has gifted recognition to nonfiction as a valuable pursuit and acknowledgement to the articulations of people who are often rendered voiceless.

Some have misguidedly attempted to cast Alexievich’s award as a purely political act. Certainly, she has hardly refrained from opining on political matters, denouncing Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and speaking harshly of Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a KGB agent…not a politician.” Her work’s exposure of woes under the Soviet system has done little to endear her to a government that has attempted to glorify its Soviet legacy. Almost immediately after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, she condemned the election-rigging practices of the Belarussian government under President Alexander Lukashenko, which falsifies election votes to inflate the appearance of popular support and exercises utter control over the political milieu. And in light of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the fact that Alexievich was born in the region to a Ukrainian mother and Belarussian father bears some political weight. Indeed, the Swedish Academy has consistently given the Nobel to writers who dissented from Soviet rule, a prominent example being Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who won the prize while his works were banned in the Soviet Union. Given this history, Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin’s argument that Alexievich is “not a writer” and received her prize only because she opposes Moscow is somewhat understandable.

It can be difficult to extricate purely aesthetic considerations from the political affiliations of a writer, especially when political conflicts tend to seize the attention of the public more forcefully than literature itself. As with the selection of Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel committee has often recognized political dissidents, including Günter Grass, who exposed the shame and suffering of the Third Reich at a time when many Germans hoped to forget the events of the Second World War, and Wole Soyinka, whom the Nigerian government once jailed over accusations of conspiring with rebels in the country’s civil war. In 2005, when Harold Pinter received the Nobel Prize for Literature, his vociferous criticism of American foreign policy brought a distinctly political reverberation to his receipt of the award. Literature and politics, though semantically and even philosophically distinct, can have a tangled relationship. Indeed, Nobel laureates such as Grass, Soyinka, Pinter, and now Aliexievich demonstrate the leverage that literature exerts over politics: written elevation of certain aspects of history or the present can center these points within the world’s political consciousness. This relationship has frequently been implicitly recognized in the selection of Nobel winners.

However, while political implications are often apparent in the designation of Nobel laureates, these motives are not necessarily most important. Because the award recognizes a writer’s entire body of work—a literary career—the argument that it is determined by the political issues of the day can overlook a fundamental part of the meaning of the prize. Alexievich’s receipt of the award represents a tribute to her genre of “polyphonic” oral history; that this history focuses on tribulations faced by individuals living under the Soviet regime does not automatically render the Nobel a political symbol.

Svetlana Alexievich joined the ranks of Nobel laureates as a result of her commendable ability to document history that is largely forgotten, returning agency to people whose experiences have been lost to a master narrative of the Soviet Union’s past. Perhaps the best way to understand the importance of her literary impact is to adopt her own strategy and permit one of the individuals interviewed in Voices from Chernobyl to speak for himself: “I’m only going to tell about what’s really mine. My own truth. . . I want to bear witness.” Alexievich has received due recognition for helping people do exactly that.

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Over one year has passed since Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez passed away, leaving behind one of the richest and most beloved literary legacies of the 20th century. Already, different cultural institutions across Latin America and the world have begun to pay homage to the literary figure. In March, a roundtable discussion aired on Spanish television. The program focused on García Márquez’s most celebrated work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the mythical chronicle of the Buendía dynasty in the fictitious land of Macondo. Watching it, I felt uneasy, if not completely surprised, when one of the commentators boldly declared that “One Hundred Years of Solitude is not about Latin America, it is Latin America.”

The quotation is telling, if not for its particular originality. (For example, similar things have been said of Günter Grass’ masterpiece The Tin Drum: “Grass’ book is not about the 20th century, it is the 20th century.”) What is so fascinating about the panelist’s statement is that it reflects the common, global perception that magical realism, with its normalization of mythology and its mythification of normality, reveals a particularly Latin American way of looking at the world. Moreover, the quotation’s implication that the “essence” of Latin America is to be found in magical realism is not only flawed but also ultimately dangerous.

Two anecdotes make my point clearer. The first one is describe by Alberto Funguet in his prologue to his 1996 anthology “McOndo.” A Latin-American writer (whose name is omitted to respect privacy) is pursuing a master’s degree at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Soon after the writer begins his studies, an editor approaches him and expresses interest in publishing some of his work in the next edition of a journal focused on contemporary Latin American literature. The writer, amazed at his luck, starts to work on a short story. When the writer is happy with the result, he presents his work to his patron of the arts, who rejects it immediately. “Why?” the Latin American writer asks. “Lack of magical realism” replies the editor. The writer, thinking that he has not heard correctly, is about to ask again when the editor settles the debate: “Your texts, my friend, could have been written by a First World writer.”

If globalization requires all of us as around the world to converge and make decisions in accordance with a shared humanity, how might that be possible when we cannot overcome shortsighted portraits of the Other.

The Modern Language Association, or MLA, has recently launched its “Approaches to Teaching World Literature” series, consisting of annotated guides for some of the world’s greatest historical literary masterpieces. Somewhat surprisingly for a “world literature” series, only three out of 133 titles originated in the non-Western world. These three works are Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and (surprise) Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. As Mariano Siskind at Harvard has noted, the books that were chosen are considered to be “expressive of the soul and historical experience of their respective cultures:” colonial conflict from Africa, courtly romance from Japan, and the genealogies of magical realism from Latin America. In this way, each culture is “reduced to a essentialized meaning: a traditional Japan that lives on in the West’s imaginary, a tribal Africa that falls victim to the social restructuring of colonialism, and a Latin America forever doomed to political unrest and the premodern identity of private and public domains.” The three works chosen, in the eyes of the West, assemble the heterogeneous experiences of entire cultures into consumable units that fit ordered, superficial perceptions.

Such an argument is not a criticism of the wonderful work of García Márquez, nor that of Murasaki or Achebe. A writer cannot possibly reflect the totality of the heterogeneous experiences lived by one single individual, let alone by entire cultures. I rather point to our obligation, particularly as readers and more generally as citizens of the world, to recognize the limitations of such depictions and remain wary of generalizations. Last week, El País published an editorial captioned “Macondo is very real,” using Garcia Marquez’ work to criticize the overt display of wealth of an Argentinian politician. I wonder if El Pais would consider publishing an editorial entitled “The nation of Don Quixote” in order to discuss the lasting power of the Catholic Church in Spain.

This is not a trivial problem. How many aspiring, talented writers are shut down before they can begin because their work does not coincide with foreign, reductionist assumptions? If globalization requires all of us as around the world to converge and make decisions in accordance with a shared humanity, how might that be possible when we cannot overcome shortsighted portraits of the Other?

We should celebrate García Márquez’s work, but we should not ascribe the quality of his writing to privileged proximity to a supposedly true Latin American essence. As Alberto Funget has declared, Latin America might be emblematic of lofty magical realism but it is also “the urban, the hybrid, street pollution, and boleros.” Latin America might be the rural sagas of García Máqruez, but it is also the urban neurosis of Bolaño and the literary labyrinths of Borges. Finally, if we move beyond our understanding of Latin America and other cultures as timeless and monolithic myths, we might gain a better sense not only of their nature, but also of our own selves and of the ways in which we fit into a globalized world.

As most Brunonians know, Ben Affleck wasn’t the only celebrity to receive an honorary doctorate in Brown’s latest Commencement ceremony. Among those recognized, author Junot Diaz also stands out for his contribution to the arts. That he was chosen for a degree is not surprising, as Diaz right off the bat looks like the type of scholar Brown’s community loves to praise. A youthful Dominican-American author, immigration activist, and professor of writing at MIT with a truckload of immigration stories from his own upbringing, the man could have been custom-made to lead a Third World Center panel. More importantly, Diaz has made quite a name of himself through his writing, with the Brown degree being just the most recent of a series of honors he has received. Lauded often as “one of the most acclaimed Latino writers of his generation”, Diaz has generated a considerable amount of buzz in the literary world, becoming a mainstream minority voice in contemporary American literature. Unlike other minority writers in the American literary stratosphere, what makes Diaz extraordinary is his capacity to craft statements about his Dominican immigrant identity into universally appealing stories. His work gains meaning by also reflecting a deeper collective Latino immigrant identity, one that is redefining many aspects of American culture. In his writings, Diaz doesn’t come up with a narrative out of the blue, but crafts one out of the components that shaped his life and then feeds the story back into the vibrant ongoing history of the Dominican Diaspora and the greater Latino community.

Diaz’s dedication to his roots and community makes his storytelling political in several ways. The first is its remarkably in-your-face representation of the darker side of Dominican history, one that a great deal of Americans know too little about. This is most obvious in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz’s most acclaimed novel, in which history plays a pivotal role in the story’s development. This book chronicles the rise and fall of the fictional Cabral family, from a position of privilege under the island’s dictatorship to a lower-class lifestyle in a New Jersey ghetto. While the novel is primarily about Oscar , a tragically obese and socially-inept “ghetto nerd” living in Paterson, NJ, the bad fortunes that befell the Cabrals – fukú in Dominican parlance – are a causal motive of the misfortunes in Oscar’s own life story. As Diaz develops the fictional story of the Cabrals, he also peppers the book with footnotes referencing the Trujillato – the reign of the (nonfictional) Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, possibly the worst Latin American autocrat in history. These inform the reader about the two American invasions of Santo Domingo in the 20th century (“Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq”), Trujillo’s brutal U.S.-backed anti-communist agenda, the racist genocide of Haitian immigrants, the government’s merciless secret intelligence network,  and the general delirium of living life as usual in a Latin American right-wing dictatorship.

While the sheer amount of information Diaz delivers on the island’s politics is impressive on its own, a more important message is found on how this turbulent past affects those who left the island and went north.  Some of the characters in Oscar Wao are first-generation immigrants to the U.S., and as such they provide many insights into the roots of the immigration experience. Through these fictional individuals, Diaz conveys the very real shock of adjusting to a new country, as well as the powerful urge to maintain a semblance of the lifestyle that is left behind. The conservatism, pragmatism and even racism that Oscar’s immigrant mother imposes on the household could be found in many immigrant families, which struggle to maintain the cultural norms of the homeland (in this case those of the Trujillato) while attempting to fit into U.S. society.

In explaining the events that led many to leave the island during and immediately after Trujillo’s rule, Diaz demonstrates the importance of remembering that immigrants have a past. The stories these men and women bring to the American table, so to speak, are essential in determining their contribution to the larger American story they have become a part of, and therefore deserve to be recognized. As an activist and immigrant himself, Junot Diaz uses his books to create a sense of solidarity between the reader and the characters in an effort to make his audience understand the incredible baggage with which immigrants and their families must often bear. However, the author’s contributions to the Latino immigrant community are not found only in his literary work. Throughout his professional life, Diaz has given much back to the community that shaped him. For example, when the Georgia legislature passed a law in 2011 that barred undocumented immigrants from the five most competitive state schools, Diaz became a member of the board of advisers of Freedom University, a nonprofit program created by five UGA professors in order to provide affected students with college level education. In interviews, panels and keynote speeches, Diaz constantly reiterates his commitment to the cause of racialized minorities and his support for comprehensive immigration reform. It’s fair to say that the author perfectly paraphrased the liberal opinion on immigration during an interview in the Colbert Report, stating that “Every single immigrant we have, documented or undocumented is a future American.”

As one dives deeper into Diaz’s books, it becomes clear that they also serve a political purpose in their unapologetic affirmation of a strong and growing Latino subculture within modern U.S. society. Oscar, Lola and Yunior – the second-generation Dominican characters in Oscar Wao – are all a product of a quixotic mixing of national identities, a process that has undoubtedly created an alternate “third space” between the two countries’ cultures. This is the area populated by the millions of Dominican-Americans living throughout the States – a space not easily understood by those who have not experienced immigrant life in some way. Diaz’s witty use of Spanglish, which combines Dominican idioms and American nerd-speak, serves as a secret lingo for those of his readers “in the know.” This leaves his white American fans out-of-the-loop, making them empathize with Dominicans’ linguistic struggles when first arriving in the States.  At the same time, the myriad references to comic book culture and high-fantasy lore (comparing Trujillo to Marvel supervillains and his lackeys to Wraiths and Morguls) concede a high level of acclimatization to North American culture.  It is here, in between the Spanish and English that the author explores the hybrid identities of his characters, and that of the Dominican-American community.

Ultimately, Diaz deserves to be praised not just for his storytelling skills, but also for the way he takes advantage of his position to send a much-needed message. In this particular case, the message is that Dominicans are here, they have been tied to the U.S. for a very long time, and they have a right to define their own Americanism like everybody else. These days it would be hard to deny that Dominicans and Latinos in general, are redefining the country’s image in more ways than one. Latinos are now America’s largest minority, representing 16.4% of the population. They are also a quintessential factor in the nation’s growth, with the rise in Latino population making up for more than half of the nation’s total population increase in the last decade. One of the fastest growing national-origin groups within Latinidad, the Dominican population in the U.S. exceeds 1.5 million. 57% of these are foreign-born immigrants, making immigration a key issue for the community, and an experience that many of them personally remember.  In Rhode Island, the Providence Dominican community has become one of the largest ones in the country, and the election of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras – a son of Dominican immigrants and the city’s first Latino mayor – put this group at the forefront of the city’s politics and emphasized its importance within the national Latino community.

Beyond the realm of politics, Dominican celebrities like Diaz (Julia Alvarez, Alex Rodriguez, and Kat DeLuna come to mind) are contributing to American culture in their own unique way, further constructing and shaping the interpersonal space that bridges the gap between the D.R. and the U.S.

The reason Diaz was chosen for an honorary doctorate is because he doesn’t merely observe this ongoing process, but constantly adds to it through his literature, his activism and his teaching. Likewise, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is his most notable book because it is a symbol of what it means to become an American, which is to add to your identity and not subtract from it. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Diaz talks about the importance of “the small megaphones” – the voices of regular folks who personally experience the changing reality of U.S. culture on a day-to-day basis – in American public discourse.  In many ways, Junot Diaz has become a spokesperson for a whole community of small voices, and has now integrated himself as a part of the dialogue that is changing the definition of “American.” The things that voices like his contribute to how the nation understands itself are worth more than any book prize or honorary degree.