"They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú—general a curse of a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World."
So begins The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Junot Díaz. Celebrated for his unique voice, Mr. Díaz, a Dominican Republic-born American from New Jersey, brings human history, popular culture, and the human diaspora into the powerful, tragic, and somehow very funny world he portrays. On November 27, he visited the Penn Museum as a featured speaker with the Penn Humanities Forum during this theme year of "Peripheries" (Díaz's work, and his own life story, challenge conventional ideas about the centers and peripheries of American culture.)
In honor of Mr. Diaz's visit to the Penn Museum, Bill Wierzbowski, American Section Keeper, provided the author with a behind-the-scenes visit to see several archaeological artifacts from the Taino people—the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Antilles, including Haiti and the Dominican Republic—who he mentions in his opening sentence.
Penn Museum has about 350 pieces in the Taino collections—many fragmentary pottery sherds, some stone tools, some shells, and a very few stone sculptural pieces. Most were collected from an exchange with George Heye in 1917, some from an exchange with the University of Puerto Rico in 1955, and a few were collected by a US consul to the Dominican Republic in the late 19th century, according to Mr. Wierzbowski.
Prior to the behind-the-scenes visit, Mr. Díaz toured MAYA 2012: Lords of Time, for a before the end of the world exploration.
The Penn Humanities Forum sold-out lecture packed the Museum's Harrison Auditorium that night. The Daily Pennsylvanian reported on the lecture.
Photos: Top—Dr. James English, Director, Penn Humanities Forum, and author Junot Díaz look at Taino objects with American Section Keeper Bill Wierzbowski in the Penn Museum Mainwaring Storage and Study Wing. Bottom—Junot Díaz and Bill Wierzbowski take a closer look at the objects. Photos by Penn Museum.