Known for his Pultizer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and various short stories that chronicle the immigrant experience, Junot Díaz M.F.A. ’95 added another accolade to his already storied career when he was awarded the 2012 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship this month.
The MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant,” is a “no-strings-attached” award intended to stimulate creativity, according to the MacArthur Foundation’s website. Fellows are chosen each year by an anonymous group that submits its recommendations to an anonymous selection committee, which chooses 20 to 40 individuals to receive the award, the website states.
Cornellians celebrated Díaz’s award, describing the author as a writer with a unique voice. Speaking of the distinctive themes that appear in his stories, Chris Drangle M.F.A. ’13 said the MacArthur Foundation made an excellent choice in Díaz.
“Junot Díaz has no doubt one of the most instantly recognizable voices of anyone writing fiction in 2012,” Drangle said. “The brilliant thing about his prose is how inclusive it is: packed with slang, high poetic language, Spanish, humor –– all of it delivered with exuberance. There are few writers who pack that much entertainment value at the sentence level.”
Drangle said that Díaz’s work is significant because it often includes reflections on “the classic obsessions of American literature — sex, death, ethnicity, ancient Caribbean curses.”
The author, in writing about such themes, “wraps them in a style that is forceful nearly to the point of aggression, but also inclusive, compelling and actually fun,” he said.
English professors also agreed that Díaz is an excellent writer.
“Junot Díaz is a wonderful writer, a gifted craftsman,” said Prof. Ishion Ira Hutchinson, English. “I think he has an unerring ear; reading him, you can tell he listens carefully to his characters and that he has worked hard to make them effortlessly alive on the page.”
Hutchinson said that Díaz’s work is notable because his stories never fail to capture readers’ attention.
“His work is ‘significant’ today for the same reason any good work of art is: the reader finds pleasure there, pleasure in the imagination, pleasure enough to return, in Díaz's case, to characters that will forever remain fresh,” he said.
Drangle, echoing Hutchinson’s sentiments, said that Díaz writes in a way that is of “universal” appeal to readers.
“At this point, he’s too famous to be considered any kind of niche writer, but it’s worth thinking about the way he depicts a particular part of the American immigrant experience and why it speaks to such a wide variety of readers, regardless of their own cultural backgrounds,” Drangle said.
Díaz is not the first Cornellian who has been named a MacArthur Fellow. In recent years, other Cornellians who were honored as MacArthur fellows include Prof. Michal Lipson, electrical and computer engineering; Prof. Jon Kleinberg ’93, computer science; and Prof. Paul Ginsparg, physics and computer and information science, according to a University press release.
Even before being awarded the MacArthur grant, Díaz has been honored for his outstanding fiction writing several times.
After spending 11 years completing his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, according to a University press release. Weeks after receiving the MacArthur Fellowship this year, Díaz was also nominated a finalist for the National Book Award for his third book, This is How You Lose Her.