Critics and readers alike have lauded Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz for his refreshing, dynamic prose and dialogue—the streetwise punch of New Jersey’s diasporic communities.
His short story collections, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her, along with his groundbreaking 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, showcase his preternatural abilities with language and plot construction. Díaz explores heartbreak, the pain of diaspora, family curses, and the importance of storytelling in the relentless drumbeat rhythm of “a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.”
My own relationship with Díaz’s writing is a deeply personal one. His novel, Oscar Wao, has the uncanny ability to be universal in its specificity. So much of the de León family saga reads like the pages of my own family’s story. I’m convinced it has to do with Díaz’s way of capturing the undiluted essence of New Jersey and the Spanglish that brings our most important stories to life.
Who is Junot Díaz?
Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in northern New Jersey. After graduating from Rutgers University, he spent time perfecting his writing, eventually obtaining an MFA from Cornell University (the subject of a New Yorker essay he wrote a few years ago). Over the years, he’s become a highly-respected writer, receiving widespread acclaim from readers and critics alike. He maintains an active presence in the writing community and pays particular attention to the ongoing plights of marginalized communities.
His first collection of short stories, Drown, was published in 1996, followed by Oscar Wao in 2007 and This Is How You Lose Her in 2012. His first children’s book, Islandborn, is due to be published in the spring of 2018.
So how difficult is the language? I’ve heard there’s a lot of slang, and my Spanish is terrible.
Díaz does use a very specific type of streetwise dialogue that contains a fair amount of Spanish and Spanish slang interspersed through out. If you know basic Spanish, you will most likely be able to infer what he’s trying to demonstrate through the context of the passages. For the slang, though, I recommend Googling the words and phrases you’re unfamiliar with.
Am I going to understand all those sci-fi/fantasy references in his books?
Unless you’re into the genres, probably not. I only understood some of The Lord of the Rings stuff. What’s great about Díaz’s work, though, is that it doesn’t really matter whether you recognize the references or not. The context forges the meaning. And if it doesn’t, Google awaits.
Okay, this sounds like a lot of Googling. Not sure I’m up for it…Where should I start if I don’t want to have a smart device glued to my hand while reading?
I would recommend starting with the short story collections. Drown and This is How You Lose Her are a good way to familiarize yourself with Díaz’s writing and the themes he tends to explore in all his work. Reading Oscar Wao is when you’ll need to bust out the big guns, but it’s so worth it. Both collections are narrated by a character named Yunior de las Casas. Drown concerns his childhood as an immigrant in New Jersey, and This Is How You Lose Her chronicles his many infidelities and loves lost.
Yunior also narrates most of Oscar Wao. I would recommend reading the physical book first, but once you’ve done that, I you must listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo’s Audible narration. It’s superb.
In July 2017, it was announced that Díaz’s newest literary foray will be a children’s book called Islandborn.
Have you read any of Junot Díaz’s work already?
Share your experiences with Díaz’s canon in the comments below, we’d love to hear them!
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