"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," the wildly original debut novel by Junot Diaz, MFA '95, has won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
"Wao" — the account of a young, lovesick Dominican-American misfit, his family and his native country's violent history — was published in September 2007 by Riverhead Books. The novel also received the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction in March and the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction's 2007 John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. Time magazine called the novel "astoundingly great" and the best novel of 2007.
Diaz was featured in Cornell's Creative Writing Program Reading Series in February 2007. He is scheduled to read again in the series in spring 2009.
"He has this gift for making you laugh and also for making you stare at the unimaginable," said professor of English Stephanie Vaughn, who had Diaz as a student.
"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" took 11 years to write. Diaz's first book, the 1996 short-story collection "Drown," was derived from his Cornell MFA thesis, "Negocios," available in Kroch Library. "Drown" earned Diaz wide critical acclaim, and he was later named one of the 20 top writers for the 21st century by The New Yorker.
"His first book was an impressive book," Vaughn said. "Most of the stories in 'Negocios' were subsequently in 'Drown,' and those were beautiful, brilliant stories that were by turns funny and exceptionally brutal, about the capacity of people to do evil to other people. His later work extends that to entire nations."
Like his fictional protagonist, Diaz, 39, is a Dominican-American whose family emigrated to New Jersey when he was 6. Also like Oscar, Diaz is a fan of popular culture, science fiction and fantasy. With Diaz's literary success, most other similarities end there. Employing Spanglish dialect and footnotes, "Wao" weaves themes of guilt and longing with the challenging and transformative immigrant experience.
Previous winners of the fiction Pulitzer include Toni Morrison, MFA '55, in 1988 for "Beloved"; Cornell emeritus professor of English Alison Lurie, in 1985 for "Foreign Affairs"; and Pearl S. Buck, M.A. '25, in 1932 for "The Good Earth."
Diaz's book was one of three finalists for the 2008 Pulitzer, along with "Shakespeare's Kitchen" by Lore Segal and "Tree of Smoke" by Denis Johnson, a visiting writer at Cornell this year.
"Those two books ['Tree of Smoke' and 'Wao'] are probably the two great books of the last decade, in terms of the effect they will have on other writers," Vaughn said.
Diaz, an associate professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is currently a literary fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Rome. He taught at Syracuse University from 1997 to 2002 and received his B.A. from Rutgers University.
Diaz's other honors include the 2002 PEN/Malamud Award, the Eugene McDermott Award and Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award, and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts' 2003 U.S.-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship.