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2012 Bostonians of the Year Honorable Mention

Acclaimed novelist Junot Diaz delivers

The MIT writing professor had a string of successes in 2012, though he still struggles with the creative process.

john jay cabuay

THIS IS WHAT JUNOT DIAZ’S LIFE LOOKS LIKE from the outside: acclaimed, best-selling novelist and collector of top prizes. What began with the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waointensified in 2012 when he published his best-selling This Is How You Lose Herand became a National Book Award finalist and half-a-million-dollar MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow. In other words, an embarrassment of riches and applause. The life of a chosen one.

This is what Junot Diaz’s life looks like from the inside: “The reality is that this last book took 16 years to write,” he says. “The book before that took 11 years to write. And the new book I’m working on, I’m five years into it and there’s no sign of me being able to say, ‘Chapter 1 has been written.’ Hundreds of pages I’ve thrown away.” In other words, a surplus of struggle and self-doubt. The life of a writer.

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We’re drawn to his writing because, at its best, it combines the muscular economy of Hemingway with the confessional sexual wandering of Philip Roth, studded with the untranslated Spanish of the Dominican barrio. We’re also drawn, it must be said, by the Sudoku challenge of sorting out how many of the experiences and emotions that Diaz ascribes to his fictional alter ego Yunior actually describe his own life. Both are natives of the Dominican Republic, products of the New Jersey working class who became creative writing teachers at competitive colleges in the Boston area, and men who struggle with fidelity. Diaz stresses that he and Yunior are very different. But with all those similarities, it’s easy to see how the delta — to use a term popular on the campus of his employer, MIT — can often seem quite small.

The slim 43-year-old with the shaved head, who titled one of the short stories in this year’s collection “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” says he’s now in a great place in his personal life. He and his girlfriend of about a year, writer Marjorie Liu, share his charming, book-packed one-bedroom apartment in an otherwise shabby Cambridge building. Though the place sits in the shadow of the World’s Greatest University, Diaz says he prefers the hyper-focused unpretentiousness of MIT. “I can always tell if someone’s from Harvard because they trot out their vitae,” he says. “I would die at Harvard.”

During a recent interview, Diaz, whose right leg never stops vibrating except when his left one occasionally takes over, points with pride to the deep roots he’s planted during his decade in Boston. He is the godfather to the children of three different friends — locals, he points out, and not people in academia. Yes, he’s created strong bonds here, but his most important relationship is with the green couch in his living room. Every morning, it beckons him to write pages that he knows he will most likely discard by day’s end. “To an outsider, I just seem like a list of accomplishments,” he says. “To me, all there is is how often I fail.” Which makes us all the more grateful when he finally delivers.  

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