Junot Díaz: Pulitzer Prize-Winner & the 21st Century’s Greatest Novelist

Editor Dana De Greff caught up with him to talk writing, reading, and traveling.

Junot DiazBorn in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Junot Díaz is the best kind of author: passionate, humble, and funny. He’s a guy you’d love to chat with about travel and books over a steaming plate of goat stew and chenchén (a Dominican cracked corn pilaf), which just happens to be his favorite dish.

While Díaz is based out of Boston, where he is fiction editor at Boston Review as well as the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT, he often travels back to his birthplace. “I left Santo Domingo when I was six years old, but I never forgot it,” says Díaz. “I think that fueled a lot of my returns and a lot of trying to immerse myself in that place that once was mine.” Díaz offered a glimpse of what was once his in Drown, his first short-story collection, which won critical acclaim. Published in 1997, it chronicled the ups and downs of Dominican immigrants trying to make it in the US. In the years between Drown and his next publication, Díaz—a notoriously slow writer—took the time to give back.

In 1999, he cofounded Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA), an organization that offers workshops to writers of color in various genres including fiction, poetry, and graphic novels, and launches community writing programs and events. “VONA is one of those organizations that is run almost entirely by love and faith and very little else,” says Díaz. “When I think about fundamentally what brought us together, it is that we have a nation that has transformed itself over the last few decades, and the majority of young people in public schools are young people of color.” VONA has held programs in Miami and Houston, and it will soon expand to St. Paul and Minneapolis. The goal is to create spaces for modern America and future America, and to provide more opportunities to young writers who might otherwise be overlooked.

Díaz also works with the DREAM project, which is based out of the Dominican Republic and helps children get a better education through programs and community development. “I feel a deep commitment to the communities that made me possible,” says Díaz. “I have this enormous privilege being in the first world and working in a first-world institution, so being able to help those folks out is no small thing.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz’s first full-length novel, reflects the deep bond he has with his home. It’s a multi-generational saga that jumps between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, between family members, and between Spanish and English. At the forefront is Oscar, an obese, sci-fi loving, Star Trek-quoting, hopelessly romantic super nerd. To say the book made a big impact is an understatement: in 2008, it won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In December 2014, it was included in a highly anticipated Christie’s auction of seventy-five first-edition books. And in 2015 took the No. 1 spot among the twelve greatest novels of the twenty-first century. His latest short-story collection, This Is How You Lose Her, came out in 2012, also to critical acclaim. As to his work-in-progress—a science fiction novel set in the Dominican Republic and Haiti entitled Monstro—when pressed for an update, Díaz admits, “Oh God, no, nothing’s done. It was stillborn.”

Perhaps Monstro will come back to life, or perhaps Díaz will move on to something else entirely. In the meantime, he’ll keep himself busy with books. “I’m an insane reader,” says Díaz. “There’s nothing that I won’t sink my eyes into and enjoy immensely.”

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