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Junot Díaz wins MacArthur ‘genius grant’

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and writing professor receives unrestricted $500,000 prize.
Junot Díaz, the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing
Junot Díaz, the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing
Photo: Nina Subin

Junot Díaz, the MIT writing professor widely acclaimed for his vivid, inventive works of fiction, has won a 2012 MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes referred to as a “genius grant.”

The MacArthur Foundation cited Díaz, 43, for his stories that use “raw, vernacular dialogue and spare, unsentimental prose to draw readers into the various and distinct worlds that immigrants must straddle.”

The fellowships, awarded annually, carry a $500,000 prize, which recipients are allowed to use as they see fit. Díaz found out about his award in person last month while on a book tour in Chicago, where the MacArthur Foundation is located.

“I think I was speechless for two days,” Díaz told MIT News on Monday, calling the award “stupendous” and a “mind-blowing honor.”

Díaz emphasized that the significance of the award, in his view, is what it means for Latino-Americans. As a child, Díaz immigrated with his family from the Dominican Republic to the United States, an experience he has drawn upon extensively in his own writing.

“I’m the immigrant kid of a parent who was an undocumented worker,” Díaz said. “This stands as encouragement for the general [Latino] community.” That message, Díaz added, matters to him especially because it comes during what he sees as “a paroxysm of anti-immigrant” sentiment in some quarters of the country.

Díaz, the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT, has been a member of the Institute’s faculty since 2003, teaching creative writing in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies

Díaz first gained acclaim for his short-story collection, Drown, published in 1996. His novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was published in 2007 and won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. He received the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts from the Council for the Arts at MIT in 1998.

Díaz also recently published a story collection, titled This Is How You Lose Her, which follows Yunior, a Dominican from New Jersey and a recurring character in Díaz’s works. In an interview with MIT News published in September, Diaz said the new work was “a book about how a young man and his vision of the women in his life, and experiences with them, have prevented him from achieving what he most dreams of, which is an intimate relationship with a woman.” The New York Times, in a recent review, called his writing in this collection “electrifying.”

Two MIT alumni were also named among the 23 MacArthur fellows for 2012: Daniel Spielman PhD ’95, the Henry Ford II Professor of Computer Science, Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at Yale University; and Melody Swartz PhD ’98, professor at the Ecole Polytechniques Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

Other recent MacArthur “genius grant” winners from MIT have included Nergis Mavalvala, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor of Physics; Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics; John Ochsendorf, the Class of 1942 Associate Professor of Building Technology and Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Marin Soljačić, a professor of physics. Including today’s winners, 17 MIT faculty members have won the award, along with three staff members.

Press Mentions

The New Yorker

Prof. Junot Díaz contributed this essay to The New Yorker, which details his personal experience with childhood abuse and its long-lasting impact on him. “No one can hide forever. Eventually what used to hold back the truth doesn’t work anymore. You run out of escapes, you run out of exits, you run out of gambits, you run out of luck. Eventually the past finds you.”

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