Some months after he won the Pulitzer Prize for his dazzling first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz overheard a friend telling other friends: Listen, Junot won the Pulitzer Prize and we never had a party, we never went out for drinks, he like never mentioned it!
“I would point out that I come from a family where there was no celebration of AN-Y-THING!” Díaz says during a call that reaches him in Boston. Díaz teaches writing and “the traditional grammars of storytelling” to “super-energized kids” studying new media at MIT during the spring semester. He lives and writes in Manhattan the rest of the year.
Díaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic in 1968 and moved to a working-class, immigrant community downwind from one of the largest landfills in central New Jersey in 1974, explains that he grew up in a military family where the attitude was: Why should we bake a cake for you for doing what is considered your duty?
“Prizes are wonderful,” Díaz says. “They sell your books, they get you invited to places you would never be invited. I would never give mine back. But I know them fundamentally for what they are. They’re just today’s applause. They have no bearing on whether a piece of art or an artist will exist into the future. I’m more preoccupied with that. And I think that preoccupation frees your art in lots of ways.”
Of course, artistic freedom has its price. The vaulting energy and seeming spontaneity that are among the hallmarks of Díaz’s breathtaking stories and his novel arise from exacting labor. “I’m such a slow writer,” Díaz says. “I require absolute solitude. I am part of the no-distractions universe.” He says he conceived of the shape and texture of his new story collection, This Is How You Lose Her, in 1995, so it has taken him roughly 17 years to bring it to fruition.
"The one principle that we have in literature and art is that the universal arises from the particular."
“I needed a framework to start out. I had this idea of writing a book of collected stories about the rise and fall of a cheater. What drove me nuts was getting this whole thing from beginning to end pieced together. It’s like building a building. I won’t say it’s like building a cathedral, but it’s sort of like building a barn. You want to get it working and you want to get everything fitted nicely,” he says. “What drove me bananas was searching for, wrestling with the missing beams. Had it been a novel, I think it would have been a very different book, and one day I will write a novel about the rise and fall of a cheater, but I wanted to do this as a kind of fragmentary whole.”
The nine stories in This Is How You Lose Her, with settings in Santo Domingo, New Jersey and Boston, and told from third, second and first person points of view, do indeed explore, among other things, the vicissitudes of loving and being loved by another human being. In the story “Otravida, Otravez,” for example, Yasmin, who works in a hospital laundry room where she does her lover’s laundry in secret, is buoyed by her lover’s hopeful seriousness that they will soon buy a house together and crushed by thoughts of the letters her lover’s wife sends to him from back home in the Dominican Republic. But there are also stories like “Invierno,” an aching portrayal of the chilling isolation of young children who arrive to begin new lives in the United States in the dead of winter. In the vortex of many of these stories is Díaz’s recurring character Yunior.
“Really why I’m drawn back to Yunior consistently, persistently has a lot to do with who the hell this guy is. Yunior is someone who recognizes at an intuitive level, at an emotional level and at an intellectual level how f__ked up and flawed he is. He has a heart with a utopian impulse. He wants to be in love. He wants a normal, healthy, nourishing relationship. He knows that one of the great challenges of the human condition is to connect with someone else, fundamentally and intimately, and he longs for that. He has all these recognitions, but he’s not capable of stopping himself from doing all the f__ked up things he wants to do. He’s got this tragic condition where he can recognize in himself his limitations, but he doesn’t have the strength to transcend them. But he’s also aware that there’s a social dimension for his problems. I don’t think he looks at the social dimension to escape responsibility or blame. He’s the kind of guy who in condemning himself throws a light onto the world we live in. Which is quite different from condemning the world as a way to avoid recognizing the part we play in it.”
Asked about the autobiographical nature of these stories, which in some ways mirror the physical and emotional geographies of his own life, Díaz says, “The way you’ve got to chip your life away for it to work as a story or as a novel is just incredibly deforming. By the time you get done wrangling your life into the form that can fit into the box of fiction, it doesn’t look like your life anymore.”
Still, these stories—all of his work, in fact—generate voltage from Díaz’s uncommon ability to evoke the alternating currents, the back and forth toggle from one culture to another, that comprise a soul-wrenching dimension of first-generation immigrant life. Díaz’s stories also deploy a scintillating blend of English and Spanish and broad literary references. His books—and conversation—romp from smooth academic-literary tonalities to earthy descriptiveness and expletives and back again. All of which, Díaz indicates, is consciously used to capture the particularity of contemporary human experience.
“Thermodynamics has these neat, tidy little laws that hold true, and evolution has all these great little principles that hold true. The one principle that we have in literature and art is that the universal arises from the particular. It’s the actual thumbprint uniqueness, it’s the granular idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kindness of a work of art that gives it power across time, across space, across language, that allows it to clear that most terrible of all barriers, the barrier that separates one soul from another. We’re still reading Shakespeare because Shakespeare was so incredibly particular. . . . Hamlet rings across the ages because Hamlet is a f__king Dane, not in spite of it.”
Díaz, a voracious reader who walked miles to his local library to borrow books as a child, credits Sandra Cisneros with opening his eyes to his literary mission. “She was the first contemporary Latina author that I ever met. Her book Woman Hollering Creek was everywhere during my first year in college. I had never seen a book like that. I grew up in central Jersey. I grew up listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees and the f__king Furious Five. I felt there wasn’t anything that was coming close to our experience, you know? My entire cohort of friends were college nerds, we were kids who worked and went to school, and I felt, wow, who is covering that experience? Then I encountered Woman Hollering Creek and the Brothers Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comics and I suddenly recognized the dimensions of my calling.”
Reading, Díaz says, remains central to that calling. “I cannot write without having at my back a whole bunch of works and books and authors who came before,” he says. “What feeds my writing is reading.”
Then Díaz shifts the discussion back to teaching. “For me teaching is a wonderful civic duty, a great way of giving back. There’s that Maya Angelou sense that the debt of knowing is to teach. I’m teaching at the heart of what we could call the practical machine. If there is any place where this country’s indifference to art and its sense that art is at best a privilege and at worst irrelevant [could make sense], it would be an institution like MIT,” he says.
“What really pulls me to this teaching is that I take kids who have a billion reasons why they shouldn’t spend a nickel’s time on art and try to convert them to the belief that there is no authentic human life possible without an engagement in art. If I can do that, well, I feel like I’ve done a f__king good thing.”