Junot Diaz, MacArthur Grant winner

Writing professor wins prize for talent in fiction

Often overshadowed by its engineering and science counterparts, the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) at MIT has been called the “hidden jewel” of the Institute. Now, the SHASS has one more award to add to its list of accolades. On Oct. 2, the MacArthur Foundation announced that it had selected MIT professor Junot Diaz to receive a MacArthur Fellowship for his outstanding talent in fiction writing. The foundation awards about 20 so-called “Genius Grants” each year, which each come with $500,000 of no-strings-attached prize money in installments over five years.

In an email interview with The Tech, Junot Diaz stated that the prestigious award essentially meant two things for him. “It’s a tremendous honor for my community, which is never honored enough,” he said, referring to the Latino-American community in which he grew up. “And for five years [the award represents] the freedom to write, which for someone with a full-time job is no small thing.”

The MacArthur Fellowship places heavy emphasis on creativity in selecting recipients. Individuals must be nominated for this award in order to be considered. According to the MacArthur Foundation website, the monetary award is meant to allow its recipients to pursue their ideas freely when they otherwise might not have that luxury.

Junot Diaz is currently the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing in Writing and Humanistic Studies. His published works include an anthology of short stories called Drown (1996) and a novel titled The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Diaz read an excerpt from his most recent collection of stories, This Is How You Lose Her, in the Stata Center on Sept. 27.

This isn’t the first time Diaz has won a major award. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008, and appeared on many best-seller lists.

Still, Diaz said that he “never imagined winning a MacArthur.”

“My imagination doesn’t run in that direction,” said Diaz. “When I was told, it was like one of those little BASIC programs we used to mess with when we were kids.

10 Stunned

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Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, but grew up in New Jersey. In his works, he often likes to explore the challenges facing an immigrant in a new country, drawing upon his own experiences. Yunior, a character who often recurs in his works, is a Dominican-American who is also from New Jersey.

“I grew up wanting always to be in books and later, when I was a teenager, wanting to be an artist,” said Diaz. “Only natural I’d become a writer, given those preconditions.”

Before joining the faculty at MIT, he received his B.A. from Rutgers University and an M.F.A. from Cornell University.

Diaz explained, “A job at one of the greatest schools in the world is hard to turn down. But I stayed for the brilliant students. I’ve been to a lot of schools and my students here have no equal. They are nuts half the time, sure, but they are amazing almost all the time.”

According to Diaz, despite attending a heavily technical school, MIT students don’t seem to approach writing any differently from other students.

“They have less time for it because of their other classes,” he said. “It’s hard to generalize, but on average, like many select college students, my MIT youth tend not to think of the arts as central to their career paths. I’m here to argue the opposite.”

As both a professor and an award-winning novelist who was once a college student, too, Diaz has some advice for aspiring writers: “Read. And focus on being an artist; we have way too many entertainers.”