More calamities but people inclined to look away, says writer

Left: Dominican-American author Junot Diaz with fans at the book signing after his Singapore Writers Festival lecture yesterday. Above: Diaz addressing a sold-out house at the Victoria Theatre, where he spoke about dystopia and cautioned the audience
Dominican-American author Junot Diaz with fans at the book signing after his Singapore Writers Festival lecture yesterday. ST PHOTOS: TIMOTHY DAVID
Left: Dominican-American author Junot Diaz with fans at the book signing after his Singapore Writers Festival lecture yesterday. Above: Diaz addressing a sold-out house at the Victoria Theatre, where he spoke about dystopia and cautioned the audience
Diaz addressing a sold-out house at the Victoria Theatre, where he spoke about dystopia and cautioned the audience not to lose hope in civic society.ST PHOTOS: TIMOTHY DAVID

"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 yesterday cautioned the audience not to lose hope in civic society.

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

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.

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

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

Referring to the American response to Puerto Rico's devastation by Hurricane Maria in September, he said it is "an extraordinary thing" to see Puerto Rico "basically knocked out of the 20th century" and the inadequate response of the richest, most powerful nation in the world to a country it has colonised.

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

He told the audience that "resilience is a long muscle to build" but that they must still strive to counter apathy.

It is not writers that are needed more, 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 100 people queued for over an hour to get Diaz's autograph. Private educator Anjelita Kassim, 42, cancelled her weekend plans when she heard he was appearing at 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," she said.

Diaz will be speaking todayin 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 this evening.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 12, 2017, with the headline 'More calamities but people inclined to look away, says writer'. Print Edition | Subscribe