RISD Reads WAO – Together
“There are so many potential conversations that could grow out of this incredibly rich text,” says Associate Professor Patricia Barbeito, head of RISD’s Literary Arts + Studies department. She’s talking about a book all incoming students have read this summer as part of RISD’s 2012 Common Reading Program: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by , the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who will visit RISD in November. It’s a book she embraces for its references to “a whole range of canonical North American and Latin American genres, from the immigrant story to the coming-of-age story to magical realism and ancient tragedy.”
In addition to winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, this year’s Common Reading selection was lauded in the New York Times by the famously difficult critic Michiko Kakutani for being “so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West. It is funny, street-smart and keenly observed . . . a book that decisively establishes [Díaz] as one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible new voices.”
Now in its second year, RISD’s Common Reading Program introduces freshmen and transfer students to the sorts of questions and discussions that shape the liberal arts undergraduate experience at RISD. And students aren’t reading alone. While a number of colleges and universities require freshmen to read assigned books prior to arrival on campus, a noteworthy feature of RISD’s program is the broad range of faculty and staff that also choose to participate by reading the book and joining in discussion groups, making Common Reading a pop-up book club of sorts.
“We wanted to add a session to Orientation that underscores the centrality of the academic program and makes the liberal arts part of RISD’s first-year experience more visible,” explains Dean of Liberal Arts Barbara Von Eckardt. Last year’s book, the 1927 pulp-fiction novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward written by Providence native and “weird fiction” pioneer H. P. Lovecraft, proved to be universally popular among RISD readers, which essentially upped the ante on this year’s selection.
“We wanted another book that is readable and engaging, but that introduces students to the kind of close critical reading required of them in RISD’s liberal arts courses,” says Von Eckardt, who adds that Oscar Wao “is a wonderful choice because of its strong global emphasis.” The book chronicles the experiences of several members and friends of a Dominican family from the 1940s into the 1990s, spanning their lives both in the Dominican Republic and suburban New Jersey.
In early July, incoming freshmen and transfer students received an electronic version of the book, which will serve as the basis for a number of shared activities and assignments over the course of the fall semester. Students have been asked to keep a record of their reactions as they read, including their thoughts on how the novel’s form shapes its content, and vice versa.
“Focusing on the coming-of-age of a number of awkward or marginalized youth – the overweight Oscar, the emotionally stunted Yunior, the rebellious Lola – this book seems particularly appropriate for an audience of college students going through their own transitions,” notes Barbeito. “The novel also focuses on a number of important, charged issues: biculturalism and bilingualism; racial identity, racism and self-hatred; how people deal with trauma; the immigrant experience and male/female relations.”
Students have also been encouraged to use the novel as inspiration for an optional visual project; resulting imagery will be projected in the RISD Auditorium before this fall’s Common Reading events, which will culminate in a visit by the author on Monday, November 5.
Díaz, whose much-anticipated third book This Is How You Lose Her is being released this month, will read from and discuss Oscar Wao at 6:30 pm in the RISD Auditorium, followed by a book signing. All new students will attend the reading, which is also free and open to the public.