Díaz was born in Villa Juana, a neighborhood in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He was the third child in a family of five. Throughout most of his early childhood, he lived with his mother and grandparents while his father worked in the United States. Díaz emigrated to Parlin, New Jersey, in December 1974, where he was re-united with his father. There he lived less than a mile from what he has described as “one of the largest landfills in New Jersey”.
He attended Kean College in Union, New Jersey for one year before transferring and ultimately completing his BA at Rutgers College in 1992, majoring in English; there he was involved in Demarest Hall, a creative-writing, living-learning, residence hall, and in various student organizations. He was exposed to the authors who would motivate him to become a writer: Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros. He worked his way through college by delivering pool tables, washing dishes, pumping gas, and working at Raritan River Steel. Reflecting on his experience growing up in America and working his way through college in 2010, Díaz said: “I can safely say I’ve seen the US from the bottom up…I may be a success story as an individual. But if you adjust the knob and just take it back one setting to the family unit, I would say my family tells a much more complicated story. It tells the story of two kids in prison. It tells the story of enormous poverty, of tremendous difficulty." A pervasive theme in his short story collection Drown is the absence of a father, which reflects Diaz’s strained relationship with his own father, with whom he no longer keeps in contact. When Diaz once published an article in a Dominican newspaper condemning the country’s treatment of Haitians, his father wrote a letter to the editor saying that the writer of the article should "go back home to Haiti.”
After graduating from Rutgers he was employed at Rutgers University Press as an editorial assistant. At this time Diaz also first created the quasi-autobiographical character of Yunior in a story he used as part of his application for his MFA program in the early 1990s. The character would become important to much of his later work including Drown and This is How You Lose Her. Yunior would become central to much of Diaz’s work, Diaz later explaining how “My idea, ever since Drown, was to write six or seven books about him that would form one big novel”. He earned his MFA from Cornell University in 1995, where he wrote most of his first collection of short stories. Currently, Díaz teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing and is also the fiction editor for Boston Review. He is active in the Dominican American community and is a founding member of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Writing Workshop, which focuses on writers of color. Díaz was a Millet Writing Fellow at Wesleyan University, in 2009, and participated in Wesleyan’s Distinguished Writers Series.
Díaz is related to American journalist Nefertiti Jáquez, who currently works for NBC News in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He lives in a domestic partnership with paranormal romance writer Marjorie Liu.
The stories in Drown focus on the teenage narrator’s impoverished, fatherless youth in the Dominican Republic and his struggle adapting to his new life in New Jersey. Reviews were generally strong but not without complaints. Díaz read twice for PRI‘s This American Life: “Edison, New Jersey" in 1997 and "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie" in 1998. Díaz also published a Spanish translation of' Drown, entitled Negocios. The arrival of his novel (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) in 2007 prompted a noticeable re-appraisal of Díaz’s earlier work. Drownbecame widely recognized as an important landmark in contemporary literature—ten years after its initial publication—even by critics who had either entirely ignored the book or had given it poor reviews.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was published in September 2007. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani characterized Díaz’s writing in the novel as:
a sort of streetwise brand of Spanglish that even the most monolingual reader can easily inhale: lots of flash words and razzle-dazzle talk, lots of body language on the sentences, lots ofDavid Foster Wallace-esque footnotes and asides. And he conjures with seemingly effortless aplomb the two worlds his characters inhabit: the Dominican Republic, the ghost-haunted motherland that shapes their nightmares and their dreams; and America (a.k.a. New Jersey), the land of freedom and hope and not-so-shiny possibilities that they’ve fled to as part of the great Dominican diaspora.
Díaz said about the protagonist of the novel, “Oscar was a composite of all the nerds that I grew up with who didn’t have that special reservoir of masculine privilege. Oscar was who I would have been if it had not been for my father or my brother or my own willingness to fight or my own inability to fit into any category easily.” He also has said that he sees a meaningful and fitting connection between the science fiction and/or epic literary genres and the multi-faceted immigrant experience.
Writing for Time, critic Lev Grossman said that Díaz’s novel was “so astoundingly great that in a fall crowded with heavyweights–Richard Russo, Philip Roth–Díaz is a good bet to run away with the field. You could call The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao… the saga of an immigrant family, but that wouldn’t really be fair. It’s an immigrant-family saga for people who don’t read immigrant-family sagas.”
All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric. It should necessarily be a story eight years in duration, a story that no matter what our personal politics are will excite us enough to go out and reëlect the teller just so we can be there for the story’s end. But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all. I heard him talk healthcare to death but while he was elaborating ideas his opponents were telling stories. Sure they were bad ones, full of distortions and outright lies, but at least they were talking to the American people in the correct idiom: that of narrative. The President gave us a raft of information about why healthcare would be a swell idea; the Republicans gave us death panels. Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing.
In September 2012, he released a new collection of short stories entitled This Is How You Lose Her. The collection was named a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award on October 10, 2012. In his review of the book on online arts and culture journal Frontier Psychiatrist, Editor-In-Chief Keith Meatto wrote, “While This is How You Lose Her will surely advance Diaz’s literary career, it may complicate his love life. For the reader, the collection raises the obvious question of what you would do if your lover cheated on you, and implies two no less challenging questions: How do you find love and how do you make it last?”
A description of the book is as follows:
The stories in This Is How You Lose Her, by turns hilarious and devastating, raucous and tender, lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weaknesses of our all-too-human hearts. They capture the heat of new passion, the recklessness with which we betray what we most treasure, and the torture we go through – “the begging, the crawling over glass, the crying” – to try to mend what we’ve broken beyond repair. They recall the echoes that intimacy leaves behind, even where we thought we did not care. They teach us the catechism of affections: that the faithlessness of the fathers is visited upon the children; that what we do unto our exes is inevitably done in turn unto us; and that loving thy neighbor as thyself is a commandment more safely honored on platonic than erotic terms. Most of all, these stories remind us that the habit of passion always triumphs over experience, and that “love, when it hits us for real, has a half-life of forever.”
Also in 2012, Diaz received a $500,000 (U.S.) MacArthur “Genius grant” award; however, the reaction to the news was not entirely positive, as evidenced by a negative piece by Nina Burleigh in the New York Observer that called the decision to award Diaz “baffling” in the light of his having already won a number of major literary prizes. Diaz himself is quoted as saying of his award win in the MIT News “I think I was speechless for two days,” and that it was both “stupendous” and a “mind-blowing honor.”
Diaz is currently at work on his second long novel, a science-fiction epic provisionally entitled Monstro. Diaz has previously attempted to write a science fiction novel twice, with earlier efforts in the genre “Shadow of the Adept, a far-future novel in the vein of Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, and Dark America, an Akira-inspired post-apocalyptic nightmare” remaining incomplete and unpublished. In an interview with New York Magazine prior to the release of This Is How You Lose Her, Diaz revealed that the work-in-progress novel concerns “[…] a 14-year-old “Dominican York” girl who saves the planet from a full-blown apocalypse," but he has also warned that the novel may never be completed: "“I’m only at the first part of the novel, so I haven’t really gotten down to the eating,” he says, “and I’ve got to eat a couple cities before I think the thing will really get going.”
Of writing and the arts, Diaz has said "Art is what matters most, and if you’re not contextualizing for a larger push for the arts, what does it matter? What’s really relevant, important, and exigent is that all of us are under pressure to spend less time with art, and we’ve got to figure out a way to talk and encourage each other to do the opposite." With regard to his own writing, Diaz has said “There are two types of writers: those who write for other writers, and those who write for readers,” and that he prefers to keep his readers in mind when writing, as they’ll be more likely to gloss over his mistakes and act as willing participants in a story, rather than actively looking to criticize his writing.
On May 22, 2010, it was announced that Díaz had been selected to sit on the 20-member Pulitzer Prize board of jurors. Díaz described his appointment, and the fact that he is the first of Latin background to be appointed to the panel, as an “extraordinary honor”.
He is currently the honorary chairman of the DREAM Project, a non-profit education involvement program in the Dominican Republic.