Junot Díaz snatches Pulitzer Prize, grumbles he’s only 2nd Latino to do so

Junot Díaz snatches Pulitzer Prize, grumbles he’s only 2nd Latino to do so

By Carlos Rodríguez Martorell

Memo to Pulitzer: It was about time, hombre!

Fresh off winning the top novelist prize in America, Junot Díaz says the literary establishment “should be embarrassed” he’s only the second Latino writer to snatch it.

“Two Latinos in a hundred years? Mmmh. I don’t think the problem is with us as writers. It seems like the problem is with them as judges,” says the Dominican-born, N.J.-raised author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Díaz, 39, got the news of his Pulitzer Prize for fiction last week when he was in his mother’s home with his sister and nephew, in Ridgefield Park, N.J.

“Of course, my mom didn’t know what the hell that meant, but she was excited for me. She was, like, ‘Pulitzer? Okay, sounds great!’ ” Díaz says.

Díaz, who commutes between East Harlem and Boston, says he celebrated the prize by screaming, but he refuses to be considered a Latino hero.

“I just hope to God that this encourages our community,” he says. “We so often are just the constant recipient of bad news. If the Latino community wants to take five minutes to celebrate some Dominican nerd from New Jersey, that’s not a bad idea.”

Author Pete Hamill hailed the award as “a triumph of the entire immigrant deal.”

“Yes: every last Dominican should cheer, here and in the home island,” says Hamill. “But so should every descendant of Irish, Jewish, Italian and other immigrants, every child of separation from the Old Country, every kid whose family broke with the past and came here to make something new. Including literature.”

A professor of creative writing at MIT, Díaz moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 6 years old. His father entered the country illegally.

“I came from an extremely poor background. We had this saying in my family that we were ‘welfare, food stamps and Section 8,’” he says.

After publishing the acclaimed short-stories book “Drown” in 1996, Díaz shook the American literary world to the core with “Oscar Wao,” his first novel, published last September, which also won the National Book Critics Award.

Spanning 60 years, “Oscar Wao,” tells the story of an obese sci-fi fan growing up in Paterson, N.J., and his Dominican family during the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship.

The book taps into at least two literary traditions: the American immigrant experience and the Latin American dictatorship-themed novel.

“Right from the beginning, that was an obsession of mine,” he says. “There’s nothing more fascinating than pulling together the kind of a book and the kind of an audience that normally wouldn’t hang out together.”

Another of the book’s secrets is its incredibly fast-paced rhythm. “I think it would be fair to say that I write in a definitely perico ripiao-meets dungeon-family hip-hop beats.”

“Oscar Wao” is scheduled to be released in Spanish in September.

“Now my mom will be able to read it,” says Díaz, “if she wants to.”

A ‘Wao’ With Words

One of Junot Díaz’s trademarks is his ability to come up with new words or give old Dominicanisms new life.

Here are some from the pages of Díaz’s “Oscar Wao,” and the author’s own definitions:

Ghettonerd: A bookworm such as Díaz, “who grew up poor and of color and urban and in a community that didn’t really value a life of the mind, the pursuit of reading or art.”

Negrapolis One: The New Jersey area where Oscar Wao grew up. “It seems that there is this unending pageant of Latina gorgeousness.”

(aka Trujillato): “Whenever I close my eyes and think of the Trujillo regime, or I close my eyes further and think of Thomas Jefferson sneaking off in the middle of the night to rape a slave, I think of Culocracy.”

Pariguayo: From “party watcher,” or Dominican for loser. “In some ways, it’s both a warning and a hero.”

Fukú: A 500-year-old curse that afflicts the Americas. “The first word of the New World.”


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