The Wondrous Life of Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wuo" by Junot Diaz
The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wuo" by Junot Diaz
Riverhead Books

The nation's highest literary honor was recently awarded to an author with an "only in America" story, a wondrous life story you might even say.

In a ceremony recently at New York's Columbia University, Junot Diaz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

The 39-year-old MIT professor has a lot to celebrate these days. Few books have arrived to more thunderous acclaim than Diaz's first novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" (Riverhead).

The bestseller has ranked on more than 35 best book lists. Time magazine called it the novel of the year. It's a wondrous place he never expected to be.

"I always kind of giggle any time I'm at an MIT faculty meeting, you know," Diaz told CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason. "And people are like, I got a Nobel Prize.' Someone else is like, 'I got a Pritzker.' And I'm like, 'My parents were illegal.' Like, I love this. You know, only in America, yeah?"

Born in the Dominican Republic, Junot Diaz was the middle child in a family of five kids. He was just six years old when his parents announced they were emigrating.

"One day they just said, you're leaving today to go to the United States?" Mason asked. "It was that sudden?"

"it was that sudden, yeah," Diaz said.

The Diazes landed on the wrong side of Sayreville, New Jersey, in a housing complex where rents were cheap, because it just happened to border one of the largest active landfills in the Northeast.

Diaz took Mason on a tour. "I used to be able to come out here, step outside and you would see, not only would there be smoke from the burning garbage, but there would be billions of gulls," Diaz said. "And you could just hear their screams."

But the Diaz kids quickly made their mark on the place, carving their initials in the new concrete ... backwards ("DJ") to confuse their parents.

"Right, that's how brilliant we were!" Diaz said. "And my mom came and she's like, 'Dumb asses, I got it!'"

Diaz's father was a former military policeman who liked to take his kids to the firing range. But Junot had a secret identity: He'd escape his neighborhood by sneaking away to the library.

"My friends would have laughed their asses off if they found out I was walking down to the Sayreville Library to read books," he said. "'What are you, nuts?'"

He read everything and anything he could get. "Yeah, I was convinced that I could stumble upon the sort of the key text that would maybe describe why I was in the United States."

One day, unexpectedly, his father walked out on the family and never returned.

"It was terrible because you have this real masculine role model that you look up to, and then , 'Adios.' What, helped was - I'm not going to lie - when you have one parent who cares a lot about you. It can help you deal with the pain of the loss of a father."

"In our neighborhood, a lot of the kids in our neighborhood didn't have either parents care about them," Diaz said. "And we always felt like we were one ahead."
Working cleaning jobs, his mother kept the family together. And with her support, Diaz found his way to Rutgers University.

"I'd never had any access to this world," he said. "I'd never met anybody like these kids. For me I felt like I had finally come home. This is where my tribe has been hiding."

He was 27 in 1996, when his debut, a book of short stories called "Drown," made him an overnight sensation.

Was he surprised?

"Oh yeah, man, come on! I was more than surprised. I think I went into a state of shock."

The young literary phenom was now expected to produce the Next Great American Novel. So Diaz sat down to write it.

It would take him 11 years.

"I went to bed every night with my jaw locked, saying someone tricked me into believing that I had talent. And in the morning I would wake up with a terrible neck, saying to myself, 'Well, give it five more pages. You've already done 9 years.'"

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is the story of a sweet-souled, science fiction obsessed geek:

"Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber."

"You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. Ghetto."

Oscar is a hopelessly virginal fatboy who finds love only in his daydreams:
"His affection - that gravitational mass of love, fear, longing, desire and lust that he directed at any and every girl in the vicinity without regard to looks, age, or availability - broke his heart each and every day."
"I think Oscar for me was a dream of what would have happened if the me that always wanted to stay home and read rather than go shoot a gun, or would rather have had a conversation than punch a kid out, If that me had actually lived in some way."

Now "Oscar" has earned him a Pulitzer. For Junot Diaz, the self-confessed ghetto nerd, it's a sweet reward for an incredible journey.

But, Mason asked, are readers going to have to wait eleven years for the next book?

"I hope not," Diaz said. "I hope I can get it down to, like, five years. That's the dream!"