WI13 keynote speaker Junot Diaz delivered a blistering political statement on Wednesday morning, in what will surely enter the annals of Winter Institute history. Diaz denounced the nativism of white conservatives who catapulted Donald Trump into the White House, as well as the hypocrisy of white liberals, in the publishing industry and beyond, who do little more than talk about promoting diversity.
Quoting Malcolm X, Diaz said that people of color always know where they stand with white conservatives, who don’t hide their beliefs. However white liberals, he said, “lure” people of color to them by pretending to be their allies. The liberals, he went on, then fail to support people of color in substantive ways.
Diaz, whose family came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1974, said that, as an immigrant kid he was always "caught between the world outside and my books. Caught between the wolf [white conservatives] and the fox [white liberals]. And it’s true what Malcolm said: they’ll both eat you.”
Racists in the community he grew up in “would call you spic or the N-word all day long.” Even at school, his fellow students would hurl racial slurs at people of color and teachers “wouldn’t bat an eye.” It was an “utter onslaught.”
Admitting that he and his friends were desperate to find some respite from the daily abuse, Diaz said that while some of them turned to music or sports, or “[lost] it completely,” he “found books,” thanks to his elementary school librarian. She took Diaz on a tour of the school library and told him that “all the books on the shelves were mine.” Books, Diaz said, saved his life by providing “shelter against a white world that sometimes felt like it was trying to destroy me.”
“In a better world,” Diaz said, “that is where this story would end.” The books he read, though, reinforced the messages he was receiving in his community. From Laura Ingalls Wilder writing that there were “no people, only Indians” on the plains, to J.R.R. Tolkien's comparing black people to trolls, books reinforced Diaz's sense of being an outsider.
“Kids like me did not exist in the literature," he said. "What kid doesn’t want to see themselves represented in the literature they’re reading?"
While praising the fact that there is more attention being paid to diversity in the publishing industry, Diaz said that it’s not enough. Criticizing the book industry for being a business where predominantly white gatekeepers publish predominantly white authors, Diaz said there needs to be a diversification of “our publishing infrastructure.” The book world, he declared, has to resist “white supremacy’s cruelest enchantment: that whiteness is at the heart of absolutely everything.”
It's imperative for booksellers and librarians, who are on the front lines, Diaz said, to “stop talking about diversity and start decolonizing our shelves." Noting that indie booksellers’ profit margin is low, Diaz explained that “every little bit counts,” and suggested that the indies might do such things as form book clubs “where each month a new book about immigrants is featured.”
Concluding his remarks, Diaz said that he wrote his first children's book, Islandborn (March) because he wanted to “give a kid like me something I never had.”
The speech received a standing ovation, with a long line of booksellers forming to meet Diaz. Diaz's words, as Deandra Beard of Beyond Barcodes Bookstore in Kokomo, Ind., put it, “jolted us into reality." Beard went on: "We can never get tired of having this conversation. We cannot stay silent.”
Denise Chavez of Casa Camino Real Books in Las Cruces, N.M., agreed, adding that Diaz's remarks took to the next level for indie booksellers the conversation that “began [at WI12] with Roxane Gay.”