A Time and People Top 10 Book of 2012
Finalist for the 2012 Story Prize
Chosen as a notable or best book of the year by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The LA Times, Newsday, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, the iTunes bookstore, and many more...
"Electrifying." –The New York Times Book Review
“Exhibits the potent blend of literary eloquence and street cred that earned him a Pulitzer Prize… Díaz’s prose is vulgar, brave, and poetic.” –O Magazine
From the award-winning author, a stunning collection that celebrates the haunting, impossible power of love.
On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In a New Jersey laundry room, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessnessand by the extraordinary women he loves and loses.
In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, these stories lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his email trash can, she caught you with fifty! Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? Goddamn. Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived it—but you’re not engaged to a super openminded blanquita. Your girl is a badass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; in fact the one thing she warned you about, that she swore she would never forgive, was cheating. I’ll put a machete in you, she promised. And of course you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t.
And you did.
She’ll stick around for a few months because you dated for a long long time. Because you went through much together—her father’s death, your tenure madness, her bar exam (passed on the third attempt). And because love, real love, is not so easily shed. Over a tortured six-month period you will fly to the DR, to Mexico (for the funeral of a friend), to New Zealand. You will walk the beach where they filmed The Piano, something she’s always wanted to do, and now, in penitent desperation, you give it to her. She is immensely sad on that beach and she walks up and down the shining sand alone, bare feet in the freezing water, and when you try to hug her she says, Don’t. She stares at the rocks jutting out of the water, the wind taking her hair straight back. On the ride back to the hotel, up through those wild steeps, you pick up a pair of hitchhikers, a couple, so mixed it’s ridiculous, and so giddy with love that you almost throw them out the car. She says nothing. Later, in the hotel, she will cry.
You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass email disowning all your sucias. You block their emails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your email accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together. You claim that you were sick, you claim that you were weak—It was the book! It was the pressure!—and every hour like clockwork you say that you’re so so sorry. You try it all, but one day she will simply sit up in bed and say, No more, and, Ya, and you will have to move from the Harlem apartment that you two have shared. You consider not going. You consider a squat protest. In fact, you say won’t go. But in the end you do.
For a while you haunt the city, like a two-bit ballplayer dreaming of a call-up. You phone her every day and leave messages, which she doesn’t answer. You write her long sensitive letters, which she returns unopened. You even show up at her apartment at odd hours and at her job downtown until finally her little sister calls you, the one who was always on your side, and she makes it plain: If you try to contact my sister again she’s going to put a restraining order on you.
For some Negroes that wouldn’t mean shit.
But you ain’t that kind of Negro.
You stop. You move back to Boston. You never see her again.
At first you pretend it don’t matter. You harbored a lot of grievances against her anyway. Yes you did! She didn’t give good head, you hated the fuzz on her cheeks, she never waxed her pussy, she never cleaned up around the apartment, etc. For a few weeks you almost believe it. Of course you go back to smoking, to drinking, you drop the therapist and the sex addict groups and you run around with the sluts like it’s the good old days, like nothing has happened.
I’m back, you say to your boys.
Elvis laughs. It’s almost like you never left.
You’re good for like a week. Then your moods become erratic. One minute you have to stop yourself from jumping in the car and driving to see her and the next you’re calling a sucia and saying, You’re the one I always wanted. You start losing your temper with friends, with students, with colleagues. You cry every time you hear Monchy and Alexandra, her favorite.
Boston, where you never wanted to live, where you feel you’ve been exiled to, becomes a serious problem. You have trouble adjusting to it fulltime; to its trains that stop running at midnight, to the glumness of its inhabitants, to its startling lack of Sichuan food. Almost on cue a lot of racist shit starts happening. Maybe it was always there, maybe you’ve become more sensitive after all your time in NYC. White people pull up at traffic lights and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mothers. It’s fucking scary. Before you can figure out what the fuck is going on they flip you the bird and peel out. It happens again and again. Security follows you in stores and every time you step on Harvard property you’re asked for ID. Three times, drunk whitedudes try to pick fights with you in different parts of the city.
You take it all very personally. I hope someone drops a fucking bomb on this city, you rant. This is why no people of color want to live here. Why all my black and Latino students leave as soon as they can.
Elvis says nothing. He was born and raised in Jamaica Plain, knows that trying to defend Boston from uncool is like blocking a bullet with a slice of bread. Are you OK? he asks finally.
I’m dandy, you say. Mejor que nunca.
Except you’re not. You’ve lost all the mutual friends you had in NYC (they went to her), your mother won’t speak to you after what happened fishe liked the fiancée better than she liked you), and you’re feeling terribly guilty and terribly alone. You keep writing letters to her, waiting for the day that you can hand them to her. You also keep fucking everything that moves. Thanksgiving you end up having to spend in your apartment because you can’t face your mom and the idea of other people’s charity makes you furious. The ex, as you’re now calling her, always cooked: a turkey, a chicken, a pernil. Set aside all the wings for you. That night you drink yourself into a stupor, spend two days recovering.
You figure that’s as bad as it gets. You figure wrong. During finals a depression rolls over you, so profound you doubt there is a name for it. It feels like you’re being slowly pincered apart, atom by atom.
You stop hitting the gym or going out for drinks; you stop shaving or washing your clothes; in fact, you stop doing almost everything. Your friends begin to worry about you, and they are not exactly the worrying types. I’m OK, you tell them, but with each passing week the depression darkens. You try to describe it. Like someone flew a plane into your soul. Like someone flew two planes into your soul. Elvis sits shivah with you in the apartment; he pats you on the shoulder, tells you to take it easy. Four years earlier Elvis had a Humvee blow up on him on a highway outside of Baghdad. The burning wreckage pinned him for what felt like a week, so he knows a little about pain. His back and buttocks and right arm so scarred up that even you, Mr. Hard Nose, can’t look at them. Breathe, he tells you. You breathe nonstop, like a marathon runner, but it doesn’t help. Your little letters become more and more pathetic. Please, you write. Please come back. You have dreams where she’s talking to you like in the old days—in that sweet Spanish of the Cibao, no sign of rage, of disappointment. And then you wake up.
You stop sleeping, and some night when you’re drunk and alone you have a wacky impulse to open the window of your fishy;fifth-floor apartment and leap down to the street. If it wasn’t for a couple of things you probably would have done it, too. But (a) you ain’t the killingyourself type; (b) your boy Elvis keeps a strong eye on you—he’s over all the time, stands by the window as if he knows what you’re thinking. And (c) you have this ridiculous hope that maybe one day she will forgive you.
From This is How You Lose Her © September 2012 by Junot Diaz, published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
What People are Saying About This
Finalist for the 2012 National Book Award
Winner of the Sunday Times Short Story Award
A Time and People Top 10 Book of 2012
Finalist for the 2012 Story Prize
Chosen as a notable or best book of the year by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The LA Times, Newsday, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, the iTunes bookstore, and many more...
“Junot Díaz writes in an idiom so electrifying and distinct it’s practically an act of aggression, at once enthralling, even erotic in its assertion of sudden intimacy… [It is] a syncopated swagger-step between opacity and transparency, exclusion and inclusion, defiance and desire… His prose style is so irresistible, so sheerly entertaining, it risks blinding readers to its larger offerings. Yet he weds form so ideally to content that instead of blinding us, it becomes the very lens through which we can see the joy and suffering of the signature Díaz subject: what it means to belong to a diaspora, to live out the possibilities and ambiguities of perpetual insider/outsider status.” –The New York Times Book Review
"Nobody does scrappy, sassy, twice-the-speed of sound dialogue better than Junot Díaz. His exuberant short story collection, called This Is How You Lose Her, charts the lives of Dominican immigrants for whom the promise of America comes down to a minimum-wage paycheck, an occasional walk to a movie in a mall and the momentary escape of a grappling in bed." –Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“Exhibits the potent blend of literary eloquence and street cred that earned him a Pulitzer Prize… Díaz’s prose is vulgar, brave, and poetic.” –O Magazine
“Searing, irresistible new stories… It’s a harsh world Díaz conjures but one filled also with beauty and humor and buoyed by the stubborn resilience of the human spirit.” –People
“Junot Díaz has one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction: limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully eclectic… The strongest tales are those fueled by the verbal energy and magpie language that made Brief Wondrous Life so memorable and that capture Yunior’s efforts to commute between two cultures, Dominican and American, while always remaining an outsider.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“These stories… are virtuosic, command performances that mine the deceptive, lovelorn hearts of men with the blend of tenderness, comedy and vulgarity of early Philip Roth. It's Díaz's voice that's such a delight, and it is every bit his own, a melting-pot pastiche of Spanglish and street slang, pop culture and Dominican culture, and just devastating descriptive power, sometimes all in the same sentence.” –USA Today
“Impressive… comic in its mopiness, charming in its madness and irresistible in its heartfelt yearning.” –The Washington Post
"The dark ferocity of each of these stories and the types of love it portrays is reason enough to celebrate this book. But the collection is also a major contribution to the short story form... It is an engrossing, ambitious book for readers who demand of their fiction both emotional precision and linguistic daring." –NPR
“The centripetal force of Díaz’s sensibility and the slangy bar-stool confidentiality of his voice that he makes this hybridization feel not only natural and irresistible, but inevitable, the voice of the future… [This is How You Lose Her] manages to be achingly sad and joyful at the same time. Its heart is true, even if Yunior’s isn’t.” –Salon
“[A] propulsive new collection… [that] succeeds not only because of the author's gift for exploring the nuances of the male… but because of a writing style that moves with the rhythm and grace of a well-danced merengue.” –Seattle Times
“In Díaz’s magisterial voice, the trials and tribulations of sex-obsessed objectifiers become a revelation.” –The Boston Globe
“Scooch over, Nathan Zuckerman. New Jersey has bred a new literary bad boy… A.” –Entertainment Weekly
“Ribald, streetwise, and stunningly moving—a testament, like most of his work, to the yearning, clumsy ways young men come of age.” –Vogue
“[An] excellent new collection of stories… [Díaz is] an energetic stylist who expertly moves between high-literary storytelling and fizzy pop, between geek culture and immigrant life, between romance and high drama.” –IndieBound
“Taken together, [these stories’] braggadocio softens into something much more vulnerable and devastating. The intimacy and immediacy… is not just seductive but downright conspiratorial… A heartbreaker.” –The Daily Beast
"Díaz manages a seamless blend of high diction and low, of poetry and vulgarity… Look no further for home truths on sex and heartbreak." –The Economist
“This collection of stories, like everything else [Díaz has] written, feels vital in the literal sense of the word. Tough, smart, unflinching, and exposed, This is How You Lose Her is the perfect reminder of why Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize… [He] writes better about the rapid heartbeat of urban life than pretty much anyone else." –The Christian Science Monitor
“Filled with Díaz’s signature searing voice, loveable/despicable characters and so-true-it-hurts goodness.” –Flavorwire
“Díaz writes with subtle and sharp brilliance… He dazzles us with his language skills and his story-making talents, bringing us a narrative that is starkly vernacular and sophisticated, stylistically complex and direct… A spectacular read.” –Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"[This is How You Lose Her] has maturity in content, if not in ethical behavior… Díaz’s ability to be both conversational and formal, eloquent and plainspoken, to say brilliant things Trojan-horsed in slang and self-deprecation, has a way of making you put your guard completely down and be effected in surprising and powerful ways." –The Rumpus
“As tales of relationship redemption go, each of the nine relatable short stories in Junot Díaz's consummate collection This Is How You Lose Her triumphs… Through interrogative second-person narration and colloquial language peppered with Spanish, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author authentically captures Junior's cultural and emotional dualities.” –Metro
“Searing, sometimes hilarious, and always disarming… Readers will remember why everyone wants to write like Díaz, bring him home, or both. Raw and honest, these stories pulsate with raspy ghetto hip-hop and the subtler yet more vital echo of the human heart.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Díaz’s standout fiction remains pinpoint, sinuous, gutsy, and imaginative… Each taut tale of unrequited and betrayed love and family crises is electric with passionate observations and off-the-charts emotional and social intelligence… Fast-paced, unflinching, complexly funny, street-talking tough, perfectly made, and deeply sensitive, Díaz’s gripping stories unveil lives shadowed by prejudice and poverty and bereft of reliable love and trust. These are precarious, unappreciated, precious lives in which intimacy is a lost art, masculinity a parody, and kindness, reason, and hope struggle to survive like seedlings in a war zone.” –Booklist (starred review)
“Díaz’s third book is as stunning as its predecessors. These stories are hard and sad, but in Díaz’s hands they also crackle.” –Library Journal (starred review)
“Magnificent… an exuberant rendering of the driving rhythms and juicy Spanglish vocabulary of immigrant speech… sharply observed and morally challenging.” –Kirkus
“A beautifully stirring look at ruined relationships and lost love—and a more than worthy follow-up to [Díaz’s] 2007 Pulitzer winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” –Bookpage
"In This Is How You Lose Her, Díaz writes with subtlety and grace, once again demonstrating his remarkable facility for developing fully-realized and authentic characters with an economical rawness... Díaz skillfully portrays his protagonist so vividly, and with so much apparent honesty, that Yunior’s voice comes across with an immediacy that never once feels inauthentic." –California Literary Review
"Díaz continues to dazzle with his dynamite, street-bruised wit. The bass line of this collection is a thumpingly raw and sexual foray into lives that claw against poverty and racism. It is a wild rhythm that makes more vivid the collection’s heart-busted steadiness." –Dallas Morning News
Back into the Abyss: Junot Díz and Francisco Goldman Join the Barnes & Noble Review
Between the two of them, Junot Díz and Francisco Goldman have produced some of the most mesmerizing literary fiction today vibrant and soulful, often screamingly funny, and always searching. Each of their debuts was selected for the Discover Great New Writers program Díz 's Drown in '96 and Goldman's The Long Night of White Chickens in '92 and since then, both have published to ever-growing acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for Díz 's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The longtime friends generously agreed to let the Barnes & Noble Review eavesdrop on their conversation, one that I kicked off and closed with some questions of my own. Miwa Messer
The Barnes and Noble Review: Which comes first, voice or place?
Junot Díz: For my first three books the setting (or place if you will) has always been a given NJ and the Dominican Republic and some NYC so from one perspective you could say that the place in my work always comes first. But really what comes first is something even more basic my desire to write about the Dominican diasporic experience, to write about a movement of people, a set of experiences, a history, which I witnessed firsthand and which shaped almost every part of my life, and yet which was largely ignored, erased, and misunderstood by the larger culture. That was the first impulse, certainly. But with all three of my books there were other very specific evolutionary conditions that made them possible. Oscar Wao for example cohered in a period of terrible distress. All the novels that I wanted to write were not happening. I was living in Mexico City, next door to you, Frank (in fact you were the one who enticed me to come down to the DF [Distrito Federal], thinking the distance and the city would inspire me.) My apartment had almost no furniture and garbage bags for window shades I definitely wasn't taking care of myself. I was going nuts from my lack of success, and I kept playing the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack over and over thinking that it might spark something.
Now that I've had time to reflect, I realize that in all the failed books I was attempting to write about the deepest shit in both my life and in Dominican history. I was trying to tackle the traumatic after-effects of dictatorship, specifically the afterlife of the Trujillato, starting with my own family and projecting that out to my fictional characters. This was not an easy thing to do. Not for me certainly. I grew up in the shadow of the Trujillato, saw how the regime had ravaged so many families. The sexual violence that the Trujillato deployed to terrorize the Dominican people was one of my principle concerns and given all the silence and shame that surrounds it no wonder I was having trouble with the material.
So one night we were all at a party with some Mexican actors, and I was drinking beers and listening to the chatter, and one of the actors came up to me and said that his favorite writer was Oscar Wilde, but of course I heard it as Oscar Wao and that was how it all started. With a name misheard. As soon as I heard Oscar Wao the title came to me, and then this vision of Oscar and his sister and their crazy mother and over them all the shadow of Trujillo. I wrote the Oscar section of the book very fast; the rest of the novel came much slower. What kept me going even in the darkest periods was that strange third person first person voice that mixed the nerdish with the historical, which was so vibrant and flippant and yet so dark. Oscar Wao more than any of my other works was a delicate balancing act keeping the voice from becoming too funny or too bleak, too historical or too nerdish. Drown, my first book, was something else altogether. I was an immigrant kid who grew up in a neighborhood that I never saw depicted anywhere, who remembered a Dominican Republic that was very much alive and kicking. I wanted to write stories about both these worlds. I floundered for years until I hit upon Yunior's voice. Then suddenly the pages started flowing out of me but before Yunior's voice crystallized in my head nothing was working. Nothing at all. Even stories I was dying to tell were flat on the page.
Francisco Goldman: And what a creation Yunior's voice is, one of the great literary character voices of our time! Some people probably believe that Yunior's voice must be close to your own, a directly autobiographical voice. But it's something, as you imply, that you developed. I'd love to know more about what went into your discovery of that voice. Are there earlier versions of that voice filed away somewhere that make you cringe?
The sources of most of my novels have been a mix of things. What is interesting to me is the question of what finally sparks the writing, how do you get to that moment when, as you say, Yunior's voice crystallized and the writing took off.
My first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, grew out of my immersion, beginning in 1979, in the war and nightmare repression in Guatemala. Sure, I had a Guatemalan mother, but I'd had a mostly typical suburban middle-class New England upbringing. I was so innocent that I thought that our old family cottage on Lake Amatitlán, just outside Guatemala City, would be a perfect place to hole up and write the stories I needed for my MFA applications. When I arrived and told my uncle my plan, he freaked. Don't you know there's a war on in this country! The cottages are shut down, the night watchman who looked after them was murdered, the police station was attacked by guerrillas, etc. So I was forced to live in my uncle's house. That's where it started: when, miracle of miracles, a short story I'd written for the MFA applications was accepted by Esquire magazine, the editors invited me to write non-fiction, and I asked to be sent to Guatemala, and just like that I became a freelance journalist, that's how I (barely) supported myself, working out of Central America until 1991. One of the reasons I was so committed to this was that I thought it would make me grow as a writer. In that grand tradition, I was after experience.
But I didn't know how to write fiction about violence, suffering, injustice, absolute evil, the inevitable political and moral entanglements, didn't really understand my place in all that as a human, never mind as a would-be fiction writer (Me quedaba grande, as they say here in Mexico.) I was obsessed with writers who'd written novels that were also rooted in historical tragedy and violence and that somehow managed to balance light and darkness, the all too real and the mysterious. How did they do that? One of those was Faulkner of course and when reading that he described Caddy from The Sound and the Fury as his heart's darling, something clicked. Flor de Mayo Puac was partly born in that moment, but she was still only an idea for a character. In 1986 Morgan Entrekin offered me a modest advance. I escaped to Madrid, worked on my novel every day, failed every day, had stupid fistfights with Spaniards who thought I was a moro, and a few months later returned to Guatemala having blown my advance, and without a single page of the novel.
One day I said to myself, Okay, this is a ludicrous and complicated story you want to tell, but ludicrous and complicated things happen to people here all the time, and if it had really happened to you, and you absolutely had to tell it to somebody, you'd be able to. And that's how the narrator Roger's voice finally came forward, with him speaking as if to a friend about what had happened to him, and that opening page never changed. Since then, every novel but one has begun with this terrifying process of failing every day that lasts for months and months. I'm convinced that while we are consciously flailing away, trying, say, to find that voice, our subconscious is actually doing the work, laying down a foundation, exploring paths, a sponge absorbing ideas and impulses until it begins to take on the weight of obsession and conviction. Twice, after months of anguished failing, it's been a dream that's finally gotten me rolling. A dream that I was on a freighter at sea with no other person on board gave me the tone I needed for what became The Ordinary Seaman. I'd done a ton of research for The Divine Husband, but when I tried to start it nothing came, I gave up, went back to it a few years later and it was the same. At a party in Mexico City I drank a daiquiri made with bad ice, ended up in bed hallucinating with fever, and dreamed a scene of convent servants searching the streets of 19th- century Guatemala City for a suitable Indian to take back to their Mother Superior for her foot washing ritual, and it was only then that the novel finally found a spark of life and lurched forward.
Say Her Name was different. I began it six months after Aura's death and was helpless to do anything else. Now I've gone back to a novel that I was working on when Aura died. It's a different novel now, just as I'm a different person. I failed at it for much of this summer. The difference is that this time, the weeks of failing didn't panic me, I'd been down this road before and knew that sooner or later it would resolve.
So Junot, my question to you is up at the top. Related to it is another question: how do you find your way forward when you write a novel? Did you know where you wanted the novel to go when you began Oscar Wao? How radically different was that process for you than when you write short stories?
JD: I have hundreds of pages filled with failed versions of Yunior's voice. That's how I roll; I always have to write a lot of crap before anything useful emerges. I don't necessarily cringe. I just shake my head, amazed that I have to sow so much to glean so little.
But I totally agree with you my unconscious mind does better work than my conscious mind. And it was without question the best guide to get me through the earlier stages of my novel-writing process. In the first abortive stages of Oscar Wao I was trying desperately to write a Rushdie- esque encyclopedic novel about contemporary Dominican history. I wasn't listening to what the writing was telling me I, Junot, was trying to be in charge. I wanted an encyclopedic novel for no other reason than I wanted it. The arrogance of our executive selves. I lost years chasing that lame dream. Turns out that Rushdie-esque is just not my bag, but I still persisted, writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of junk. All the while my hidden brain was putting together a different kind of book, one that was more fractured and more filled with silences, an archipelago of a book, whereas the usual Rushdie novel is a goddamn continent. Honestly if I'd not insisted, if I'd not been stubborn, I probably could have finished Oscar Wao in half the time. But I kept trying to push my agenda, and boy did my agenda suck. But every now and then I'd put the encyclopedic novel crap down and just play around on the page, and that was when the real work would come out, the sections that make up the novel today. But between each of those sections was always a massive time-consuming battle between my pride and my creativity. Between my conscious and unconscious selves. Hopefully I've learned a lot since that time, but we'll see. Right now the book I'm working on is not going well at all, and I fear I might be falling into the same bullshit pattern. I keep telling myself listen to the work, but you know how hard that can be.
Short stories unfortunately are not a whole lot easier for me. I've never been able to jump from one story to the next, can never build up any flow or momentum. I'm like some shoddy warp drive that has to take long breaks between jumps. As a form, stories require me to be vicious in my discipline. I'm always trying to cut things, to pare them down excess truly is the enemy. (Not for every story but just the ones that I find myself writing.) There's a spirit of restraint that guides my writing of stories that is not present at all when I'm working on a novel. The novel has always been a lusher process for me, less teleological, more generous. A novel can easily withstand any number of digressions, but rare is the short story that can sustain even one.
In all honesty I doubt I'll write any more stories. They're too damn hard. Besides, I find myself resisting the small canvas these days, wanting to test myself on the longer form. One should never say never but I feel like I've done enough of these bad boys to last me a lifetime.
So let's talk inspiration, Frank. Am I wrong to suggest that your complex relationship with Guatemala brings out the best in your work? Or maybe this is just how I think of my complex relationship with the Dominican Republic. From where did this new book of yours spring? Is it an old dream or something else altogether?
FG: But I don't really think of Guatemala that way, as bringing out the best in me, but maybe I'm taking Guatemala for granted now, because I did learn and see so much there. (I think Mexico City is the place that brings out the best in me, but not in the way you mean.) I mostly grew up in a mean, almost Shirley Jackson type of New England town, that's how I experienced it, where my house offered no escape, where we all lived in fear of my father for one, always angry and often violent, and where my mother, like some kind of Tennessee Williams diva, was always holding Guatemala out as a lost paradise, where her family was respected, a loving and happy family, where we owned toy stores, where I could have a pet monkey. Never forget you're Guatemalan too, she was always saying. So home was also always somewhere else, and that home was this place that didn't really exist. In my twenties I really got to know Guatemala and I learned about fear, every kind of violence, the suffering of so many other people, and so much else, not all negative, far from it, but all playing out on that horrifying stage. The traumatic reality versus the dream of another reality, I think that's a fundamental conflict for me. The reality of death versus the dream of life, that more than anything else intrigues me now, thoug I think it's always been there. I'm probably pretty happy by nature, yet, as for so many others, the reality has often been cruel, incomprehensible, sad, overwhelming, whatever. I'd always dreamed of loving and being loved and had rarely experienced it, and when I finally truly did, it was taken away in an instant.
Anyway, that kind of conflict or incongruity or engaging of loss drives my writing (though if I'm going to be totally honest, maybe all this is just a guess, something that sounds about right to me today.) I partly mean the imagination as refuge and even rebellion, but mostly fiction writing as a way of making something out of words that has meaning and coherence in a world where it's hard for me to find it any other way, or that I could never express in any other way, or just as a way of making something that for some reason I really want to make, so that I think that it's actually writing that brings out the best in me, though obviously not in a social way, the discipline and conviction of it, the getting up every day and working hard at it, living with the mystery and insecurity of it, challenging yourself to be as brave and true and even ruthless as you can or need to be in the writing, and so on.
Bolaño said writers should leap head first into the abyss, but you really can't do that, you'd never come out alive, and anyway, I didn't have to leap into it, I was already there. After Aura's death, I wrote a book that is mostly about her, a very poor substitute for Aura, of course, but something to put back into the abyss so that it won't only be emptiness. The new book is something like that too, an unhappy person, the death of her essential loved one, and how will she live now? Things will happen to her and hopefully some of those will be marvelous and hilarious, but others will be awful. (It's set in a sort of Lovecraftian New England, but it does have Guatemalans in it, and also Mexicans.) I think you were suggesting something similar to all this at the end of your amazing short story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love." It's a story about Yunior's loss of his fiancée, which devastates him, the loss of his great love and his relentless remorse, and in the end his seeming answer to that loss is to return to his writing, and it is such a lonely solution and such a powerful and inspiring one, and I don't mean in a therapeutic way, it's actually kind of mystical. Why is that the answer, or the only way he can find? I know we're not supposed to confuse a character with the author, but now Yunior is a writer, teaching at a university in Cambridge, and so that ending seemed very revealing and hard-earned. You seemed to be saying something about what writing means to you and about why you need to do it. What does it mean to you and why do you need to do it and what is it that inspires you? Brotherito, take a few decades away from them if you want more novels! but please don't stop writing short stories.
JD: Frank, no one could have said it more clearly or more beautifully than you so I'll just paraphrase: at the end of This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior, who has lost about as much as he can lose, turns to the writing to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be loss and regret. In my mind Yunior re-engages with his writing to bear witness, to inform on his self. This bearing witness, this reckoning with self, with all his actions and lies, this shouldering responsibility for what he has done to his ex-fiancée and to the other women in his life, represents a tremendous step for Yunior. A movement towards recognizing the humanity of the women he has so persistently denigrated and in recognizing their humanity finally finding some of his own. This is not insignificant. Not every guy achieves that simple breakthrough in the imaginary that transforms women from objects into full human beings. This writing/bearing witness is a sign that Yunior is finally becoming the person he needs to be in order to find the intimacy that he so desperately longs for but was never able to achieve.
OK, I'll see what I can do about the short stories, but damn, Frank, these things have just about worn me out. These days I'd rather read the short stories than write 'em but let's see what the future holds. I guess I'd have the same reaction if you suddenly announced that you were going to abandon journalism. I'd be like: you better not. Every time I read your nonfiction works, whether it's the chilling Art of Political Murder or your excellent profile on Camila Vallejo, I am forcefully reminded that you are that illest kind of switch hitter: you are brilliant in more than one genre.
But before I lose the thread you asked about me and my relationship to the word: I guess we all have our covenants with the world (or at least we should have). For people like my mother, it's her religion. For other people, it's their children or perhaps their families. For me storytelling is my sacred. About the only covenant I have. As reader and writer I believe in the infinite worldmaking power of stories. I'm with Leslie Marmon Silko when she says in Ceremony: "I will tell you something about stories, (he said). They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death." If I have a faith, that's it. Stories are all we have to fight off illness and death. I suspect Silko's words resonate with you too, Frank.
But there are many reasons, really. On the most selfish level I write to make sense of the universe, to make sense of my self, of my immigrantness, my Dominicanness, my New Jerseyness, my maleness. I feel like I've lived so many weird disparate lives, often simultaneously DR, NJ, native, immigrant, first generation, Dominican, Latino, Black, Spanish, Black English, Official English, hiphop, nerd, military family, high school dropout, grunt worker, Rutgers, Cornell, activist, writer, professor sometimes it's hard for me to fold them all into one coherent identity. But in my writing all the pieces of me come together, if not happily then at least beautifully. Writing allows me to be simultaneous in ways that the larger culture seems to resist.
Also: I grew up in a Dominican community that was totally erased, totally ignored by the mainstream. I grew up never seeing myself or my neighbors or my friends in any kind of literature. I grew up with no books or movies or tv shows that reflected my world, my identities, my struggles. The brief instances my community did appear in, say, the news or books it was always as monsters: either some drug-dealing pathology or illegal immigrant menace. The real us was never shown, totally elided. (In college I read books like Down These Mean Streets and The House on Mango Street and Sula, which came close to showing us, but when it comes to seeing yourself in the representational universe close is never enough.) Growing up I felt that absence, that wound, viscerally who the hell wants to come up in a hole, in a silence? It's astounding how little some of us have in this culture to build healthy selves from. The Jeremy Lin phenomena writ large some groups have thousands upon thousands of athletes that reflect them some groups have only one or two and when that one or two appears you suddenly realize how long you've lived with none. If I had to parse my first motivations for becoming a writer down to one it would have to be my profound desire to battle that fucked-up erasure (which is really a violence) by singing my community out of that silence. I guess that's really what launched me into the words I wanted to be part of that movement of artists that were insuring that the next generation wouldn't have to endure what I endured.
But ultimately I suspect what keeps me on the page, despite all my slowness and all my difficulties, despite the failures and the long doubt, is the same force that returns Yunior to his writing: the profound need to bear witness, to leave a trace, a record, an account of a people that many, including many of the people themselves, didn't know existed. For a people like mine, children of the abyss, of apocalypses without end from slavery to dictatorship to immigration bearing witness is sometimes all we had, like firing a flare up into the dark vault of the universe. Bearing witness in order (to quote you Frank) to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be silence and loss. In order to mark that we were here, we lived, we mattered. In order to have a little light by which to see ourselves and others with, a little light to carry us into the future, a little light to call our own.
FG: You witness a lot as a journalist, and what you witness becomes a part of you. IThe Art of Political Murder is about the nine- year Bishop Gerardi murder case. More than twenty people related to the case were murdered, and numerous others fled; throughout it I worked closely with some of the most wonderful, courageous people, but it brought the vilest people imaginable into my life too. The last two times I went to Guatemala I had to have bodyguards, and was taken out by a side exit at the airport. Just a few weeks ago I received a creepy anonymous twitter message. I don't feel like I can go back to Guatemala right now, I don't want that stress. The Gerardi case was incredibly complex, and it could only be narrated with authority through the most devout attention to concrete detail and substantiated acts. I had to learn to write in a new way, to strive for a transparent style that would let those details and acts convey the story. You're always learning, with each book hopefully pushing ahead. Say Her Name wasn't a book, of course, that I ever expected to write, but one of my writer friends has pointed out that it's as if The Art of Political Murder, with its forensic detail, and The Divine Husband too, which is about the yearning for love, prepared me to write it. Because, as you know, Say Her Name is framed as a sort of trial or investigation, conducted by myself against myself, seemingly in response to the legal dangers I was threatened with in Mexico after Aura's death. I knew that a journalistic examination of Aura's death would never reveal that I'd been legally culpable, and even though I did include those facts in the book, that's not, finally, the mystery I was "investigating." I was nearly finished writing it when I came across this sentence that I love, from Lydia Davis's translation of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. "For one thing love and death have in common, more than those vague resemblances people are always talking about, is that they make us question more deeply, for fear that its reality will slip away from us, the mystery of personality."
I've been living in Mexico City and love it here, I have the best friends in the world and am only half-ashamed to admit that this summer I've carried on at times like a wild teenager. Mexico City has largely been spared the violence happening elsewhere in the country. None have it worse than the Central Americans who trek through on their way to the U.S., who get kidnapped by the Zetas and others, their relatives in the U.S. extorted for money, and often they get killed anyway; the Zetas rape the women and girls and kill them, or they take a young man and say, Okay kill those other two or else you'll die too, maybe he has to kill his brother or friend, and then they force him to become a Zeta sicario, or else he refuses and is killed anyway; the deserts of Mexico are filled with the graves of kidnapped migrants, no one knows how many have vanished. What, as a writer, do you do with that? I don't know, but I don't see myself writing about it in a documentary way. But it's something I know about, and that strikes close. After college I got a scholarship to a summer writing workshop where William Gass was a teacher. Gass is a philosophy professor, and when a student asked if his "philosophical ideas" inspired his writing, Gass answered no, that he knew he was "smart," and so he just worked on his sentences. You have to trust that who you are is going to come out in some way. You focus on your sentences or on the most daring and delirious narrative vision, and trust that you'll show up. In U.S. discourse, immigrants are mostly represented as less than human, a policy problem, or as just that, a category, and categories are prisons. The novels I love are prison breaks what you did, Junot, in Oscar Wao, and Bolaño with the Ciudad Juarez femicides in 2666, Yuri Herrera with the narco war in Trabajos del Reino the categories get smashed open and the unexpected, the unthinkable, the forgotten, the ignored, the unknown, the terrifying, the secretly beloved, the misunderstood and astonishing, the mesmerizingly human, it all breaks out.
JD: That's what we dream about, what we long for, books like those. Certainly as a reader that's the kind of books I've loved. Of course what you end up writing is something else altogether. You're working on that new novel set in New England and I'm trying to imagine the world of a young teenage girl in Santo Domingo, a Third World striver, the kind of girl that wants to do everything right in a country where for poor people even that can't keep the catastrophe off you. I'm hoping she'll lead me through to my next novel. But who knows it takes me years of patient scribbling before my characters ever deign to speak to me.
BNR: Before we finish, I can't resist asking you both the classic question: Tell us what books you'd want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
FG: Desert island books, damn. How big is the island, and how long am I going to be there? Long books, I guess. In Search of Lost Time. War and Peace. The Collected Shakespeare. Moby-Dick! The Collected Borges. 2666, why not? Something immense that I haven't read yet, The Man without Qualities. Emily Dickinson's poetry too, which I've been reading all summer. And definitively the Guia Roji, which contains all roads, a Borgesian cartography of Mexico City, as immense and dense as the city itself, but all its maps packed into a single fat book. Currently, for a piece I'm writing, I'm using it like the I-Ching, closing my eyes, opening it to any page, and then trying to drive to the spot my finger touches down on. I've never driven in Mexico City before, and it terrifies me.
JD: Les Miserables is perfect for the stranded. It's immense and has a lot of Melville-esque post-modern outbursts, and it's about justice few books are about that anymore and it always gets me crying. I'd also need something from my childhood. Watership Down. Every time I read this line "My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here." my heart feels like it's going to burst. And I'd need something from real life. Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men or Edward Rivera's Family Installments. And something from home (the Caribbean). Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco or Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. And a book of poetry. Aracelis Girmay's Kingdom Animalia. And a comic book. Katsuhiro Otomo's AKIRA. And something for the ancestors: Song of Solomon. And something I haven't read before, something that ain't out yet but that will be by the time I'm shipwrecked.
-September 11, 2012