Stadler Center presents “Writers in Conversation”: Jaquira Díaz

Nicole Yeager, Assistant News Editor

The Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts launched their “Writers in Conversation” series on Oct. 6 with a visit from fiction writer, essayist and journalist Jaquira Díaz. This series was curated by Chet’la Sebree, assistant professor of English and director of the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts, and Andy Ciotola, program manager of the Stadler Center for Poetry and managing editor of West Branch, in the hopes of giving students opportunities to engage with established writers and benefit from such events.

The event was open to all students, faculty and staff, and it took place at noon over Zoom. Sebree opened up the event by welcoming all attendees and introducing the guest of honor. Throughout her career,  Díaz has had her work featured in The Best American Essays yearly anthology, the Los Angeles Review of Books literary review journal, Rolling Stone magazine, The Sun magazine and The Kenyon Review, as well as having her memoir, “Ordinary Girls” published in 2019. Díaz was also an associate editor of West Branch magazine, housed at the University’s Stadler Center.

The first half of the event consisted of a reading from the writer and introductory questions from Sebree. Díaz read a few excerpts from her piece titled “Baby Lollipops” and “Monster Stories” before turning over the rest of the time to the conversation portion of the event.

Sebree kicked off the questions by asking the writer about her process when it comes to writing about real people, as she does in “Monster Stories.” Díaz responded, “It feels like I have a responsibility to give voice to these stories, in a lot of ways because I come from marginalized communities and experienced living in poverty, now that I have access to so many opportunities in the publishing world. I feel very much like that is my community; I’m writing about us, about my people and my family… Not taking away someone’s agency and not invading their Nic is definitely something I struggle with, but I feel that it is important to speak to the larger world about my community and their issues.”

Her advice to writers was: “Ask yourself, why are you doing this and why is it important for you to write about this; consider if you’re taking something away, if you’re robbing someone of their agency.”

The second question was about Díaz’s career trajectory and how she ended up where she is now from when she first decided to pursue writing. Díaz answered that she always knew she wanted to be a writer, ever since she was a little girl. She shared a specific memory in which she witnessed the celebration of a poet who had recently passed away and how, in that moment, it became clear to her that poets and writers were important, that they could change the world. At a young age, she took inspiration from other famous authors and wrote herself into their work. It wasn’t until college that she really realized writing could be a career for her. She then fully immersed herself by taking literature and creative writing classes as well as applying to every scholarship and prize — she said, “I’m gonna make myself a writer and I’m gonna do whatever it takes.” Díaz spoke a bit more about this grit and determination that comes with being a writer. She also touched upon the fact that her life as a writer and her life as Jaquira often intersect, and discussed the ways in which she manages her mental and physical health.

Stadler Fellows Jennifer Loyd and Laura Villareal were responsible for sending relevant links in the chat function throughout the event and proctoring questions that attendees sent. Around 50 students, faculty and staff attended the event over Zoom. Many attendees — including Assistant Professor of English Joe Scapellato, Visiting Assistant Professor of English Jim Buck, Zach Schaefer ’21 and Andrei Bucaloiu ’22 — utilized the chat to express their thoughts and pose questions to the visiting writer. Questions ranged from Díaz’s time management to the influence of poetry on her work to insight into her writing process.

“I really appreciated her candor during the Q&A session. She was so frank about her experience and how she came to writing. Her descriptions of the way she goes about the writing process were honest and real; she definitely made me feel better about my own experiences with the craft,” Nate Freed ’21 said.

Another student who attended the event, Zoë Wilson ’23, shared her reaction. “Her message to young writers to be mindful of when you may be stripping those you are writing about of their own autonomy really struck me as important. Additionally, her general approach to writing as a way to take on the systems of oppression which keep people impoverished or supply men the power to take sexual advantage of women, for instance, is very impressive,” she said.

“Specifically, I really loved her discussion of writing her book about her own hometown and family. Seeing the passion she had in this subject made me feel more interested in the piece as well as understand on a deeper level what message she was trying to make. Also hearing about where she grew up allowed me to understand the many barriers she had to pass to get to where she is today,” Olivia Scotti ’22 said.

For those who missed this “Writers in Conversation” series, the Stadler Center’s next upcoming event will be a poetry reading from Ross Gay, Sandra & Gary Sojka Poet-in-Residence, on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. over Zoom.

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