Junot Díaz

The title of Junot Díaz’s breakthrough novel came to him while partying in Mexico. He wanted to enunciate Oscar Wilde’s name like a Spanish speaker “with a potato in their mouth.” The result — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — earned him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. Like much of his work, Díaz draws upon his own immigrant upbringing for this novel, but adds a sci-fi/fantasy twist, and like Wao, Díaz is a Dominican American who grew up in New Jersey. “In truth, I didn’t become a writer the first time I put pen to paper or when I finished my first book (easy) or my second one (hard),” Díaz wrote in an essay for O, The Oprah Magazine. “In my view, a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Díaz first earned the attention of readers and critics with a collection of short stories, Drown, which he wrote while earning his MFA from Cornell University in 1995. “Talent this big will always make noise,” wrote one reviewer for Newsweek. “Díaz has the dispassionate eye of a journalist and the tongue of a poet.”

After Drown, Díaz came to Syracuse University to teach in the creative writing department from 1997 to 2002. In Syracuse, Díaz began to formulate the ideas that would become Oscar Wao. “Syracuse has a history of hiring one-book, blue-collar kids who wind up as geniuses — [Raymond] Carver, Saunders. Junot is a natural heir to that name. He was about 20-something when he came to us and wrestling with a sci-fi book and ‘Oscar,’” says Mary Karr, his a fellow professor in the creative writing program at SU, about his time at there. Through his work, Díaz articulates complicated themes about his experience growing up as an immigrant in America and offers a “front-line report on the ambivalent promise of the American Dream,” as a reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle wrote. He now teaches creative writing at MIT and serves as an editor for the Boston Review literary magazine. In 2012, Díaz received a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as a “genius grant”), an annual prize of $600,000 given to about 25 individuals for their creative pursuits and self direction and seeks to reward originality, insight, and potential. Here, a passage from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:

“After a spate of parties that led to nothing but being threatened by some drunk white boys, and dozens of classes where not a single girl looked at him, he felt the optimism wane, and before he even realised what had happened he had buried himself in what amounted to the college version of what he’d majored in all throughout high school: getting no ass. His happiest moments were genre moments, like when Akira was released (1988).”

— Sam Henken