In his novel and short stories, Díaz focuses on the Dominican diaspora, tackling such issues as the immigrant experience, poverty, family struggles, and adolescent male identity. He received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction in 1999. Díaz's novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), garnered the National Book Critics Circle Award for best novel of 2007 and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic in 1968, the middle of five children. He immigrated to the United States as a child and grew up in New Jersey. Díaz attended Rutgers University and later earned his master's degree in writing from Cornell University. He worked several odd jobs until Story magazine published his short story "Ysrael." The story was republished in 1996 in Díaz's first book, a short story collection titled Drown (translated into Spanish as Negocios 1997). Díaz later published The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He has worked as a writing professor at Syracuse University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The short stories in Drown, many of which appeared first in the New Yorker magazine, center on adolescent characters growing up in the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, and New York. The collection contains "Aurora," which follows a group of teenagers addicted to crack, and "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie," which offers a sardonic look at masculinity, class, and race consciousness in the guise of dating advice to boys. Themes of poverty, drugs, sex, and family turmoil link the stories, and many feature Yunior--a character several critics have described as Díaz's alter ego--as the narrator. Yunior also narrates The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which introduces Oscar de León as the protagonist. Oscar, an overweight first-generation Dominican American obsessed with science fiction, fantasy, and comic books, struggles to meet women and overcome his loneliness. The narrative of the novel moves to the Dominican Republic to explore Oscar's family history, describing how his family members lived under the harsh dictator Rafael Trujillo. The book draws a connection between Oscar's misery and his relatives' suffering, revealing that a curse, known as fukú, plagues his family. Critics have underscored Díaz's affinity for blending English and Spanish in the same sentence, coupled with his frequent references to comic book characters and pop culture phenomenon, usually without any accompanying explanations. Díaz has remarked that this is an intentional tactic designed to signify the plight of "outsiders" or immigrants who are not privy to the full nuances a native speaker possesses. Diaz's assertion is that everyone is an outsider at some point. In an interview he stated that "... [P]art of what I was trying to get at when writing [The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao] is ... I wanted everybody at one moment to kind of feel like an immigrant in this book, that there'd be one language chain that you might not get. And that it was OK. ... [T]he experience that most of us have in the world is that we tend to live in a world where a good portion of what we hear, see and experience is unintelligible to us. And that to me feels more real than if everything was transparent for every reader."
Díaz received an overwhelming amount of attention and praise for Drown upon its debut. Major news publications--including Newsweek, USA Today, and The New Yorker--celebrated his talent, and many heralded him as one of the United States' best new writers of the year. Ana Radelat echoed the opinions of many critics when she observed, "The young writer has already left a legacy: a narrative voice and dialogue that straddles two cultures, mixing street-smart New Yorkese with Spanish to lyrically recreate an authentically immigrant language." A few reviewers found fault with Díaz's language, as Rob Jacklosky argued Drown demonstrates "too much reliance on 'street' constructions that already sound quaint." Reviewers welcomed the publication of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which came eleven years after Díaz's first book. Some critics focused on the contrast between Oscar's shyness, interest in academics, and failure with women and Yunior's aggressive masculinity. While the novel received mostly favorable reviews, some critics complained about its language, with Carlin Romano stating that the book contains "many badly written passages and a hodgepodge of repetitive riffs on teenage sexuality, Caribbean exoticism, and 'character is fate.'" Most others, however, lauded the novel. Edwidge Danticat commented "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is epic, not only in its historical rendering of heartbreaking violence, of a cross-generational, exiled family, but in its language: a courageous patois from the streets of New Jersey, via the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, flying right up and into the face--and the canon--of great literature."
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- Drown [Negocios] (short stories) 1996
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (novel) 2007