We can probably all agree that it’s a little premature, but all the same, the BBC has barreled ahead with its list of “The 21st Century’s 12 greatest novels.” Topping the list of excellent, if not especially surprising, picks is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel about, as he puts it in the interview above, “a closeted nerd writing about an absolutely out nerd, and using their shared mutual language to tell the story.” The book has connected with such a wide swath of readers for more than its appeal to fellow nerds, though that’s no small thing. A great many readers have seen their own lives reflected in Díaz’s characters—Dominican immigrants growing up in New Jersey—or have found their experiences illuminating. And even though Yunior and Oscar’s very male point of view might have alienated female readers in the hands of a lesser author, Díaz has the sensitivity and self-awareness to—as Joe Fassler argues in The Atlantic—write sexist characters, but not sexist books. As the author himself says above, “if it wasn’t for women readers, I wouldn’t have a career.”
Díaz’s ear for dialogue and idiom and his facility for constructing completely believable characters with completely distinctive voices are matched by his commitment to representing the experiences of people who still get routinely left out of the contemporary canon. Despite the attention given to such stellar non-white, non-male writers as Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, and Jamaica Kincaid, most MFA programs, Diaz argued in a recent essay for The New Yorker, are still “too white,” reproducing “exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc).” In his own MFA workshop experiences at Cornell, he found that “the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male.”
The problem is more than just personal, though he certainly found the experience personally alienating, and it isn’t a matter of redressing historical wrongs or enforcing an abstract PC notion of diversity. Instead, as Díaz told Salon, it’s a problem of accurately representing reality. “If race or gender (or any other important social force) are not part of your interpretive logic—if they’re not part of what you consider the real—then you’re leaving out most of what has made our world our world.” In his own role at a professor at MIT, teaching undergraduate writing courses for the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Department, Díaz is very thoughtful about his approach, emphasizing, “it’s not the books you teach, but how you teach them." In addition to novels by authors like Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat and Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, he has his students read “classic Gothic texts which are themselves not very diverse by our standards," but, he says, "the critical lens I deploy helps my students understand how issues of race, gender, coloniality etc. are never far."
Salon tracked down the syllabi and reading lists for two of Díaz’s MIT courses, “World-Building” and “Advanced Fiction.” We do find one classic Gothic text---Bram Stoker's Dracula---and also much of what we might expect from the self-confessed nerd, including work from such well-regarded comic writers as Frank Miller and Alan Moore and classic sci-fi from Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. In addition to these white, male writers, we have fiction from African-American sci-fi authors Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin. Díaz’s “Advanced Fiction” list is even more wide-ranging, inclusive of writers from Chile, Zimbabwe, China, and Haiti, as well as the U.S. See both lists below.
Description: “This class concerns the design and analysis of imaginary (or constructed) worlds for narrative media such as roleplaying games, films, comics, videogames and literary texts. … The class’ primary goal is to help participants create better imaginary worlds – ultimately all our efforts should serve that higher purpose.”
Prerequisites: “You will need to have seen Star Wars (episode four: A New Hope) and read The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien.”
“A Princess of Mars” by ER Burroughs
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker
“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller
“Sunshine” by Robin McKinley
“V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore
“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by NK Jemisin
“Lilith’s Brood” by Octavia Butler
“Perdido Street Station” by China Miéville
“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson (Recommended)
Some things to consider always when taking on a new world: What are its primary features—spatial, cultural, biological, fantastic, cosmological? What is the world’s ethos (the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize the world)? What are the precise strategies that are used by its creator to convey the world to us and us to the world? How are our characters connected to the world? And how are we the viewer or reader or player connected to the world?
Description: “An advanced workshop on the writing and critiquing of prose.”
“Clara” by Roberto Bolaño
“Hitting Budapest” by NoViolet Bulawayo
“Whites” by Julie Otsuka
“Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat
“My Good Man” by Eric Gansworth
“Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Li
“Bounty” by George Saunders
For more from Díaz himself on his approach to writing fiction, listen to his interview with NPR’s Teri Gross. And just below, hear Díaz read from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at the Key West Literary Seminar in 2008.