Junot Díaz’s Syllabi for His MIT Writing Classes, and the Novels on His Reading List

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.”

Read­ing List:

“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?

Advanced Fic­tion

Descrip­tion: “An advanced work­shop on the writ­ing and cri­tiquing of prose.”

Read­ing List:

“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.

via Col­or Lines

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es

Junot Díaz Anno­tates a Selec­tion of The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao for “Poet­ry Genius”

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

W.H. Auden’s 1941 Lit­er­a­ture Syl­labus Asks Stu­dents to Read 32 Great Works, Cov­er­ing 6000 Pages

Lyn­da Barry’s Won­der­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Syl­labus & Home­work Assign­ments from Her UW-Madi­son Class, “The Unthink­able Mind”

Don­ald Barthelme’s Syl­labus High­lights 81 Books Essen­tial for a Lit­er­ary Edu­ca­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (16)
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  • Cruella says:

    It’s one thing to make a much need­ed cor­rec­tion to the white male dom­i­nat­ed his­to­ry of lit­er­a­ture class­es. It’s quite anoth­er to pur­pose­ly exclude writ­ers because they are/were white men. We’re see­ing an over­cor­rec­tion of all facets of life these days. You don’t fix mar­gin­al­iza­tion by mar­gin­al­iz­ing oth­er groups.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Where, specif­i­cal­ly, are you see­ing that, Cruel­la?

  • dantes342 says:

    Half the world-build­ing list is white men. Not enough? Or did you read the arti­cle?

  • Barrie Grenelll says:

    Oscar Wao is def­i­nite­ly a book to be heard, lis­tened to, although in read­ing it, you can hear it at the same time. Such tal­ent!

  • Maria says:


  • Dianne Acey says:

    I am a recent­ly retired pro­fes­sor.
    I’d like to share mate­r­i­al I devel­oped.
    Please con­tact me.

  • Dianne Acey says:

    Thank you! I’ll explore these read­ings!

  • Dianne Acey says:

    Thank you! I will explore these books.

  • Jonathan Smith says:

    hi cruel­la!

    that’s not exact­ly what’s hap­pen­ing: includ­ing writ­ers that a non-white does not mean one is *active­ly* exclud­ing white writ­ers.

  • Jonathan Smith says:

    whoops: “that are non-white”

  • Derik says:

    Junot Diaz lit­er­al­ly por­trays every white woman in his nov­els as a whore. He wrote a sto­ry about “How to Date a White Girl, a Black Girl and a hal­fie”, in which he states mat­ter of fact­ly that white women are whores.

  • Eric Rasmusen says:

    MIT is increas­ing its rep­u­ta­tion for illit­er­a­cy by hir­ing this pro­fes­sor. I expect they just saw the Span­ish sur­name and thought, “What the heck, he’s just teach­ing writ­ing: this is the place to put the token his­pan­ics those Har­vard peo­ple down the street keep bug­ging us about not hav­ing.

  • Mary says:

    Derik.…pretty sure Diaz was speak­ing in char­ac­ter in that sto­ry. Some sto­ries are raw, get over it.
    Eric…Harvard would love to have Diaz on board-he may have felt they were not diverse enough for his lik­ing.

  • Eric says:

    I am puz­zled by the fact that MIT is fea­tured in the head­line of this arti­cle, as if we should be impressed by the con­tent of a writ­ing class at a school famous as an engi­neer­ing school. This is sim­i­lar to being excit­ing about the con­tent of a quan­tum mechan­ics class at Juil­liard.

  • Derrek says:

    This site is becom­ing too PC. Please stop fea­tur­ing con­tent by ran­dom racial minori­ties.

  • Tyler says:

    This site is becom­ing too white. Please stop let­ting sen­si­tive white peo­ple com­ment.

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