The Pulitzer Prize–winning MacArthur genius sounds off on “broken novels,” daddy issues, and why love is a reader (but not a writer).
Even assholes need a home.
Junot Diaz leaves very little of the human condition unexamined in his latest work: The nine linked stories that make up This Is How You Lose Her sweep from betrayal to violence to cautious forgiveness to, yup, death. At its core, however, this book is a catalogue of total, wretched heartbreak, and at that catalogue’s core stands Yunior, a very smart, very funny, hugely compulsive cheater. The character—who’s a central figure in Diaz’s other books, the collection Drown and novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—is as inconstant in his language as he is in love, moving fluidly between English and Spanish, hip-hop and nerd-dom, academia and the projects. “There are a lot of kids like Yunior, and I’m part of that generation—you come from five or six worlds, but most of those worlds are, at any given time, silenced,” Diaz says. “I knew that if I was going to spend so much time having Yunior—for reasons of his own doing—be forsaken, then at least I could make a home for him in the language, a place where all the parts of him were present at once.”
He’s been working on one continuous broken novel for decades.
This Is How You Lose Her is caught between worlds, as well—not exactly a novel, but neither a collection of stand-alone stories. “If you put Drown next to this one,” he says, “what begins to be apparent is that they are chapters of what I call a broken novel.” In Diaz’s earlier collection, there is no mention of Yunior’s brother’s cancer: Rafa just disappears, his fate and Yunior’s agonies unexplained until this book. “And I left a huge gap here that a third book will address: the thing Yunior never talks about, which is his college life,” Diaz says. “Hopefully there will be four or five of these books that when put together, you suddenly see: My god, there was a plan. Hopefully.”
He wants to give readers all the power.
If you’re really, really certain This Is How You Lose Her is a novel, that’s cool, too. Diaz has deliberately left the form unsettled, in order to hand readers the authority to choose. “I am a reader before a writer,” he explains, “so it’s no accident I would give readers power, too.” (Another reason for the ambiguity, he posits, is “dad shit.” Says Diaz, “I grew up with a fucking dictatorial father where all authority was unidirectional. And then I find myself in a position of enormous authority, and part of me loathes it.”) But these are stories about love, remember—even if they unfold at the point where that love’s gone curdled and sour—and Diaz views both love and reading as journeys of discovery. “That’s what’s beautiful about love—you’re giving authority to another person. You’re like, I’m allowing you to discover me, and either reject or accept me,” he says. “So love is a reader. Love is not a writer.”
Women are the perpetrators of information warfare.
In the final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior begins to write about his betrayals, and This Is How You Lose Her reveals itself as a letter of confession. It’s a fitting approach, given that Yunior’s infidelities often come to light by way of letters—extremely detailed letters—passed from mistresses to unsuspecting girlfriends. “In the world that I grew up in, the great power of women was information warfare,” Diaz says. “The way that letters would undo someone in my community was amazing. I realized that this is somebody speaking into power.” As a kid, he saw families flattened by those missives; as an adult, he watched that same chaos from a much closer vantage. Not that Diaz entirely minded. “When I had that happen to me, even as I was pissed, there was a part of me that was in awe. I couldn’t help it. I thought, this is fucking great.” The man has serious respect for words.
This is How You Lose Her is in stores now.