Diaz wins the fiction prize

by Nikki Tranter

7 April 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waoby Junot DiazPenguinSeptember 2007, 352 pages, $24.95

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
September 2007, 352 pages, $24.95

The big news this Pulitzer year is Bob Dylan’s Special Citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”. That and the Washington Posts‘s near sweep of the Prize’s journalism section. The Post was rewarded for excellent public service, feature writing, national and international reporting, breaking news reporting, and news commentary.

There’s something rather gratifying in Dylan and the Post sitting atop the same cherry pie this morning, side by side, in recognition of their work: America’s brain rubbing elbows with its heart and soul. I like it.

As for the Letters and Drama Prizes, I found myself surprised once again at the list of winners, but happy Pulitzer hadn’t played into critic’s hands and deliver the obvious victors.

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took the fiction prize, with my assumed winner Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke a nominated finalist. And Saul Friedlander’s Year of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945 won in the non-fiction category, with—how great is this?—The Rest is Noise by the wonderful Alex Ross a finalist.

Diaz is quoted today in the Miami Herald on his win:

I’m completely astonished ... For a Dominican kid with illegal parents to win a Pulitzer, a kid who grew up in New Jersey in a neighborhood where nobody gave a shit about us, a kid who delivered pool tables throughout college ... wow, man.

Diaz grew up in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic before moving with his family to New Jersey in 1974 at age six. He attended Kean College in New Jersey and Rutgers, majoring in English. He obtained his MFA from Cornell,

He is well-known for his short fiction, with stories appearing regularly in the New Yorker. His first book, Drown, is a collection of short stories. He is the fiction editor of the Boston Review.

Read enough interviews with him and a picture forms of an honest, unaffected artist who colourfully says what he thinks. He tells the Bostonist: “I think that the intellectual life is amazingly lonely in a country like ours.” And goes on to call his fellow MIT professors “fuckin’ genius[es]”.

He talks to Bookslut about the differences in effort writing novels versus short fiction: “People are always asking, ‘Did it take you so long because writing a novel is really hard?’ I’m like, dude, it took me seven years to write one story, one 20 page story.”

At Slate, he discusses his position as a so-called “Latina writer”:

We’re in a country where white is considered normative; it’s a country where white writers are simply writers, and writers of Latino descent are Latino writers. This is an issue whose roots are deeper than just the publishing community or how an artist wants to self-designate. It’s about the way the U.S. wants to view itself and how it engineers otherness in people of color and, by doing so, props up white privilege. I try to battle the forces that seek to “other” people of color and promote white supremacy. But I also have no interest in being a “writer,” either, shorn from all my connections and communities. I’m a Dominican writer, a writer of African descent, and whether or not anyone else wants to admit it, I know also that Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen are white writers. The problem isn’t in labeling writers by their color or their ethnic group; the problem is that one group organizes things so that everyone else gets these labels but not it. No, not it.

Strange that an author to watch, with one novel under his belt, should also be a Pulitzer Prize winner. But what a great day for the award, that a new novelist with such exciting vigor, insight, and humour should be listed beside Mailer, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Now that’s big news.

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