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Dominican-born writer 'astonished' by Pulitzer

Connie Ogle
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The troublesome fuku - "generally a curse or doom of some kind" - that stalks the family of his nerdy, overweight hero apparently has decided to bypass Junot Diaz, at least for now. On Monday, the Dominican-born author won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

"I'm completely astonished," says Diaz, 39, who heard the news at his mom's house in New Jersey while holding his "good luck charm" - his 2-year-old nephew. "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 sh_ about us, a kid who delivered pool tables throughout college ... wow, man."

"Oscar Wao" is the second book published by Diaz, who teaches creative writing at MIT and lives in New York City. He wowed the literary world 11 years ago with his story collection "Drown," and in "Oscar Wao," he combines an onslaught of savvy pop-culture references and the brutal history of the Trujillo regime and its lingering effects on a family relocated to New Jersey. Time magazine compared Diaz to Philip Roth and Richard Russo. The New Yorker named him one of the top 20 writers of the 21st century. And famously cranky New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that Diaz "has written a book that decisively establishes him as one of contemporary fiction's most distinctive and irresistible new voices."

Patricia Saunders, professor of Caribbean literature at the University of Miami, says that Diaz's novel deserves the top U.S. literary award.

"He has found a way to make that distant past of Trujillo relevant in a contemporary context," Saunders says. The time periods are "too often separated. This happened in the Dominican Republic in this period, and now the people it happened to are in New York, so what does life look like in light of both realities? There are generations who didn't experience Trujillo firsthand and don't understand the struggles, but these are things they inherit through myth and family stories. Diaz finds a skillful way of mapping a complex cultural history, past and present."

"His voice is very exciting," says Miami author Diana Abu-Jaber, whose fiction often springs from her Jordanian-American heritage. "It's a new voice because it's the voice of the community, of the street and also of scholarship. It's smart and street smart. I think that chameleon-like quality is very exciting to a lot of immigrants. ... It's sly. He moves between high and lowbrow, and he does it in a subtle and seamless way. You can hear him on MTV and at MIT."

Diaz jokes that he's on his way out to buy a fur coat, but he's already looking toward the future.

`I was always encouraged and motivated by other artists' breaking down trails for us. The best thing about these awards is that you encourage someone you don't even know and may never meet. I keep thinking all this will go away, and no one will remember any of it, but maybe some young immigrant girl somewhere will pick up a book someday and say, `I can do this.'"


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