The world according to Díaz

10/29/2008, 5:06 a.m.

“I was 7 years old and I was translating for my mom, writing letters for the superintendent,” he said. “I was lawyer, accountant, doctor, interpreter,” and the list went on.

But even with much of his time spent fulfilling these many responsibilities, Díaz became an avid reader.

“I always enjoyed reading tremendously,” he said. “For me, writing is just part of the fact that I love to read.”

He developed a habit of reading whatever he could find at the local public library — not a particularly safe habit in his neighborhood.

“I grew up in a typical poor, kind of scary … community, man,” he said to the young students. “And I was lucky … my older brother protected me in a way that very few smart kids from my community were protected.

“I could walk around with a book and nobody would say s***, ’cause my brother’s dream would be to run a kid over in a car,” Díaz continued as the audience laughed. “He wouldn’t care. He would be like ‘Oh, somebody laughed? I’ll be right there.’”

Díaz graduated from Cedar Ridge High School in 1987. During his college years, Díaz’s love of reading awakened a passion for writing. He worked his way through college by getting menial jobs, such as delivering pool tables and washing dishes.

He graduated from Rutgers College in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in English and left three credits before completing a second degree in history. He told the Banner he may finish those credits next semester while at MIT.

In 1995, Díaz earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cornell University, where he wrote most of his first collection of short stories. A year later, he left his day job running a copy machine in New York after signing a six-figure contract to write two books for the Riverhead imprint of publishing company Penguin Group USA.

He quickly became a literary sensation. Newsweek named him one of the 10 “New Faces of 1996.” His short stories were published in The Paris Review and in The New Yorker, which included him on its list of 20 writers to watch in the 21st century.

Also in 1996, Díaz published “Drown,” a collection of 10 stories about his experiences as a youngster in the impoverished neighborhoods of the Dominican Republic and the urban communities of New Jersey. The collection — which deals with “eroding family structures” and their impact on young people whose worlds “generally consist of absent fathers, silent mothers and friends of questionable principles and morals,” according to Publishers Weekly — wasn’t heralded as a landmark work at the time of its release, but has received favorable reconsideration of late in some circles.

Eleven years later, Díaz published his first full-fledged novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” The work earned him a Pulitzer prize and mostly positive reviews. The main character, Oscar Wao — a Spanglish pronunciation of Oscar Wilde — is an overweight Dominican boy from New Jersey whose story is woven into the tale of a family curse that brings tragedy to their lives.