Joseph Pulitzer in the Dominican Republic

 

In 2008, Junot Diaz become only the second Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Only Oscar Hijuelos preceded Diaz, winning the award in 1990 for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. The Pulitzer Prize was establish by Joseph Pulitzer upon his death, and has been awarded in the Fiction category since 1918 (the category was originally named Novel until 1947). The authors who have been awarded the prize for fiction arguably include the most influential American writers of the twentieth century; Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, John Updike, Alice Walker, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison just to name a few. The award is traditionally bestowed upon writers who have previously exhibited excellence, and who the board feels will continue to be a significant influence in the field. Some argue that the Pulitzers have traditionally shunned minorities in the past, and by the current record of Latino prize winners, there may be some truth to this. But the significance of the Pulitzers cannot be denied. Their bestowal of the award for Diaz’s work is monumental regardless of his ethnicity. After Diaz’s win, Hijuelos cautioned, “You have to be careful in the sense of encountering people who wouldn’t give you the time of day before, and suddenly you’re in the club…For me, when I won the Pulitzer, I remember thinking, ‘Where were all these Latino lovers before?’”[1]

Like Junot’s short stories, Oscar Wao, is a very personal depiction of life in America for children of Dominican immigrants. It brings to life an aspect of American society previously unknown to outsiders. So rather than ask where all the Latino lovers have been, Junot Diaz actually invites everyone to join in. This personal feeling has been a characteristic of all of the literary readings we have read throughout this semester. Richard Wright, Anzia Yezierska, Sherman Alexie, and Diaz use very personal depictions of their environments growing up to educate audiences about their cultural and ethnic heritages. And these authors have crafted some of the most compelling literature in American history. So why has it taken eighteen years for the Pulitzer Prizes to award its second Latino author? Are authors who specifically target audiences outside their respective ethnic identities fulfilling their responsibilities to the larger society? Or are they selling out by using their heritage to attract larger audiences? Is it the art and cultural award organizations’ responsibility to promote works by different ethnic or minority groups?

[1] Carlos Rodriguez Martorell, “Take it easy Junot, says fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Oscar Hijuelos,” New York Daily News, April 15, 2008.

2 thoughts on “Joseph Pulitzer in the Dominican Republic

  1. It’s also interesting to think about how the authors’/artists’ communities feel about the sudden spotlight being shined on their culture. Are they excited to share their stories/lives, or do they resent the white establishment for trying to infringe on a personal sphere that is uniquely theirs? Obviously, reactions will vary from person to person, but I wonder if there is a general consensus in any of these communities as to whether this attention is a plus or a negative.

  2. When the writing is extremely personal, as in the case of Diaz or Anzia Yezierska, I think it would be unfair to label that as selling out, or writing for a larger audiences. They are writing what they know and what they feel needs to be shared with any audience. Sometimes I feel like resistance to going “mainstream” is a condition for white people (http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/30/40-indie-music/).

    Of course it’s not, but Claire raises an interesting point about their audiences. In the context of our readings on descent, I would think that claiming a Pulitzer Prise winning author would be more of a point of pride.

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