While fiction writer and NYU creative writing professor Junot Diaz has only produced two books in a 15-year career, he has earned many admirers and critical accolades for unique stories that blends family tales of the Dominican Republic, the immigrant experience in New Jersey and science fiction. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
Junot Diaz's fiction has garnered many accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize, a coveted seat on the Pulitzer Board of Jurors, a Guggenheim fellowship, a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and two national bestsellers.
In Diaz's world, his family history is often just as compelling as fiction. For example, he drew on a family story about his mother getting lost on a coffee plantation as a child to write a memorable scene in his novel that features a talking mongoose.
"When she emerged from the coffee plantation starving, just delusional, covered with bug bites, just everything you could possibly imagine from a child, the only story she claimed --- she was a little kid -- is that a talking mongoose led her out. And that was it," says Diaz. "I knew one day I was going to come back to this mongoose."
There are a myriad of influences in his writing, including his family, his native Dominican Republic, growing up as an immigrant in central New Jersey and a fondness for science fiction.
He used many of those elements in "Drown," a 1996 collection of gritty stories about the lives of Dominicans and Dominican-Americans.
They also were featured in the 2007 novel that made him a star, a story that jumps across time and geography to tell the tale of a Dominican immigrant family, "The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao."
"I'm writing about Dominicans. I'm writing about a diaspora few people know or care about. I'm writing about New Jersey. I'm writing about the kooky stuff that interests me," says Diaz. "Every day, when I sit down to write, I'm always thinking, 'Yeah sure, this happened, but who in the world is gonna want to read this crazy stuff, man?"
His work has been widely praised, but the journey has hardly been smooth. It took 11 years before he published his second book.
"I've always found writing very, very difficult. I rarely get on a roll and I rarely get things done in three or four years. Yeah, so fingers crossed," says Diaz. "A good day is when I don't feel like giving up the whole boat."
At a recent reading at Lehman College, Diaz displayed many of the aspects of his work that have engaged both readers and critics -- humor, history, English, Spanish and Spanglish. It all melds together to create a unique style, full of idiosyncrasies and unusual cultural references.
"When folks try to kind of 'oatmeal' your stuff, they try to bland it out, what they're really trying to tell you to do, what they're really uncomfortable with is the actual fiction, the nature of fiction," says Diaz. "The nature of literature is that it has all these sharp, undigestible edges. That's never going to go away."
He is teaching creative writing at New York University this year and he is a professor of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One of the lessons he shares with his NYU students is, "You spend an enormous time preparing your mind rigorously, through training and through learning, so that you can play."
Diaz's life includes connections to two seemingly different environments, his old neighborhood and the halls of academia.
"I'm in both worlds. Why would anybody want to erase one of my worlds?" says Diaz. "It's your complexity that makes you who you are and why you're so interesting."
When Diaz was growing up in Sayreville, N.J., the bus to New York stopped right in front of his apartment building.
"My dreams were: 'This is where the alternative weird America existed.' And what happened, of course, as you well know, is that by the time I got to New York, New York had become New Jersey,” he says.
At his recent Lehman College talk, Diaz said, "Being an artist is all about a voyage of discovery, and a voyage of discovery is all about being lost. "
His own voyage of discovery really began in Sayreville, where, to ease his transition as a young Dominican immigrant, he found his passion at the library.
"This kid's drive to understand what the hell was happening and to understand this world that came with no footnotes, came with no explanatory labels, and seemed utterly bewildering, man. I thought I could explain myself into being comfortable in America,” says Diaz.
His father preceded the family to the United States, so Junot was already six by the time he got to know him.
Diaz says when he was 12 or 13, the father left for good, an absence that is still being felt.
“We spend most of our life missing the people who we love most. People die, people move away. There's gaps in our memories, there's gaps in our families," he says. "I guess my imagination is drawn to those cracks, it's drawn to those absences.”
He had all sorts of jobs as he worked his way through high school and then Rutgers University, including delivering pool tables and working in a steel mine.
With a brother suffering from leukemia and friends who didn’t make it out of their troubled neighborhood, Diaz appreciated the opportunity at an education, even though his decision to become a writer wasn’t appreciated at home.
“In my mother's mind, to be a writer was to be a writer in the Dominican Republic, where they were murdered and disappeared. Writers were deeply politically active. A Latin American writer was in a very different situation than the Latino writer in the U.S.” says Diaz.
In the mid-1990s, he would write furiously at night, and during the day he worked at Pfizer making copies.
"I had people walking up to me at Pfizer, and would literally walk up to me and say, 'Dos copies.' And I'm looking at them like, 'Okay, dude, dos copies, right away.' I was losing my mind, bro."
Shortly thereafter, his first book “Drown” was greeted with national praise. Eleven years later, "The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao" earned him the Pulitzer Prize.
Diaz is circumspect about the applause and adulation, often harkening back to his good fortune in surviving the neighborhood.
"The cops never caught me up to any of my nonsense, and I got up to plenty of nonsense," says Diaz. "You get caught once, you get in that system, I got to tell you something -- you get in that system, it's a little hard to get out, no matter who you are."
The passion for Diaz’s writing could be witnessed after his reading at Lehman College, when the line for autographs literally went out the door. But he says the success has come with a sacrifice.
“I know that I put aside family. I'm 41 years old and don't have kids, and I know that maybe I could have done it together. But I know that I focused everything on my career, everything on my writing, and I definitely sacrificed the idea of family, the idea of kids,” says Diaz.
In living a life of the mind, Diaz says he has realized a childhood dream. That childhood, especially moving from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was six, is never far away.
"All the stuff that happened to me when I was six feels very resonant to this second immigration, this immigration into this momentary world of literary acclaim," he says. "I got to tell you, though -- I've been saying in my head, 'We're not in Kansas anymore' since I was six. And so at this moment, it has a completely different tone, but it's the same, yo. It's the same."