“When I enter that higher-order space that’s required to write, I’m a better human. For whatever my writing is, wherever it’s ranked, it definitely is the one place that I get to be beautiful.” This is Junot Díaz, winner of a Eugene McDermott Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lila Acheson Wallace Readers Digest Award, and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He came out of the gate early and emphatically with Drown, a collection of largely autobiographical short stories published to critical acclaim in 1996 when Diaz was twenty-eight. Eleven years later, his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—a Spanish pronunciation of Oscar Wilde—won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
Michiko Kakutani called Wao “a wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West.” This is fiction that spans countries and continents, pop culture and the establishment, language and time. Díaz bridges the gap with what may soon be its own genre: the immigrant story that jockeys two cultures, two languages, two homes, two families, a patois of street slang, a shake-down of social mores. It is work about going out and coming in; about gazing on and becoming the other; about becoming a self in a new language, a new body, a new land.
Born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Díaz and his mother emigrated to the United States when he was six years old, part of the wave of Dominicans who came to the United States after the death of dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961. They reunited with Díaz’s father, who was working as a fork lift driver in New Jersey, and settled into a working-class part of town. Díaz was a triple threat: a different color with a strange accent and a nerdy love of books; it was a lucky blessing that he was also tough enough to beat up anyone who got too rough. “I always had this fucking reverse Batman thing going on,” he said in an interview. “When I became my masked identity I was this incredible little nerd, but in the real world I had to be this tough kid from the neighborhood.” He lost himself in science fiction novels and horror books by Stephen King. Later, at Rutgers University, he took a creative writing class and decided that writing was what he wanted to do. He went on to earn his M.F.A. at Cornell University where he wrote most of his first book. From there took a job making photocopies, until the call came that Drown had sold for a solid six figures.
Díaz divides his time between Brooklyn and Boston where he teaches creative writing at MIT and is the fiction editor for the Boston Review. In the summer he contributes to the writing workshops Voices of Our Nations, a program he helped found at the University of San Francisco for young writers of color.
Excerpt from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
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—generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. Also called the fukú of the Admiral because the Admiral was both its midwife and one of its great European victims; despite “discovering” the New World the Admiral died miserable and syphilitic, hearing (dique) divine voices. In Santo Domingo, the Land He Loved Best (what Oscar, at the end, would call the Ground Zero of the New World), the Admiral’s very name has become synonymous with both kinds of fukú, little and large; to say his name aloud or even to hear it is to invite calamity on the heads of you and yours.
No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since. Santo Domingo might be fukú’s Kilometer Zero, its port of entry, but we are all of us its children, whether we know it or not.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
Drown (short story collection, 1996)
“Alma,” The New Yorker, December 24, 2007
“Wildwood,” The New Yorker, November 18, 2007
“Homecoming, with Turtle,” The New Yorker, June 14, 2004
“Nilda,” The New Yorker, October 4, 1999
“Flaca,” Story, Autumn 1999
“Otravide, Otrvez,” The New Yorker, June 21, 1999