Dominican-born Junot Diaz was scraping by as a New York City drug company clerk in 1995 when he sent a sample of his writing to Story magazine, a prestigious literary quarterly that prints only 60 of the 15,000 submissions it receives each year. Within a month of his story's publication, the novice author was being hailed as one of the leading literary discoveries of the year. His work has now appeared in The New Yorker, his "Ysrael" will be in Houghton-Mifflin's collection of The Best American Short Stories of 1996, and Drown, 10 fictional tales drawn from Diaz's experiences growing up in a poor Latino community, was published to wide acclaim last September. His first novel is due this year.
First person: "Drown was like a hand of love out to the community. We aren't just a bunch of crack addicts running around gunning each other down, like people think. There is great beauty and strength. People are surviving."
Second opinion: "His voice is so alive. It just jumps right off the page and carries you through the story," says Lois Rosenthal, editor of Story.
Background: Third of five children; emigrated to the U.S. at 7 and grew up in a tough, gritty neighborhood in Parlin, N.J. Began writing at 13 after parents separated and brother Rafael developed leukemia. "I felt like my life was entering this huge, vast silence," says Diaz. (Rafael survived and is now 29.)
Report card: Started at New Jersey's Kean College; eventually graduated from Rutgers University in 1992 with a B.A. in English; earned a master's in creative writing from Cornell University in 1995.
Digs: Still lives in a cramped, three-room apartment in a Brooklyn walk-up. "In writing, success is so temporary," says Diaz. "Tomorrow they could be laughing at me."
Secret vices: "I watch a lot of television. I am a big-time X-Files person." Also loves the Nickelodeon kids' show Gullah Gullah Island.
Mission: "I want to show them [young people from similar backgrounds] that you can make it and it doesn't mean you sell your soul."