Junot Díaz's Top Ten List

Author Photo And Bio
Junot Díaz photo

Junot Díaz (born 1968) is a Dominican-American writer whose work often chronicles both the search for and nature of identity, family and belonging through kinetic prose. His debut book of fiction, Drown (1996), is a series of stories narrated by a haunted, brilliant young man who tracks his family’s precarious journey from the barrios of Santo Domingo to the tenements of industrial New Jersey. His next book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) – the story of a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love – swept the major award, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also published the story collection This is How You Lose Her (2012) and a children’s book, Islandborn (2018, with Leo Espinosa). He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award.  Díaz is the fiction editor at Boston Review and teaches writing at MIT. Learn more at his official website.

1. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977). Tayo is a half-blood Laguna Indian who returns to his reservation after surviving the Bataan Death March of World War II. As he struggles to recover the peace of mind that his experience of warfare has stolen from him, Tayo finds that memory, identity, and his relations with others all resemble the colored threads of his grandmother’s sewing basket. The elements of his personality feel knotted and tangled, and his every attempt to restore them to order merely snags and twists them all the more. Tayo’s problems, however, extend far beyond the frustrations and alienation he encounters in trying to readjust to peacetime. Having risked his life for an America that fundamentally disowns him, Tayo must confront difficult and painful questions about the society he has been fighting for.

2. Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros (1991). This story collection draws on the author’s experiences growing up between two worlds and cultures – Mexico and the United States. Often alluding to Mexican history and folklore, she poignantly depicts women who often struggle to find their authentic selves in a modern culture that is not their own.

3. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (1974). Bellona is a city at the dead center of the United States. The population has fled. Madmen and criminals wander the streets. Strange portents appear in the cloud-covered sky. Something has happened there. And into this disaster zone comes a young man—poet, lover, and adventurer—known only as the Kid. Dhalgren is a work of American magical realism, tackling questions of race, gender, and sexuality.

4. Sula by Toni Morrison (1973). Nel Wright and Sula Peace met as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret. It endures into adulthood even after Nel has grown up to be a pillar of the black community and Sula has become a pariah. But their friendship ends in an unforgivable betrayal—or does it? The terrifying, comic, ribald and tragic novel explores the mysteries of death and sex, friendship and poverty to answer the question.

5. Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004). Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, but her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to a hero’s welcome. Instead, he endures second class status. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer's daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.

6. Dawn by Octavia Butler (1987). Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war. Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth. Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before. For the first time since the nuclear holocaust, Earth will be inhabited. Grass will grow, animals will run, and people will learn to survive the planet’s untamed wilderness. But their children will not be human. Not exactly.

7. Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau (1992). In a narrative composed of short sequences, each recounting episodes or developments of moment, and interspersed with extracts from fictive notebooks and statements by an urban planner, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, the saucy, aging daughter of a slave affranchised by his master, tells the story of the tormented foundation of her people's identity. The Caribbean shantytown established by Marie-Sophie is menaced from without by hostile landowners and from within by the volatility of its own provisional state. Hers is a brilliant polyphonic rendering of individual stories informed by rhythmic orality and subversive humor that shape a collective experience.

8. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (1976). This innovative work blends autobiography and mythology with hot rage and cool analysis to portray multiple and intersecting identities—immigrant, female, Chinese, American. As a girl, Kingston lives in two confounding worlds: the California to which her parents have immigrated and the China of her mother’s “talk stories.” The fierce and wily women warriors of her mother’s tales clash jarringly with the harsh reality of female oppression out of which they come. Kingston’s sense of self emerges in the mystifying gaps in these stories, which she learns to fill with stories of her own. A warrior of words, she forges fractured myths and memories into an incandescent whole, achieving a new understanding of her family’s past and her own present.

9. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981). Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.

10. Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño (1996). The “star” of this hairraising novel is Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, an air force pilot who exploits the 1973 coup to launch his own version of the New Chilean Poetry, a multimedia enterprise involving sky-writing, poetry, torture, and photo exhibitions. For the unnamed narrator, who first encounters this "star" in a college poetry workshop, Ruiz-Tagle becomes the silent hand behind every evil act in the darkness of Pinochet's regime. The narrator, unable to stop himself, tries to track Ruiz-Tagle down, and sees signs of his activity over and over again in this tale marked by dark vision conveyed through corrosive, mocking humor that still sparkles.