If you’ve never read anything by Junot Diaz – if you’ve never even heard of him – put down what you are doing and go to the library or bookstore and pick up two books: Drown (short stories) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (novel).
I remember reading the stories in Drown on a sidewalk near Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco while waiting for a bus. It must have been 1998 or so. I remember two things distinctly about reading these stories.
First, I wondered over and over, how could a writer be so honest? The stories were all so brutal, and messy, and embarrassing, and I couldn’t stop reading. I was in my first writing group at the time and was writing fiction as a way to escape the honesty of my life, and here he was putting it all out there.
Second, I had to keep flipping to the back cover to remind myself that these stories were written by a guy. How could a guy write such true stories about women? But it wasn’t even quite that. How could someone write these women’s heart-wrenching stories and not be a woman? I was a woman and I couldn’t write like that.
When I was teaching freshman lit at a small college in Connecticut, I included one of Diaz’s short stories in the syllabus. The students were so surprised by the language and plot (especially coming after Hemingway) that they couldn’t believe I was telling them to read it. At the end of the class, most of the students said this was their favorite of all the stories and essays assigned because it was the most ‘real.’
After that year of teaching, I forgot about Diaz for a while, years in fact, until a short story of his appeared in the New Yorker. The story was just dandy, and I was excited to think that a new collection of stories was about to come out.
I was apprehensive when I learned his next book would be a novel, not stories. It’s like an actor who wants to sing or a model who wants to act. You aren’t sure you want to see them try something new, especially if they were so good at what they had been doing.
Well, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao blew me away. And I wasn’t the only one. Diaz won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this novel.
Why do I bring all this up today? Because yesterday I was reading Oprah magazine (that’s right, I like it!) and was delighted to find an article by Junot Diaz. By the end of the article, I was no longer delighted. I was heartbroken, and crestfallen, and thrilled, and inspired by him and his struggles to write.
It was eleven years between Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Devastating years for Diaz but a joyful bounty at the end for the rest of us.
Read Junot Diaz’s article, “Becoming a Writer,” here.
Now I must sign off so I can turn back to writing my fiction.