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Q&A: Junot Díaz on his new book

The MIT professor and Pulitzer-winning writer talks about the people and ideas in his newest work, This Is How You Lose Her — and explains why women form a big part of his core audience.
Junot Díaz, professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies.
Junot Díaz, professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies.
Photo: Nina Subin

Junot Díaz may work slowly, in his own estimation, but the results are fast-moving stories that quickly etch themselves in our minds. The story collection This Is How You Lose Her, published today by Riverhead Books, is Díaz’s third book, following Drown (1996) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Like Drown, the new volume is a series of interwoven stories, mostly following Yunior, a young Dominican-American who intermittently wrecks relationships and continually regrets the results. Díaz, the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT, recently spoke to MIT News about his new book.

Q. When did you know the book was ready?

A. I always knew that the book had to have a certain arc to it before it was done. It’s kind of like making a stew. There’s just a certain point where you’re like, “Yes, got it.” And there’s another point when you know you don’t got it. And I just, for years and years and years, knew I didn’t have it. I knew the whole shape of it wasn’t there. Finally it came together. … I definitely banged my head against it so that by the time it was done, there was no mistaking it for anything else. It was done.

Q. How would you characterize the common threads in these stories?

A. I always thought this was a book about how a young man and his vision of the women in his life, and experiences with them, have prevented him from achieving what he most dreams of, which is an intimate relationship with a woman.

Q. In some of these stories, some of the characters surprise each other with their actions, and their motivations can be opaque. As a writer, how much character development has to occur in your mind before you can commit it to the page — even if not all of that is spelled out for the reader?

A. For me, you live in the characters, you steep in them long enough, so that even if you yourself are not clear 100 percent on the reason that they’re doing [something], you know that it’s authentic to their character. There is something very realistic about us reading a book and not fully understanding why people do things. I think we always need to have an element of any art that we wrestle with.

Q. Given the subject matter, is there a gendered reaction to your work?

A. Jesus, let’s hope there’s always a gendered reaction to art, you know? I think people respond as much to art with our gender as we do with our class, or the region where we were raised. But what that actually means spans a whole range of experiences. I hope this would be [seen as] a chronicle, a closely observed account of certain kinds of masculinities, and that there is an honesty people will not only recognize, but be troubled by. Because we rarely encounter accurate representations of male subjectivities in literature. Rarely. When I read [about] men, I guffaw, I just burst into laughter. Because they are not guys I’ve ever met. You know as well as I do that 99 percent of representations of men, in popular literature, television, movies, are fundamentally sanitized.

A woman on the radio today told me, “Half the time, I wanted to punch Yunior out, and half the time I wanted to put my arm around him and give him a hug.” And I know the reason she wanted to punch him was because she was reading it through her gender lens. I don’t meet guys who want to punch Yunior. They’re bored by him or moved by him, but they’re rarely mad. But I think a lot of women are not used to this kind of look at a man.

Q. Almost every time I see someone reading one of your books on the subway, it’s a woman. Are women a majority of your readers?

A. I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for women. Listen, not only the people who write me emails and show up at my events, but advocate for me, invite me to speak, and select my books for universities, are predominantly women. First of all, women read, and second of all, they recognize that my honesty around masculinity is not an attempt to rub women’s faces in it or revictimize men, it’s an attempt to open up a conversation about masculinity.

Q. The characters in This Is How You Lose Her often have differing amounts of knowledge about the same things — about what is happening in their families and relationships. Is another theme in the book that even people close to each other are living with different accounts of the truth?

A. I definitely wouldn’t disagree with you. A lot of stuff that happens with us consists of conflicting parallax views. You know, we’re constantly all seemingly to live inside of a never-ending viewing of Rashomon. We all think we have insider information, we all think we have the angle on the truth, but that tends to be part of the problem, isn’t it? I would be much more comfortable and confident with someone who says, “I don’t know.”

Q. Yunior’s mind often seems to be elsewhere: in the past, the future, or focused on his fears. Is this another motif you’ve sought to draw out, or is it just more a reflection of the way we live today?

A. I think someone besides me will have to make that estimation. Yunior’s mind roams, he’s very contemplative, very reflective, and I would argue that’s part of his charm. Yunior tends to see in four dimensions, he sees across time in ways that are interesting. He’s very aware of the way the past works. The book makes it clear he’s telling these stories after his life has fallen apart. … But I do think there are [also] angles of him I’m producing from the inside that have effects on readers I’m not aware of. I understand his character well, I can produce him, but I don’t see him fully. That’s part of this game: I’m behind the screen throwing these shadows, but the only person who knows that this is working or not is the readers. I don’t see the actual shadows on the screen.

Q. Rafa, Yunior’s wild older brother, is based in part at least on your own brother. What does your brother think about Rafa?

A. In all these years, my brother has never actually spoken to me about my work. … My mom does, and I think she thinks I’m a little crazy that I would actually write these things, but she’s very supportive, you know?

Event: Junot Díaz will read from his new book on Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. in the Stata Center. For more information visit the MIT SHASS Calendar

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