Author Interviews
2:28 am
Tue September 11, 2012

Fidelity In Fiction: Junot Diaz Deconstructs A Cheater

Originally published on Tue September 11, 2012 8:57 am

Yunior grew up tough in a poor neighborhood. He's Latino with African roots, an immigrant and a super nerdy kid who went on to teach at a university. He's gruff and masculine, but he's also an artist — as well as the creation of one.

Yunior is the protagonist of Junot Diaz's first book of short stories, Drown, and the narrator of his prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Now, both Yunior and Diaz are back with a new set of short stories called This Is How You Lose Her. It tracks Yunior's struggles with fidelity, beginning with him cheating on his girlfriend and ending with him cheating on his fiancee with 50 different women.

Diaz tells NPR's Steve Inskeep about the theme of his book and the real-world circumstances that inspired it.


Interview Highlights

On why it took Diaz 16 years to write This Is How You Lose Her

"When I finished my first book, Drown, I realized that the theme of infidelity, which runs through the book, needed sort of a much more upfront presentation, and I concocted this project. It just really interested me. But you know, sometimes you chart out a course and you think it's going to be an afternoon walk, and you realize it takes you half your life."

On how Yunior sees his infidelity

"The progress of the character is ... really interesting because, you know, when you encounter Yunior at the beginning, he thinks that, you know, all he has to do is sort of 'fix the relationship.' And what I mean by that is that if you really, really had that compassion that this is a person, this is a human being that I've hurt, he wouldn't be so quick to scrub away his crimes. And I think that by the end of the book we see a Yunior that's completely different. The crime, the pain he has caused, the betrayal of a relationship [with] this woman, he can't escape [it]. And in some ways [it] hits him in the heart with an almost fatal blow. And it's a very, very different character at the end as far as his compassion than who we're introduced to at the beginning. ... I think that that's the most significant thing in the development of a person, especially a boy."

On how Diaz was taught to view women

"I grew up in a world, [a] very New Jersey, American, Dominican, immigrant, African-American, Latino world. And, you know, I went to school and it was basically the same. I went to college; it was basically the same, where largely I wasn't really encouraged to imagine women as fully human. I was in fact pretty much — by the larger culture, by the local culture, by people around me, by people on TV — encouraged to imagine women as something slightly inferior to men. And so I think that a lot of guys, part of our journey is wrestling with, coming to face, our limited imagina[tion] and growing in a way that allows us not only to imagine women as fully human, but to imagine the things that we do to women — that we often do blithely, without thinking, we just sort of shrug off — as actually deeply troubling and as hurting another human being. And this seems like the simplest thing. A lot of people are like, 'Really, that's like a huge leap of knowledge, of the imagination?' But for a lot of guys, that is."

On the Dominican women in the book who warn against getting involved with a Dominican man and how that reflects a larger reality

"You know, always the joke is who's making that accusation? And I just think that for the group of women who are making that accusation, Dominican men are standing in as the [everyday] male. But look, bro, are you telling me that if I get all the women of the United States and gather them all together and then say, 'Do you highly recommend American men?' that you're going to get, like, a sterling recommendation? That these women are going to be like, 'Oh, yes, American men are fantastic! These dudes have done so well by us.' I think that every culture, if you got all the women of that culture together and said, 'Grade your men,' I don't think any country — even a place like Denmark, which has this famous sort of gender equality — would give their men anything higher than F as a collective. And that's a reality."

On why, despite his smarts, Yunior struggles to understand women and the world

"This idea of what we [call] 'figure out the world' or 'figure out ourselves' — we're talking about wisdom. And, listen, I teach at a place, I teach in a town where supposedly the most intelligent, brightest people come out of, are developed and work. I'm at MIT and I'm near Harvard, I have affiliation with Harvard, and I've got to tell you, there is absolutely zero correlation between intelligence and wisdom."

On why Yunior ends the book alone

"I don't think that this book's representation of heartbreak would be so aching, would be in some ways so rough if this wasn't a person who was longing for love. And I think what we're left with at the end is certainly not the new relationship that would be the salvation. We're not left with this kind of typical American moment where we see him on a park bench meeting someone. But what we're left with is a character who, for the first time in his life, I would argue, is capable of being in a normal relationship, has the tools, has sort of the imagina[tion], has the heart necessary. And for a lot of people, they want to see the consummation; they want to see ... him married. But for me, it felt, as an artist, what mattered more is not that he found the love he wanted or that he's met the person, but that for the first time in his life he's actually ready. This would be a person who could be in a committed relationship, and I felt like that was an enormous victory for him."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For much of his career, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz has written about a man named Yunior.

JUNOT DIAZ: He's a Latino. He's part of the African Diaspora. He's an immigrant. He's a kid who grew up really tough in one of the poorest sort of backgrounds. He's, like, a kid who's super-nerdy and ends up teaching at a university. He's sort of, kind of a gruff, masculine kind of figure, and yet he's an artist.

INSKEEP: This Dominican man who grew up in New Jersey is the protagonist in Diaz's first book of short stories and also the narrator of his novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." And now Yunior is back in a new set of short stories called "This is How You Lose Her." This book took the author 16 years to finish, forcing him to struggle even as he published his other works.

DIAZ: You know, I had this idea for this weird, hybrid novel-esque, story-esque compilation about the rise and fall of a young cheater, and it just took forever.

INSKEEP: Cheater, meaning that he cheats on the women in his life.

DIAZ: Oh yeah, yeah, I know, it's - I was - you know, when I finished my first book, "Drown," I realized that the theme of infidelity which runs through the book needed sort of a much more upfront presentation. And I concocted this project. It just really interested me. But, you know, sometimes you chart out a course and you think it's going to be an afternoon walk, and you realize that it takes you half your life.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about who Yunior is. First thing that he does in this book is get caught cheating on his girlfriend. One of the last things that he does in this book is get caught cheating with 50 different girls on his fiancee. And there's a little bit of the same in between.

DIAZ: Yeah. And yet the progress of the character is kind of - I felt that it was really interesting. Because, you know, when you encounter Yunior in the beginning, he thinks that, you know, all he has to do is sort of, quote, unquote, "fix the relationship." And what I mean by that is that if you really, really had that compassion that this is person, this is a human being that I've hurt, he wouldn't be so quick to scrub away his crimes.

And I think that by the end of the book, we see a Yunior that's completely different. The crime, the pain he has caused, the betrayal of a relationship of this woman, he can't escape, and in some ways hits him in the heart with an almost fatal blow. And it's a very, very different character at the end, as far as his compassion, than who we're introduced to at the beginning.

INSKEEP: He's actually capable of being punished for his crime, in effect. He's actually capable of punishing himself.

DIAZ: And I think that that's the most significant thing in the development of a person, especially a boy. Listen, I don't know where the majority of the men that are listening to this grew up in or around, but I grew up in a world very New Jersey, American, Dominican, immigrant, African-American, Latino world. And, you know, I went to school, and it was basically the same. I went to college. It was basically the same, where, largely, I wasn't really encouraged to imagine women as fully human.

I was, in fact, pretty much - by the larger culture, by the local culture, by people around me, by people on TV - encouraged to imagine women as something slightly inferior to men. And so I think that a lot of guys, part of our journey, is wrestling with coming to face our limited imaginary and growing in a way that allows us not only to imagine women as fully human, but to imagine the things that we do to women, that we often do blithely, without thinking, we sort of shrug off, as actually deeply troubling and as hurting another human being.

And this seems the simplest thing. A lot of people are, like, really? That's like a huge leap of, you know, knowledge, of the imagination? But for a lot of guys, that is, man(ph).

INSKEEP: Now, let me ask about that, because there are women characters in your book who specifically ascribe that kind of blindness to Dominican men. Watch out for Dominican men. They're awful human beings. Do you think that's a Dominican thing, or you think it's a guy thing, a universal guy thing?

DIAZ: Well, you know, the - always the joke is who's making that accusation. And I just think that for the group of women who are making this accusation, Dominican men are standing in as the err male. But look, bro, are you telling me that if I get all the women of the United States and gather them all together and say, do you highly recommend American men, that you're going to get, like, a sterling recommendation, that these women are going to be, like, oh yes, American men are fantastic? These dudes have done so well by us.

I think that every culture, if you got all the women of that culture together and say grade your men, I don't think any country, even a place like Denmark - which has this famous sort of gender equality - would give their men anything higher than an F as a collective. And that's a reality, and I think something worth thinking about.

INSKEEP: There's another aspect to Yunior, and that is that he grows up kind of a nerdy kid. I mean, he's in this family that sometimes has difficulties. He's got an older brother who's working blue collar jobs. But he's sitting there reading Roman history as a teenager, and he goes on to be a writer and a college professor. This is a smart kid who is still really, really struggling to figure out women and figure out the world.

DIAZ: This idea of what we say figure out the world or figure out ourselves, we're talking about wisdom. And, listen, I teach at a place, I teach in a town where supposedly the most intelligent, brightest people come out of, are developed and work. And I don't see...

INSKEEP: You're at MIT, correct?

DIAZ: I'm at MIT, and I'm near Harvard. I have affiliation with Harvard. And I got to tell you, there is absolutely zero correlation between intelligence and wisdom.

INSKEEP: You've noted that he grows, in a way, or at least he better understands what it is that he is doing to other people, particularly to women. But on the other hand, the book is called "This is How You Lose Her," and I don't think it's giving away too much to say that he's not going to find himself at the end in a lasting relationship, and it's not even entirely clear that he wants to be in a lasting relationship at the end. Do you think...

DIAZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...do you think you...

DIAZ: I don't know if I would say that.

INSKEEP: Go on.

DIAZ: I don't think that this book's representation of heartbreak would be so aching, would be in some ways so rough if this wasn't a person who was longing for love. And I think what we're left with at the end is certainly not the new relationship that would be the salvation. We're not left with this kind of typical American moment where we see him at a park bench meeting someone.

But what we're left with is a character who, for the first time in his life, I would argue, is capable of being in a normal relationship, has the tools, has sort of the imaginary, has the heart necessary. And for a lot of people, they want to see the consummation. They want to see the end, him married. But for me, it felt, as an artist, what mattered more was not that he found the love he wanted or that he's met the person, but that for the first time in his life, he's actually ready. This would be a person who could be in a committed relationship, and I felt like that was an enormous victory for him.

INSKEEP: The latest book by Junot Diaz is called "This is How You Lose Her." Thanks very much.

DIAZ: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And you can find an excerpt from that book at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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