“I like human endings,” says Junot Díaz. “For me, human endings are ones that represent the full complexity of what I consider human experience. For me, the consequences of surviving sometimes give you great pause.”
The author of Drown (Riverhead, 1996), his debut collection of stories, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead, 2007), has a new story collection. In This Is How You Lose Her, out from Riverhead, Díaz explores these endings and beginnings with stories about love, passion, loss, the consequences of our actions, and what is left behind. At the center of the book is Yunior, a charming and often careless young man who’s been appearing in Díaz’s fiction since Drown.
Díaz, 43, was born in the Dominican Republic and came with his family to New Jersey when he was a young boy. Asked if he remembers the experience, he doesn’t hold back: “If I burn your entire country down, would you remember being six or seven? There is nothing like the trauma of losing one’s country and gaining another. It makes recollection very, very sharp.” Díaz’s father came to the U.S. first, got a job at a Reynolds aluminum warehouse in Elizabeth, N.J., and Díaz, his mother, and four siblings followed five years later in 1974. The people living in his neighborhood, Díaz says, were “colorful, poor, working, and transitional,” and the area itself was “no joke,” but his family was “already accustomed to a very rough-and-tumble upbringing.” Of himself, Díaz says, “I was a child. I didn’t speak English, and I experienced the competitiveness of America, and it’s a profoundly cruel childhood culture.” But despite his being frightened of his neighborhood, he says he loved it.
Díaz’s favorite activity was reading, and he read everything—American biographies, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys. “Most guys I know had very hypermasculine dreams—they dreamed about guns. I had a very hypermasculine childhood and very effete dreams. My comfort, my escape, was books.” His public high school was affluent and “very white—almost every student of color was from my neighborhood. It was kind of a strange thing.” But many of the things Díaz was dealing with at that time had nothing to do with high school or adolescence: “I had a brother with cancer and a family that was deeply struggling economically.” And although his brother survived, his illness, Díaz says, “gave me an early crash course in mortality, but I didn’t know any different.”
The first time Díaz left home was to attend Rutgers University in 1988. “I adored college—it was a joy. I felt really safe, and I jumped in headfirst. It was extraordinary for me.” Díaz describes the university at that time as “extremely active, diverse, and best of all, economically varied.” He found he could relate to his fellow students, and he and his friends “were all activists—there was apartheid, black nationalism was on the rise, Rutgers had a hard-core feminist movement—we were very caught up in it.” Reading continued to be a great comfort, and although Díaz did start writing in college, he was interested in becoming a historian. He worked delivering pool tables and at a steel mill. “I’m from an immigrant family, and you don’t leave all that behind to be lazy—I was a working college student.”
During summer break, though, he began writing an apocalyptic novel set on an island, which he says was “awful” and is now in a box somewhere—no one saw it. He took a year off after college and then decided to do a creative writing program before, he thought, he’d get his Ph.D. in history. He went to Cornell and admits that “graduate school was very different for me. I didn’t enjoy it the way I enjoyed college.” Díaz felt isolated and “cut off from my roots.” Although he says he has wonderful friends from Cornell, he was out of his comfort zone. “I never felt entirely comfortable away from the kind of people I grew up with,” Díaz says, but he also acknowledges the positive side: “It sharpened my talent in ways. I never would have become a writer if I hadn’t had that exile.” He read “thousands” of stories at Cornell and says that he doesn’t have a preference when it comes to reading—short stories or novels, he embraces both—but as for writing: “I hope to never write a short story again because they’re incredibly difficult.”
It took Díaz two years to write Drown, which was critically acclaimed. “I had to discover my voice,” he says. There wasn’t another book until 2007, Oscar Wao, which follows three generations of a Dominican family. It won the Pulitzer and Díaz was everywhere. “I thought, how do I write about Dominicans, people of color, in a way that’s original and fresh? I was part of a whole generation of poor kids who are hypereducated. We went to Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and we have family members that work every day in garages.” His motivation for Wao? “My community deserved art.” Growing up, reading, “it was an excruciating experience,” he says, “to not be able to name 10 novels by and about Dominicans. It’s terrible to not see yourself reflected in the larger culture. You become a ghost.” At the very least, Díaz says, he wanted to create “one mirror, so that some lonely kid somewhere would find my book and see themselves reflected back, finally.” He believes that “oppressiveness hides in plain sight in art.” Is there more diversity in literature now? Are things getting better? Díaz hopes they are but also thinks “we always pray that things are getting better so that we don’t have to have the battle we need to have.”
Díaz does not mind being called a Dominican writer unless, “If you are saying I’m a Dominican writer, and that’s an exclusive category, then I don’t want that.” He believes that we are all writers of certain categories: “People are always trying to simplify you, but I think categories are meant to be the start of a conversation.”
Díaz owns up to Drown as autobiographical. Oscar Wao, though, “was completely made up. None of the people exist, the settings were distorted.” This new collection is similar to Wao in that “it’s pretty much fantasy—it’s deeply personal, which means there is stuff that speaks to me, to my experience, like fucking up relationships, but I made up the actual events.” Díaz compares his writing to a painter learning to scale objects. “Your personal experiences allow you to scale on an emotional level. I use my own personal experiences as the guidelines, as a reference point.” When asked if he thinks writers feel more than the average person, Díaz says, “I don’t know because I’ve never lived in anyone else’s skin.” He believes writing is his calling, but says it’s hard for him. “I’ve always envied people that say, I couldn’t live without my writing, because I feel like, I wish I didn’t have this. But you cannot give back what you are—you cannot swap souls.”
At MIT, Díaz enjoys teaching writing “not to make writers, but because I think rhetoric should be one of our basic skills.” He also claims to be through with short stories and would like to write a novel next, about the end of the world, a topic he has always been interested in. “In the ’80s it was absolute guaranteed nuclear annihilation. I grew up on the idea of a world without a future.” But back to This Is How You Lose Her, and Díaz is philosophical. “I spent so much time writing this book, I wish it the best. You send it out into the world, and there is nothing else to do.”