Being passionate about science fiction stands out at MIT about as much as a mosquito in summer. Yet for Program in Writing associate professor Junot Diaz — whose first book, Drown, met with wild acclaim — the sci-fi leanings reflect more than an intellectual fascination with traversing time and space.
Born poor in the Dominican Republic — “we didn’t have television, we didn’t have a phone, we had a latrine and had to cart water” — Diaz and his family moved to central New Jersey when he was six. “To suddenly have running water and a flushing toilet — for a young mind, that’s time travel,” says the now 34-year-old writer about his predilection for narratives about aliens and clashing cultures.
Diaz’s 1996 book, a collection of coming-of-age short stories set both in Santo Domingo and New Jersey, caused a literary sensation. Twenty-seven-years-old when it was published, the young author was heralded as one of Newsweek’s “New Faces of 1996” and has since garnered a PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction (2002), a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers Award (2000), the Pushcart Prize, and the MIT Eugene McDermott Award (1998), among others. The New Yorker, Paris Review, Glimmer Train, and Best American Fiction, 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2000 all have featured his stories. His minimalist street-smart prose, peppered with slang, sex, and Spanish expressions, pops off the page as it conveys grueling poverty, absent fathers, children’s cruelties and inchoate yearnings. At the same time, it delivers a bedrock sense of fierce affection for the struggling characters and their community.
Diaz came relatively late to writing. A history major at Rutgers University, Diaz took his first creative writing class as a sophomore in 1989. “There was a natural elision between writing about historical events and writing my personal history,” he says. He pursued his passion for writing at Cornell University, and after graduating there with an MFA in 1995, found himself engaged in “soul-destroying work” –– such as photo copying 40 hours a week.
All that changed with the celebrity that rained on him after the publication of Drown, now in its 15th printing. “It was attention I didn’t need,” he says. “Because my Mom was good to me, I never had a hole that needed stuffing by celebrity.” His first reaction to the tidal wave of accolades was “revulsion. It’s easy to get addicted and play to the attention, and I detected all those impulses in me.”
A partial antidote, he notes, was that he came of writerly age under “the old publishing regime, when writing was extremely serious and publishing was a cottage industry, not a celebrity affair.” By contrast, when he began teaching writing at City University of New York, Syracuse in 1997, the publishing environment had changed radically. “My students wanted to talk about agents and advances, not about books.”
Relocates To MIT
After a five-year teaching stint at Syracuse, Diaz relocated last winter to MIT — “an opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime,” he exclaims. “The students are amazing. The faculty is amazing. Imagine sitting at committee meetings with a Nobel Prize winner!”
Teaching creative writing, and this fall, immigrant literature, to science and engineering students offers Diaz new challenges. “The students are very problem-solving oriented, and art is not a problem to be solved. It’s a process. You have to teach them a whole new vocabulary, which hopefully will lead them to a new system of values.” He points to breakthroughs: “At the beginning of the course they say, ‘I don’t want to deal with the touchy-feely crap. No emotions.’ But as the course goes on, they’re not as manic when encountering ambiguity.”
His goal, he says, is to make his students as “critically minded as possible.” He dismisses the “vanguardist nonsense” that writing isn’t teachable. “You can’t teach people passion, no more than you can teach them how to be human. But that doesn’t stop you from teaching civics or other edifying subjects.” Similarly, it’s possible to teach the “formalistic underpinnings, the nearly invisible machinery of a piece of literature. When you have the formalistic vocabulary embedded in your brain, your subconscious will be able to reproduce it.”
That optimism also fuels another of his passions — community activism. For the past six years, Diaz has helped New York City high school students with SAT preparation and college applications, and made presentations to high schools in Boston, Cambridge, Lawrence and Washington, DC. “A lot of kids have no idea there’s a writerly profession. They never thought writing was interesting or viable. To meet someone who shares their cultural touchstone can be a persuasive act.” What propels him in this direction? “Many people have put in a lot of work to get me to where I am. To put in a lot of work for others — it’s the only human response.”