MacArthur fellow Junot Diaz chats with two.one.five about his new book, This Is How You Lose Her. In particular, Diaz meditates on his endless fascination with the book’s protagonist, Yunior de las Casas, who came of age in Diaz’s first short-story collection Drown, and reappeared as the narrator in Diaz’s critically-acclaimed novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
two.one.five: It’s really impressive how much we get to see Yunior’s character progress in This Is How You Lose Her, particularly after spending so much time with him in Drown and Oscar Wao. Could you talk about what you wanted for Yunior this time around?
Junot Diaz: Yeah, I think about each of these projects as chapters in a larger book about Yunior’s life. What I wanted specifically in this book was to explore the more personal calamities of Yunior. I wanted to kind of show the life behind the mask. The entire novel is him hiding behind that narrative mask, and I wanted to get a little deeper in to show how he consistently isolates himself. He is the king of the self-inflicted wounds.
two.one.five: If Oscar was a sort of antithesis to the traditional Dominican male character, then how does Yunior enable you to continue exploring the notion of masculinity in This Is How You Lose Her?
JD: Because Yunior is in some ways a conflicted superstar. In many ways, he’s perfectly imbibed the Kool-Aid of, you know, the kind of masculinities of the Americas. He’s really kind of a star student, but he’s conflicted and kind of tormented about it. He’s not exactly without his doubts. And also his sensitivity and intelligence mean that he’s able to see not only what’s actually happening, but he’s able to look into the past and into the future as well, and follow the trajectory of the consequences of his choices.
And so I think what I like about Yunior—what fascinates me—is that he’s such a liminal character in this respect. I’m always fascinated with a character who has within his reach—within his grasp—the ability to transform himself into something better.
two.one.five: You’ve spent so much time with Yunior at this point. Have you felt that at times, he’s almost beyond your control as a character, or even just getting on your nerves with all of his carrying on about relationships and paralysis?
JD: What can you do? I’m fascinated by it. I guess I always think I’m writing to a very small set of people. I’m just trying to follow this project to its end, and this book is not supposed to have democratic appeal. But as an artist, you go where you’re drawn. I’ve been sort of pulled to write [Yunior] in that way.
two.one.five: If Drown could be seen as a coming-of-age story of sorts for Yunior, and in Oscar Wao, we get both a coming-of-age for Oscar and a level of contrition for Yunior that implies additional growth, what does This Is How You Lose Her represent along those lines?
JD: I think this is the unraveling of both how a person like Yunior comes together and how a person like Yunior gets unwrapped. I think this is following and tracing the consequences of a certain kind of upbringing; of a certain kind of attitude; of a certain kind of philosophy; or even worse, of a certain kind of set of privileges.
two.one.five: Yunior’s first line in the book is “I’m not a bad guy,” and he goes on in that vein. It reminded me of the first line from Notes from Underground, “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” And I was wondering if your line can be seen as a portal to an antiheroic world of contradiction and deceit.
JD: Well, sure you could see it that way. I think that’s a very elegant way of saying it. I always just thought that, isn’t that the cover story of masculine privilege? Isn’t that the banal anodyne with which most masculine privilege drapes itself?
two.one.five: Who would you say is more haunted at this point: Yunior by his exes, or Oscar by the familial curse?
JD: I think Oscar never saw himself, really, as haunted, till something got out of him. I think Yunior is fascinating because he isn’t a guy who sweeps things under a rug. He’s the dude that kind of broods on his consequences; he kind of broods on the things he does. And I think that this is what makes him such a bad but excellent practitioner of the kind of masculinity that he represents, because he doesn’t do what you hear the average jerk doing—whether it’s Condoleezza Rice or someone like [Yunior’s] brother. He doesn’t just say, ‘Well that’s the past, I don’t like thinking about that crap. I gotta look forward to the future.’ I think why I think Yunior has potential is because of the way he always circles back on the things that he’s done.
two.one.five: I’ve read that you revise tirelessly and almost endlessly. Do you get more pleasure out of the revision process or the early drafts?
JD: I think I get the most pleasure or satisfaction out of the completion. I find rewriting nerve-wracking because it’s sort of like diamond cutting. Because in the rewriting process, you can discover that what you’ve done is completely nonsense.
two.one.five: How do you convince your students at MIT of the inherent value in the revision process?
JD: [Laughing] Well that’s almost impossible! You’ve got to build a relationship with that crap. If you don’t have a relationship with it, then [revising] will be problematic…I mean, a lot of these students…if you think about it, they grew up at a time when they have outsourced grammar. Rewriting seems like writing letters to many of them.
two.one.five: And it’s almost a Sisyphean task for a lot of them.
JD: Yeah, certainly. And a lot of them are like, ‘What, you gotta be kidding me! C’mon professor!’
two.one.five: It’s funny that you still get that at your level of teaching, and with your success as an author.
JD: I think that, you know, human nature doesn’t change. They don’t look at me and say, ‘He’s a professor, I’m gonna listen to him.’ They look at me and say, ‘This motherfucker’s old!’ And we’re in a culture that rewards promise more than it rewards execution.
two.one.five: Do you ever read over what’s been published and wished you’d revised further, or felt you had spent too long revising?
JD: I mean, Jesus, all I do is ever wish I was better. That’s my nature. I wish I could be better. I think what I tend to come up short on is the lack of humanity and lack of compassion I find in some of my work. Sometimes I think if I were more human, I think that I would have written something deeper. I would have written something more lasting.
two.one.five: That lack of humanity and compassion is something we see in Yunior, as well.
JD: Yunior’s lack of compassion is actually a strategy because he has an enormous amount of compassion. He’s just so blocked. Yunior’s problem is that he has never learned to be compassionate to himself, so imagine how compassionate he’s going to be to other people.
two.one.five: In an interview with The Paris Review, Toni Morrison once said that African-American authors often resist a white-dominated culture “by trying to alter language, simply to free it up, not to repress or confine it, but to open it up. Tease it. Blast its racist straight jacket.” Do you share similar aims for the language that you use in your own writing?
JD: I think Morrison’s project is something I resonate with, but I’m also sort of aware that in the end, every act of speech, even one that is motivated by justice, creates violence. There’s a part of me that’s totally down with [Morrison’s] project, but I also know that there’s this horrific paradox at the heart of my art, which is that when you speak, other people often use violence.