Junot Diaz: ‘This Is How You Lose Her’
Yunior de las Casas is back. If you’ve read the fiction of Junot Diaz, either his debut novel “Drown” or his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao,” you know that Yunior is a recurring character.
When Diaz first introduced us to Yunior, he was a nerdy, chubby kid from the Dominican Republic living in New Jersey. In Diaz’s latest, a collection of short stories titled “This Is How You Lose Her,” Yunior is older and flailing his way through a string of failed relationships. He’s also learning about intimacy from his father and brother, who turn out not to be the best role models.
Sacha Pfeiffer: Junot, it took you 16 years to complete this book and 11 years to complete “The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao.” Why so long for both of those?
Junot Diaz: God, I don’t know. I guess you could just say I’m slow or, as my siblings say, I suck. It just seems to take a while.
You describe your new book as being about “the rise and fall of a young cheater.” And your first book, “Drown,” also dealt with infidelity. Why that theme so prevalent in your writing?
The first book only a little bit. I’m interested in intimacy. I’m interested in how people form the deepest relationships and how people unveil themselves in our deepest relationships. And so intimacy is kind of the fracture. It’s like the great knife to the heart of love. And, as a writer, you’re kind of attracted to these things. At least I am.
You make a distinction between romantic intimacy and other types of intimacy. Tell us about the other types.
Listen, we all know attachment is a multifaceted thing. We attach ourselves and have intimacy with our friends, with our family. And, of course, there’s that most difficult one, which is how does one be a good friend to one’s self? Many of us spend a lot of time trying to avoid making friends with ourselves. And so, for me, I just thought that this kid was perfect since he’s so phobic about all kinds of intimacy.
We do see him throughout the book go through a lot of women, be kind of a womanizer. We see a lot of not particularly flattering portrayals of women. Do you intend him to be a sympathetic character, maybe someone who’s just a product of how he was raised? Are we supposed to like him?
I think the book makes different kinds of arguments in most people’s characterizations. I mean, I don’t think Yunior views his mother and her friends as cardboard characters. He doesn’t view the older woman that he ends up having an affair with as just some sort of sexualized being. He doesn’t view his girlfriend, who ends up going to college to a really good school and avoids all the trouble of the neighborhood — you never see her being described as a bunch of body parts. I think the book is much more nuanced than most of the blurbs about it.
I think the thing about someone like Yunior is that he’s deeply flawed. He’s deeply flawed. And I am trying to wait for the first person who comes up to me and says they’re not. And I think all of us deeply flawed people are worthy of sympathy. I mean, I just think we are. And I think that we’re worthy of art. And I think it’s a really weird world where we have to come very close to perfection before anyone can have compassion to us. So that’s how I approached his character. I thought, let me pick someone who’s a pain in the ass, who’s a jerk, who’s got holes in his heart, and let’s see if my art can make other people connect to him as a human.
He certainly does evolve, in a sense, over the course of the book. By the time his last relationship fails, he’s much more regretful and mournful than it seemed like he was in the earlier ones.
And beyond just the ability to regret, his mind — the way that he views the universe — changes. At the center of that, for many guys, the great challenge is: Do we see women really clearly? Do we see them as human? And for him, I think, there’s a sense at the end that perhaps he has achieved that.
In other interviews you’ve done…you talk about how you don’t intend this to just be about Dominican men, because that’s largely what this [book] is focused on. You said — it was quite funny — you think that no culture would ever grade its men collectively higher than an F, which is a very harsh judgment on men, and maybe in my life I’ve just been lucky to have some good men. Why so tough on your gender?
Do you really think that’s all that tough? I mean, I feel terrible to have to be the one to drag this out. But if we were talking about a family and one-third of the people in the family were getting raped, would we give that family a C? A B? A D? I guess I’m not claiming that everyone is a terror or that everyone is awful. I mean, my life has been made possible by the courage and the dedication of wonderful men. But what I’m talking about is as a practice — masculinity as a practice. Patriarchy, which goes beyond individuals, though it involves individuals, I think is deeply problematic in any country that you look.
You seem to have a very like/hate relationship with Boston. In fact, there’s a very funny line about Boston winters, and all I’ll say about it is that your description includes the word “terrorism.” Could you read from your new book a section about Boston from the chapter “The Cheater’s Guide To Love”? Of course, you’ll have to do a little bit of censoring when you get to certain expletives.
But I have to say: This is my character talking. This isn’t me. I don’t have a love/hate [relationship] — it’s him.
So here we go:
Boston, where you never wanted to live, where you feel you’ve been exiled to, becomes a serious problem. You have trouble adjusting to it full-time; to its trains that stop running at midnight, to the glumness of its inhabitants, to its startling lack of Sichuan food. Almost on cue a lot of racist nonsense starts happening. Maybe it was always there, maybe you’ve become more sensitive after all your time in New York. White people pull up to traffic lights and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mothers. It’s scary. Before you can figure out what’s going on they flip you the bird and peel out. It happens again and again. Security follows you in stores and every time you step on Harvard property you’re asked for ID. Three times, drunk white dudes try to pick fights with you in different parts of the city.
You take it all very personally. I hope someone drops an atomic bomb on this city, you rant. This is why no people of color want to live here. Why all my black and Latino students leave as soon as they can.
Elvis says nothing. He was born and raised in Jamaica Plain, knows that trying to defend Boston from uncool is like blocking a bullet with a slice of bread.
You say it’s your character, not you. But of course your readers are going to wonder, “Does it drive him crazy that the train stops so early and you can’t get good Chinese takeout?” And I think the saddest question for me, as someone who loves Boston, is: have you had some of those experiences with racism that have you write this into the Yunior character?
Does Boston suffer from racism? That’s the question. That Boston is sort of representative of the United States is not huge surprise. So I guess my thing is less about what Boston represents for Boston, but more as how I think of it as really useful to talk about this character who’s going crazy and unhappy because he’s been broken up with and then he feels like the whole city has turned against him. Like, it’s such a great gag. It’s that gag that’s more useful to me.
But, to your question, is there racism in Boston? Surprisingly there is!
But do you feel like you have encountered it yourself?
Me? As a person of color? As an immigrant? Yeah, I think the answer would be yes. I think it would be yes, safely.
As anyone who’s one your readers knows, there’s a lot of contemporary Spanish slang, and that means if you’re not a Spanish speaker who have to spend a lot of time with an urban dictionary, sometimes, to follow it. What’s your advice for readers who can’t follow but really want to understand? How do you not lose them when they think, “I’m not sure what he meant by that.”
I guess I have a different approach to reading. I’m someone who loves to read, and if you’re a reader like me, one of the basic components of reading is that you’re accustomed to not getting a large part of what you’re reading. If you’re nerdy like me, you read “The Hobbit” and “Lord Of The Rings,” and you’re used to reading books where there’s pages of poetry in Elvish. I don’t understand Elvish, but I can hang with the book. You read Dickens — a third of what Dickens is talking about makes no sense to a contemporary reader. But because the characters are cool and the incidents are cool, you hang.
Because readers — what our joy is is to be able to encounter a book, not understand it fully and still love it. It’s like encountering a person. I don’t understand people fully. I don’t understand every part of their heart or soul, but it doesn’t keep me from loving them. So I guess my advice to readers is to read the way you always read. Read with great love and great tolerance, and if the book hooks you you’re not going to notice what you don’t understand.
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