Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz is on the phone with me from Los Angeles, where he’s beginning a book tour to mark the release of his second collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, some 16 years in the making. Just as in his first collection of short stories, Drown, this book is dominated by Diaz’s longtime literary protagonist and doppelganger, the tender-hearted, street-smart, hip-talking Yunior. But Diaz is quick to caution that while he and Yunior seem similar, they are very different men. For starters, the Dominican-born Diaz informs me that Yunior seems to have “some kind of rascal gene.”
“I think of Yunior as a good imposter of me,” Diaz says. “Yeah, he’s got my clothes and a key to my apartment. Yunior’s even got my vida (girlfriend) and my credit card. But if you look closer you’ll begin to see the differences. I think of Yunior as far smarter, but also much crueler. He also gets into a lot more crazy situations. I’m just a dull writer. And Yunior might have tons more ex-girlfriends and more regret, I think I’m a lot more tortured. You know, the typical tortured artist bullshit.”
Diaz, described by the Wall Street Journal as “America’s greatest living short story writer,” and who just received a 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award for writing, was born into what the author calls “enormous poverty” in the Dominican Republic in 1968. When he was 6 years old, Diaz and his family came to America, joining his long-absent father in Parlin, N.J., just down the street from what Diaz tells me was “the state’s largest landfill.
Just the right place for a kid to grow up.” While it may have been billed as “The Promised Land,” America only seemed to be a strange and foreign land where he was “forced to grow up tough.”
“Let me tell you something,” Diaz says angrily. “If you grow up middle class, but you don’t miss meals, it’s easy to be positive. If you grow up flat fucking broke and you grow up in the third-world nightmare of the universe, like I did, it’s a lot harder to be hopeful.”
That quest for any semblance of hope and constant longing for love and intimacy lies at the heart of This Is How You Lose Her, as the tender but constantly heartbroken Yunior falls in and out of love in every conceivable way with a wild parade of chicas, with Latino names like Miss Lora and Magdelena. These stories recount the often-hilarious, never-ending rivalry between Yunior and his older brother Rafa, whose tendency to act loco only worsens after he is diagnosed with leukemia. Diaz says he tried to imbue Yunior with unyielding spirit and tenacity, despite his circumstances.
“(Yunior) is a kid who has never had a stable, loving relationship,” says Diaz. “The father that he longs for turns out to be a nightmare who is never home. Yunior’s mother is entirely focused on his brother and basically treats Yunior as a stranger at home. And his brother is a borderline sociopath who Yunior fears and who is completely indifferent to his brother’s feelings. So why wouldn’t Yunior constantly yearn for intimacy? He longs for love, in any form. But the closest he can come is sex, which I think scares the hell out of him.”
By the end of This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior is changing and ready to abandon the acts sabotaging his relationships. Diaz says he couldn’t finish This Is How You Lose Her until Yunior was at a different place emotionally.
“I’ve always believed that you cannot begin to feel another person’s pain until you can feel your own. So in the beginning, despite all the pain Yunior has suffered he’s entirely indifferent to it, to the degree that he is totally unable to feel his own pain. But by the end of the book, you can begin to see him experiencing the pain that will enable him to feel the love beyond his reach for so long.”
This is a book filled with heart-wrenching tales of truth and a wisdom that can only come from failure and fortitude. These are stories that give the reader hope in love’s ability to triumph over all. All the longing is worthwhile, for as Junot Diaz observes so glowingly in This Is How You Lose Her, “the half-life of love is forever.”
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