Junot Díaz gave this first assignment in his new undergraduate writing course: write a one-page description of a person, actual or imagined, whom you despise or love.
For the Dominican-born Díaz, whole worlds, whole stories, live in that little word "or," and its conjunctive cousins "both," "and," and "also." Stories are "assembled," he told his students, with tools for building conflict, confluence and surprise.
Díaz, an associate professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies beginning this term, is the author of "Drown" (1996), a widely acclaimed collection of short stories.
"The idiom of the workshop is listening and critiquing how stories work, if they work. Your critiquing muscles will build up over time," he assured the students crowding around a table in Room 4-253.
Later, sitting in his new office, Díaz, 34, whose fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and African Verse, described how both his life and work have been fueled by surprising and profound conjunctions, beginning with immigrating to New Jersey from Santo Domingo with his family when he was six.
"Immigration doomed me to a complicated relationship to language, to English," said Díaz, who writes in English and speaks both English and Spanish. "My childhood was lots of extreme contradictions. As a young boy, I was acutely sensitive; I was clever in an anti-intellectual immigrant community; I was productive and ambitious, yet a member of a despised and discriminated-against underclass."
The 10 stories collected in "Drown" are loosely based on Díaz's experiences growing up in both the Dominican Republic and urban United States. "It's written from an invisible ground zero, the way immigration affects everyday life," he said.
The "ghost imprint" of history affects Díaz's life and work, too. Since childhood he has sensed a "deep historical silence hanging over the entire hemisphere from what started in the Dominican--slavery, capitalism, the annihilation of indigenous people," he said.
Díaz is unsentimental about writing and the writing process. He writes four hours each day and has never thought of his art as a gift. "I do as I have been called to do. It's painful. It demands so much. To anyone interested in writing, I say, 'Prepare to suffer,'" he said.
While writing itself is an individual labor, learning about writing and criticism works best in a group, Díaz believes. "There are things that cannot be learned except in a collective, especially in the humanities. Complex insights can only be achieved collectively," he said.
Díaz particularly credits women teachers for "pushing me intellectually," and he warns male students to be conscious of their power in the classroom. "We have a habit of taking the air out of the room," he said. More than half the students in Díaz's class are men.
The students will write stories and read short works by "writers of color and the kookier white kids, and a lot of relationship stuff," said Díaz, who praised fiction by Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdich and Joe Haldeman, an adjunct professor in MIT's writing program. Growing up, he loved "junk--comic books, horror, sci-fi."
And speaking of surprises, students will see more than their intellectual and critical muscles grow during the semester. Díaz lifts weights for fun. "As they watch, I'll become stronger and stronger," he said.
Díaz, who attended public schools in Parlin, near Perth Amboy, New Jersey, received his B.A. from Rutgers University and an M.F.A. from Cornell University. He is now writing a full-length novel.
Díaz has previous connections to MIT. He won the Council for the Arts at MIT's 1998 Eugene McDermott Award and was an artist in residence here in March 1999.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 26, 2003.