Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz does not want dystopia to make people lose heart in the world

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SINGAPORE - "Dystopia has arrived," said Dominican-American author Junot Diaz at his Singapore Writers Festival lecture. "It just isn't evenly distributed."

A grim statement, but Diaz on Saturday (Nov 11) cautioned listeners not to lose hope in civic society, even despite the constant onslaught of negative news.

"What's truly dystopian is that our cognitive abilities have been altered," he said, "so we are no longer capable of following the thread, which is not that the world is huge and f***ed up, but that each of us can do something.

"When you are overwhelmed by all this stuff, like (what's happening in) Syria, you can't even get down to the soup kitchen."

Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao (2007), was addressing a sold-out house at the Victoria Theatre.

People as young as eight and from as far away as Bangkok and the Philippines listened to his speech on hope and resistance in the age of dystopia.

Diaz, 48, spoke about how moving from the Dominican Republic to the United States at the age of six gave him his first taste of dystopia, comparing the immigrant experience to a "bad YA (young adult) dystopian novel".

While America is painted as the "quintessential good place" for immigrants such as him, he said, this in fact is a "cover story" that obscures the oppression and inequality which immigrants face - making it instead a "classic bad place", or dystopia.

Although we are surrounded by more calamities than ever, he believes more people are inclined to look away, because seeing ruin would ask us to do something about it.

Referring to the American response to Puerto Rico's devastation by Hurricane Maria in September, he said: "When you see Puerto Rico basically knocked out of the 20th century and the richest, most powerful nation in the world being like - "here he raised his middle finger " - to a country they have illegally colonised, that is an extraordinary thing.

"But most of are still addicted to the myths of America, that we won't revisit them in a significant way."

He counselled listeners that "resilience is a long muscle to build" but that they must nevertheless strive to counter apathy.

"Neoliberalism wants us to lose heart in the world," he says. "It wants to convince you the world is not worth it. That is what elites want.

"You want to live healthily in the world? Figure out how not to be border guards, and how to form collectives.

"Neoliberalism does not want to deal with collectives, but atomised individuals because those are easier to crush and manipulate. But collectives can crush power."

It is not writers that we need more of, he said, but readers. "We need people who read without wanting anything from it. Writing serious literature is in trouble not because of the number of writers but because we no longer have readers."

He also said artists should do their part to contribute to civic society, on top of producing art. "Being an artist does not excuse anyone from civic labour."

More than a hundred people queued up for over an hour to get Diaz's autograph.

Private educator Anjelita Kassim, 42, cancelled all her weekend plans when she heard he was coming to the festival. "I think his books are beautiful and I've followed him on social media for many years. I can't believe he is actually here."

Teacher Joanalyn Gabalas, 41, had flown in with her friends from the Philippines just to hear Diaz speak.

Asked if the talk made her more hopeful about coping with dystopia, she agreed. "I'm not sure exactly how yet, but hearing different people affirming my own experiences has been a good way to start."

Diaz will be speaking on Sunday in a panel with American comic-strip creator Ben Katchor, University of London academic Sarah Churchwell and American poet Miriam Bird Greenberg.

The festival, in its 20th edition, runs until Sunday evening.

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