Junot Díaz was born in 1968 in the Dominican Republic, a small Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. At age six, Díaz immigrated to central New Jersey, where he struggled with culture shock. Though he initially struggled to master spoken English, he took refuge in books and became a voracious reader. Like Yunior de las Casas, the fictional character who narrates his first three books, Díaz developed an interest in creative writing in college at Rutgers University. He went on to earn an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University, and shortly thereafter, he published his first short-story collection, Drown (1996). Since then, Díaz has written a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), and a second story collection, This is How You Lose Her (2012). Díaz serves as the fiction editor for the Boston Review and teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also heads the Voices of Our Nation workshop, which nurtures the talent of emerging writers of color.
Among the most distinctive aspects of Díaz’s fiction is the nature and quality of the writing itself. Michiko Kakutani from The New York Times praised Díaz for his “adrenaline-powered” prose. However, Díaz has spoken candidly about the difficulties he had learning English as a new immigrant in the United States. This early experience fueled a life-long fascination with language. Díaz’s struggles with English had another long-lasting effect: immersed in the language of his new home, his native Spanish fluency began to slip away. This sense of being stranded between two languages remained part of Díaz’s experience into adulthood. He acknowledges this in his book Drown, which opens with text from the Cuban-American poet Gustavo Pérez Firmat: “I / don’t belong to English / though I belong nowhere else.” Díaz reflects the sense of being caught between English and Spanish in much of his fiction, which frequently and fluidly moves between the two languages.
In addition to its use of multiple languages, Díaz’s fiction deploys a range of registers, from the “academic” register of history to the more “popular” register of science fiction and fantasy. These different registers create additional layers of meaning that, in Díaz’s hands, reflect the complex reality of a diasporic person living between two worlds. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for instance, Díaz strongly emphasizes the Dominican Republic’s brutal history, which continues to effect even those living in far-flung regions of the Dominican diaspora. The novel’s narrator, Yunior, reflects briefly on the Dominican Republic’s long and painful history, beginning with enslavement and exploitation under Spanish imperialism. However, he specifically focuses on the horrors of the mid-twentieth century during the reign of a dictator named Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. Also known as El Jefe, or “The Boss,” Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic for thirty-one years (1930–1961). During this period he was responsible for more than fifty thousand deaths. The brutality of the Trujillo era, also called “the Trujillato,” initiated the flight of many young Dominicans from their homeland. Though far away from their home nation’s social and political terrors, many diasporic Dominicans remained profoundly haunted by the Trujillato.
Díaz’s many references to popular culture, and to science fiction and fantasy (SF) in particular, provide an additional lens for understanding contemporary life in the Dominican diaspora. Throughout The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz alludes to a wide range of pop cultural texts, including novels (e.g., J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Stephen King’s IT), films (e.g., the Star Wars trilogy, Akira), and comic books (e.g., The Fantastic Four). In an interview with Olga Segura for America magazine, Díaz outlines some of the affinities he sees between SF and the history of the New World. He notes that Caribbean history is fraught with contests for domination, issues of racial identity and discrimination, and the ramifications of European imperialism. Likewise, “Science fiction and fantasy stories are obsessed with questions of power. They’re obsessed with racism. They’re saturated . . . with the dark energy of colonialism.”
History and SF interweave closely throughout The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in a way that many readers find reminiscent of magical realism. The term “magical realism” refers to a type of fiction that provides a realistic view of the modern world yet also features magical or supernatural elements. Magical realism is closely associated with Latin American writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. Perhaps the most famous example of magical realism is Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which interweaves history and magic to chronicle seven generations of the Buendía family through Colombia’s political ups and downs. In Oscar Wao, Díaz similarly overlays elements drawn from SF to infuse the modern history of the Dominican Republic with magical realism. In the novel, Trujillo becomes a Dominican version of Sauron, a supremely evil authoritarian from J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings. Under Trujillo, the Dominican Republic therefore looks strangely similar to Mordor, the dark corner of Middle-earth from whence Sauron forges his evil plan to assume absolute power.
In 2018, Diaz’s personal life was the subject of headlines when he was accused of misogyny and sexual misconduct by several prominent female authors. Diaz responded with a statement in which he claims to “take responsibility for [his] past.” He also wrote an essay for the New Yorker describing his own childhood experience of sexual assault, and he resigned from his position on the Pulitzer Prize board. While several prominent literary figures have condemned Diaz, others have risen to his defense and expressed concern over the media’s handling of the accusations against him.