Yunior de las Casas, that fast-talking, philandering Dominican Jersey boy, is the one addiction that author Junot Díaz just can’t quit. Díaz’s first book, Drown, was technically a short-story collection, but one that largely chronicled de las Casas’ stumbling towards maturity. The follow-up to that, the novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, focused largely on the title character — but even then, his story unfurled mostly as narrated by Yunior.
De la Casas is back again in Díaz’s latest book, This is How You Lose Her, released earlier this month. But the book, with its gentle formal experiments, again refrains from charting a linear course across de las Casas’ life. The slim volume falls somewhere between a novel proper and a collection of short stories in which each episode stars the same character.
There’s less of Wao‘s focus on geekery and Dominican political history here — less global, and more individual. We follow Yunior as he grapples with a dying brother (who still manages to be an asshole up to his death), makes it to college, and, along the way, romances a variety of women from across the Caribbean.
But Díaz approaches Yunior from multiple angles. Sometimes, as readers, we’re directly inside his head; at other times, we’re something like a Greek chorus, reminding him in the seldom-used second person of his small victories and failures.
Whatever the point of view, Yunior’s foibles and triumphs still, through Díaz’s particular command of language, alternately elate and destroy hope. At some points, Yunior comes off as the kind of dude who would shamelessly holler at every woman who walked by, with the kind of ridiculous Spanglish patter that will make Miami readers laugh out loud. At others, he’s an older and reluctantly wiser proper adult, and his fictional memories downright sting, even if you’ve been luckier in life and love.
Even the more ruminative segments of the book, though, speed along, a testament to Díaz’s refusal to waste words. Throughout This Is How You Lose Her, characters travel across most of eastern New Jersey, to Santo Domingo, and back, all in just over 200 pages. It’s fast reading that still sticks with you, a rare accomplishment.
Díaz will read from his latest book this Saturday in Coral Gables, in an event sponsored by Books and Books but not at the bookstore itself. Thanks to both Díaz’s supernova-bright literary stardom and the Latin connection in his work, the event takes place at a bigger venue, the nearby Coral Gables Congregational Church. Ahead of the reading — and even further ahead of his appearance at this year’s Miami Book Fair, in November — I caught up with Díaz by phone on Thursday to discuss his new book, his relationship with Miami, and the “ferocious” tyrant who lives in his head.
Junot Díaz. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 22, at Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 De Soto Blvd., Coral Gables. Admission is free, but tickets must be picked up in advance from Books and Books’ Coral Gables, Miami Beach, or Bal Harbour Shops location. Learn more at booksandbooks.com.
First off, what is it like for you to visit Miami to do a reading? People here definitely want to find a way to claim you, because we love to claim all successful people and things Latin and Caribbean.
JD: Well I do have, like, a dozen uncles living down here, and dozens of cousins, and my grandmother. So the connection to the area is pretty strong. In the end, I’m a New Jersey kid — a Dominican kid from Jersey. But you know how it is. Your family spreads all around and then you’ve got pieces of yourself all over.
But gee whiz, Miami is kind of fun! So it’s not like Mitt Romney loving you or claiming you. I’m down there all the time — the last time was probably about six months ago.
In the new book, you keep returning to the character of Yunior. Is he pretty much an avatar for yourself?
JD: That’s always a hard question to answer. He’s certainly a rib pulled from me, but he’s so fundamentally different. An avatar for me, I don’t know. He’s somebody who’s very, very different, and yet, I feel very strongly connected to him. He’s like a terrible half-brother in a way.
What compels you to keep going back to him?
JD: He’s kind of a perfect vehicle for me. He’s a kid who’s so damn smart in the right ways. Not every character can survive being smart. When you design a character, you can have all sorts of attributes you want for a character, but not all of them come through. To have an organic character, you have to have so many parts in motions.
The thing with Yunior, is that the way he develops, he’s so incredibly, critically smart. He’s super honest at a racial level. He’s super honest at a cultural level. He has a really good, incisive look at people’s relationships in ways I think I find arresting. But these things don’t come free or cheap. He’s fundamentally flawed. He’s like a troubling character — he can see things, but he, himself, is not the equal to insight. For me, he’s a fascinating guy.
He’s mostly the main character in the various stories in this book, but there are a couple exceptions, like “Otravida, Otravez,” which is from a woman’s perspective, completely apart from Yunior’s life. The last segment of this book, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” is told in the second person, and the character is never specifically named. Is that also Yunior?
JD: Yes, that’s supposed to be him.
The interesting thing is that’s the first story in the collection that seems to be mostly in the present tense of his life, rather than flashback, like the other ones.
JD: The book’s order is reversed. What’s fascinating is that the book begins at the end. This is a sort of reckoning — he’s bearing witness to everything that comes before. I guess that’s something that, as an artist, I thought was cool. You discover at the end that the whole book you just read is the one Yunior writes at the end of that last part, which is weird, if you think about it.
Would you consider this to be a novel, per se?
JD: I consider this to be a game I play — a fun game, not a manipulative game — with my reader. The reason why I didn’t specifically label either Drown or this book a “collection” versus a “novel” is that this is what the reader must decide. The reader must decide how they look at this book. I think that’s very important. There are plenty of books that are nowhere near as connected as the stories in this book, and yet they’re called novels. The question for me is, what does the reader make of them?
For some readers, they’ll see it as linked stories, and others will see it as a loose grab bag. Others will see the connections and say, “Fuck it, this has a good a flow as these other loose, episodic novels.”
On the more practical side, does that make it harder to market the book? Do your editors or publishers or publicists give you a hard time about that?
JD: I mean, imagine! If you’re into formalistic experiments, which I’m into, it’s not always exactly what a publisher’s interested in. I think that publishers are far more interested in something that fits neatly in the category. But I’ve never fit neatly in a category, either as a person or an artist. Even if people wanted me to do something different, it would be really, really hard.
‘Oscar Wao’ was slightly more conventional a novel in structure. Would you consider doing something like that with Yunior?
JD: It all depends. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time in this form — I spent 15 years writing this book. So I think I’m going to go back to more of an Oscar Wao style of novel.
You spent how many years working on this book?
JD: Fifteen years.
Obviously on and off, right?
JD: Obviously? You sure about that?
It seems like it would be torture to spend 15 years straight on one project of this length.
JD: This is the truth of it. I spent 15 years on one project. Of course, that’s not the complete truth — I’m teasing you. I also worked on Oscar Wao at the same time. But it was certainly a long and intense project. Anyone who knows me as a writer, my friends or exes, will tell you I work and keep my head in it.
The final products of your books are pretty tight and concise for something you labor over so intensely. You must have a very ruthless inner editor. How do you work on something for 16 years and still come up with a final project under 250 pages?
JD: You’ve just described it. If I had to give my inner editor a historical personage, it would be Tamerlane or Genghis Khan. There is something absolute and ferocious about him.
How do you live with someone like that in your head? How do you even get past that during the process of writing?
JD: It is hard to deal with. You’ve got to have a lot of fucking patience and compassion with yourself. This is who I am — there’s one side of creative ferocity, and on the other side, there’s someone who tries to have a lot of compassion. That’s what makes my art possible. If I only had one side of that equation, then I couldn’t do art.
To ask more specifically about technique, in this book and your others, you might be focusing on one character but then approach him or her from different points of view. The use of the second person is especially unusual. What made you choose to switch to that when talking about Yunior in the last part of this new book?
JD: Certain stories need certain kinds of distance. This book is always pushing its audience to remember that this isn’t easy or trying to be your friend. The point of Yunior is that he wants a human relationship, and a human relationship is beyond just, “I like it,” or “It’s easy.” We’re so taught these days that human relationships should be like high school popularity — either people like you, or it’s nothing.
But Yunior wants some more complexity. So the second person is a way to create some distance and challenge the reader, and also to signal the writerliness of the book, to remind people as they’re reading a book by a writer inside the book. The artifact you’re reading is by Junot Díaz, but you’re meant to read it as a book by Yunior de las Casas.
The point is that the three books are chapters in a larger novel. I assume my readers will connect the books together. That’s all a lot to assume, but that’s okay.
Now that you have these three books, are you done with this narrative arc?
JD: You never know until you start writing. It’s hard to say. I could tell you anything right now, and then I could never write again, or write five more books.
Is seeing the three books as part of the same story also the reason you put off setting a story in Boston, where contemporary Yunior lives, until the end? You’ve been there for a while, but your stories have pretty much all been about New Jersey and the Dominican Republic until that one.
JD: First and foremost I just love New Jersey and the Dominican Republic. You’ve got to come with it to get some room at the table with these two. They take all my attention away. Maybe some later chapters will be set in Boston, but we’ll have to see.
You’re still based there, aren’t you, since you teach at MIT?
JD: Sure, but I spend four months living in Boston and then eight months in New York.
The view of Boston in this book is not very positive. It seems like Yunior feels like an Other in this super-white city. How do you find it? Is it creatively stimulating?
JD: I don’t know, it’s tough. I’ve only been there 10 years, and I was in New Jersey over 20 years, and I’m only now starting to understand it. Certainly Boston is a super-white city. Is it more racist than any other city? I don’t know about that. Is it a place where I have a really good Dominican community and really good friends, and four godchildren? Yes.
And MIT is stupendously, stupendously fascinating! It’s really remarkable to be at a place with all these brainiacs doing fun projects. So in all of these ways, Boston is very stimulating and inspiring. But even to this day, even at the end of this project, I’d say it’s Jersey and Santo Domingo that are still my core inspirations. I always turn to them.
In your books, there are so many references to place, to specific towns and landmarks in New Jersey, that you’d have to know the area to catch. Does it matter to you if other people don’t get that, or even don’t get your Spanglish dialogue?
JD: Not really. A book is not supposed to be equally intelligible to everybody. Everybody takes a different read of a book. I like that the Jersey people feel in the know. I like that my Jersey-ness is not ostentatious. For the average person, they don’t even notice the little landmarks. But Jersey people read them and say, “Damn, I’m home.”
You got a Pulitzer for ‘Oscar Wao’, the book before this one. How did you keep going on on from that kind of achievement early in your career without being paralyzed by the pressure of following it up?
JD: What, I was 38 when it happened?
That’s young for the literary world.
JD: Alright. I guess I’ve always feared this. If the Pulitzer added any more, I didn’t notice it. I’m always scared and always worried. I’m always asking myself where I should go next. The Pulitzer, to be honest, maybe added 1,000 pounds on a weight that already weighs three trillion pounds. I think someone else might have flipped out more because they’re not as flipped out as I am all the time.
It sounds like it’s easy to live in your head.
JD: No, I’m just honest. I bet if I cracked your head open it wouldn’t be a treat either. I think we all forget that this is what makes us human. We all try to pretend it’s awesome, but being human takes work and courage, and it ain’t easy. Part of what I do as a person, and certainly as an artist, is to remind people of the glorious cost of what it means to be human.
You worked on this book for 15 years. When you finish something that takes so long, do you take a break? Or do you move on immediately?
JD: I’m always working. Right now I’m working on a story called “Monstro”. I always call it my Wonder Woman book. I grew up with Wonder Woman, Linda Carter, who’s chicana. I always wanted to do a story about a young Dominican girl as a world-saving superhero, so that’s what I’m working on.
Will it be told from her perspective, or will you use another character as a narrator like you did with ‘Oscar Wao’?
JD: Depends. You never know. It’s hard to say in the earliest stages.
Are you interested in the challenge of tackling a female perspective across a longer story?
JD: I don’t have any problems with trying it. I’ve tried it in stories before. But you never know the way the book flips until it’s done. I published one of the chapters in the New Yorker, so I’m definitely already writing some of it, though.