Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz burst onto the literary scene with his short stories of the late ’90s, collected in his debut Drown, and then startled the whole world with the 2007 publication of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which we dubbed at the time, “A compelling, sex-fueled, 21st-century tragi-comedy with a magical twist.”
Oscar Wao has gone on to become a groundbreaking moment in contemporary literature, as has Díaz, the first Latin-American juror for the Pulitzer Prize. Here, a very candid Díaz talks about his latest story collection, This is How You Lose Her, which revisits old friends, hard feelings and the heartbreak of lost love.
This Is How You Lose Her seems less a series of moments than a sequence of interconnected events. Did you always intend for the collection to have that effect?
From the beginning, I wanted the book to possess a certain kind of continuity, of interplay. Only at the end, when I was bolting the last stories into place, did I have any sense of whether the original dream was working, whether the emotional streams were flowing correctly across the tales, between the characters, whether the capillary connections had taken hold.
You've returned many times to Yunior, who denies from the very first page that he's "a bad guy." Why does this character continue to resonate with you?
He's the guy that, if he cleaned up his act, would actually make for a wonderful partner. There's a whole population of these types of people—near hits in the love arena, and they are very seductive and very problematic. But for me, Yunior allows me to dramatize certain kinds of masculine practices and worldviews that ate up a lot of the men I grew up with. Yunior is smart enough and sensitive enough to intuit that he's a fucking mess, but he just can't seem to pull off the courageous self-appraisal, the painful plumbing into accountability that is required to become fully mature, to become a man.
What's the process like to take a universal condition—love and losing it—and insinuate that feeling into individual short stories?
Fortunately for us artists, the universal arises out of the particular—thank God, otherwise, imagine the ridiculousness that would ensue—which means that the common, “we” feeling that surrounds losing love, let’s say, cannot be disentangled from a cold, industrial, Jersey-immigrant winter, from hospital sheets wreathed in blood. The feelings of loss, of love, might be universal, but they can only be delivered to us in unique particular vectors, needs that after one use, shatter.
You've praised the merits of the short story over the novel. It seems like you would have the advantages of both here—the continuous flow of a connected narrative with the freedom to experiment.
Each form has its affordances, the effects it can produce upon a reader more skillfully than another form. Novels are great for giving us heart-worlds. In a great poem, I always feel the indescribable pinprick when my dull-ass-ness intersects however briefly with the sublime that is the World as Language. Stories are fantastic for capturing those moments, those decisions, those people, those incidents that despite their transience, their smallness, have a disproportionate hold on our souls. Stories capture those precious mortal moments, not only as a subject, but in their form, which holds us only briefly, before throwing us back into our lives. That, to me, is the power of the story.
You've noted that great Ralph Ellison quote: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you." Does the tension of this book reflect the times we live in?
We are in shitty times again. No question. Awful, uncertain times, so thick with mendacity and cynical opportunism and partisan poison that it’s amazing young people just don't vote everyone over the age of 25 off the fucking Island and start over. But certainly, one hopes that the precariousness of my characters' lives will speak to the larger culture and vice versa.
Yunior gets caught cheating—a lot—by discoveries made in his journal. What does it say that Yunior's writing often betrays him?
In my experience you really can't hide cheating. Somewhere in the partner's subconscious, once you cross that line, a light goes off. They might not yet know that they know, but they know that something's changed.
Yunior's problem is that he's honest in some respects—i.e., he tells the truth in his journal—but not honest in other ways, and the discrepancies always catch up to him. On another level, love is a journey of discovery. For someone to love you fully, you have to be found out. In the end, discovery is at the heart of love, and if you don't want to be found out, it's probably best not to be getting into the love game, but Yunior ain't all that smart in that respect.
You're a professor at MIT these days, who has seen the U.S. from the bottom up. Is it still easy for you to imagine and portray leaner times?
Those are questions I've asked myself repeatedly. Does the poverty of childhood ever really go away? Does missing meals and wearing the same clothes two, three times a week to high school go away? Do the agonies of family violence, of sexual abuse, the terrible solitude of poverty, of shrunken horizons, are they salved by having a steady paycheck, by “making it?” Perhaps for some, this happens. But for all I've accomplished, my darknesses are still very near.
How did it feel to become not only the first Dominican-American, but also the first Latino to be appointed to the Pulitzer Prize board of jurors?
On the one hand, I was like WTF. On the other hand, I was like WTF. Let's just say it was an honor that also underscored a shameful absence. The plan now is to work hard and hopefully to leave the organization more open to diversity at the end of my term than it was at the beginning. And to give the awards to the best people out there.
You came from one world to a very different one when you were 6 years old. How do you think that background has shaped your worldview and your writing?
I tend to assume we're all in part a product of our experiences, but I know as well that's not all we are. There's always more. My background is pretty strange in some contexts, but in other contexts, the fact that I've made reading my life's work is even stranger.
Since I was 6 years old, I've known that multiple worlds exist for real—and not just in A Wrinkle in Time. That's not a small thing. The question remains how much an influence does this have in my writing? For real, I don't know if I can answer it. I will tell you that I'm glad I got to experience those worlds early. They were hard journeys, but they made me, and I needed a me—we all do.
But I’m glad that I became a serious reader early on. That was where my art was forged. But how it happened and in what proportions, I do not know. I guess I write the books I write both to understand and honor that alchemy. To try to approach what will essentially always be a mystery.
Author photo copyright Nina Subin.