A few months ago, I emailed Junot Diaz to see if he’d write something for an event I was organizing, and when he wrote back that he’d be on book tour that week, it was the first I’d heard that his new collection would be coming out so soon. Remembering back to that famed eleven or so years readers waited between his last two books, I was elated. (Also elating? The fact of the email itself. I showed about four hundred people his name in my inbox.)
Then, THEN, this interview with Paula Moya came out in the Boston Review and completely blew my mind. Of course, I knew that Diaz dealt with serious questions of race, gender and power in his work, but I didn’t know that, when asked if it made sense to read his work through the lens of women of color theory, his answer would start with something like this:
Absolutely. In this we are in sync, Paula. Much of the early genesis of my work arose from the 80s and specifically from the weird gender wars that flared up in that era between writers of color. I know you remember them: the very public fulminations of Stanley Crouch versus Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed versus Alice Walker, Frank Chin versus Maxine Hong Kingston. Talk about passé—my students know nothing about these exchanges, but for those of us present at the time they were both dismaying and formative. This was part of a whole backlash against the growing success and importance of women-of-color writers—but from men of color. Qué irony. The brothers criticizing the sisters for being inauthentic, for being anti-male, for airing the community’s dirty laundry, all from a dreary nationalist point of view. Every time I heard these Chin-Reed-Crouch attacks, even I as a male would feel the weight of oppression on me, on my physical body, increased. And for me, what was fascinating was that the maps these women were creating in their fictions—the social, critical, cognitive maps, these matrixes that they were plotting—were far more dangerous to the structures that had me pinioned than any of the criticisms that men of color were throwing down. What began to be clear to me as I read these women of color—Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Cisneros, Anjana Appachana, and throw in Octavia Butler and the great [Cherríe] Moraga of course—was that what these sisters were doing in their art was powerfully important for the community, for subaltern folks, for women writers of color, for male writers of color, for me. They were heeding [Audre] Lorde’s exhortation by forging the tools that could actually take down master’s house. To read these sisters in the 80s as a young college student was not only intoxicating, it was soul-changing. It was metanoia.
If you haven’t already, please click over and read the rest of this two-part interview. It is incredible.
Apparently there has been a question being bandied about in relation to This is How You Lose Her regarding the possibility of writing a sexist character without writing a sexist book (a lot of readers seems to think that it is an impossibility), and Diaz has said that he gets accusation of sexism from audience members at readings, too (I wish I could find where he said this–he punctuated his point by saying that he gets these accusations from women; part of male privilege is not being too concerned with sexism). Questions like this are important in terms of the dialogue that Diaz himself is obviously interested in provoking, but to take offense to the gender relationships in the work rather than to take advantage of the perspective it offers seems reductive.
The story collection itself was, as predicted, fantastic. I’d read a few of the stories before but rather than lose any power the second time around, they were heightened by their context. The nine stories in This is How You Lose Her exist in the same world and are, with an exception or two, about the same character (whom Diaz readers already know) Yunior, at various stages in his life from childhood to early middle age. He is Domincan, and a player (or, sucio), but not as bad as his father or his brother when they were around. By letting the reader truly know Yunior–his fears of nuclear apocalypse, his grief for his brother, his insecurity, his jealousy, his own askew moral compass–complicates his constant cheating. He still acts like an asshole, but seeing how he is self-sabotaging by sleeping with literally fifty women while he’s with the fiance he really, deeply loves provides opportunities for empathy and gives unexpected angles to the story(ies).
The writing itself is, for me, the real draw of this book. It is so lively, charged and smart–the experience of reading the book was literally exhilarating. I almost had to get out of bed and run laps after reading this, from page 7:
When I ask her if we can chill, I’m no longer sure it’s a done deal. A lot of the time she Bartlebys me, says, No, I’d rather not. I ask her what the hell she thinks this is and she says, That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
I just read Moby Dick and yet think this is probably the most brilliant use of Melville’s prose ever committed to paper. Erudite and colloquial in the same breath. Reported dialogue, literary allusion, a relationship’s past, present and future status in three lines.
Knowing that Diaz is working on another novel right now made it possible for me to read this book in three sittings without feeling compelled to ration it. I’ll probably read it again soon.