The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's new collection takes an honest, critical—and sometimes unsettling—look at gender dynamics.
Yunior de Las Casas—narrator of many of the stories in Junot Diaz's new collection, This Is How You Lose Her—is capable of great turns of phrase and stunning social insight. But his understanding of women is—as Diaz told me in an interview by phone—"pretty fucking limited." Take, for instance, his description of Miss Lora, an aging seductress and high school teacher:
"Miss Lora was too skinny. Had no hips whatsoever. No breasts, either, no ass, even her hair failed to make the grade."
This isn't a description of a person so much as a mental checklist of physical attributes, a man scoping a woman's dimensions the way a butcher might rove his eye over a calf. The book is filled with similar descriptions; Yunior lavishes time on chronicles of body parts and erotic hydraulics. At the same time, he spends little space engaging with the emotional lives of female characters—their motivations, complications, and desires; their reasons for entering and leaving relationships; the psychological effects of his wounding betrayals. It's almost as though Yunior doesn't have the depth to contemplate a female psychology, let alone make one real for a third party. And when he does directly address the reader—like when he tells us Nilda, his brother's girlfriend, has "a chest you wouldn't believe"—he assumes we're high-fiving heterosexual males (just like he is).
This failure of imagination worsens Yunior's mistreatment of his romantic partners, whom he betrays serially and without flinching.
But Yunior's cavalier descriptions of the way he dupes and wounds these women are at odds with the sadness he feels when they find out. Diaz writes that this despair is "pelagic," sea-like in scope, and the feeling only deepens with time. Part of the heartbreak of this book is watching Yunior make the same self-destructive decisions again and again—and still he lacks the insight or vocabulary to understand why he feels so blown away. We feel it in the way he mourns: Yunior loves these women, and he would do anything to keep them if only he knew how.
The book, then, is the story of late-blooming empathy, a long path towards gender enlightenment. We only see Yunior's dawning awareness of his subjectivity on the final pages of the book, in an epic called "The Cheater's Guide to Love"; otherwise, Diaz's commits fully to his chauvinistic method-acting. That's what makes This Is How You Lose Her such a brave and risky book. How can an author write so convincingly from the perspective of a machismo cad and still write a book that is not itself sexist?
Diaz has walked this line before: In Drown, his 1996 debut short-story collection, and in 2007's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He told me that sometimes people—usually women—lambaste him at his readings and public appearances.
"There's plenty of people out there who are like, 'Fuck you. You are endorsing this shit. Your portrayal of women is fucked up,'" he told me. "It happens all the time."
But then, there are women who defend his portrayals as honest, brave, and sufficiently complex. "They'll argue the exact opposite," Diaz said. (It's worth noting that men seldom ask questions about women at all, according to Diaz. "Rarely do I get dudes who want to talk gender," Diaz told me. "That's the strange thing about privilege.")
How can a book's portrayal of women be praised and criticized at the same time? Part of it may stem from Diaz's unflinching authorial vision, which requires giving voice to the silenced victims of history and of our moment. But Oscar Wao's many scenes of brutal violence, including rape, required a strong stomach. As a one-star GoodReads review of the book, written by a woman, explained:
"I recognize the literary abilities of Junot Diaz. The book is well-written; the language hypnotic in fact. This book, for all the things that bothered me, is hard to put down.
So, the one star rating is more of a reaction to the emotional upheaval this book left me with. I just can't get behind a book so completely misogynistic. And I don't know the author's intent, and I'm afraid I don't know nearly enough about Dominican history as I should, but I was just left really quite devastated by it.
Women are objects in this novel. Objects for men to own, to destroy, to collect as many as they can. Almost every female character in the novel is cheated on, raped, attacked, beaten or murdered; sometimes more than once, sometimes all five. And while I understand the violence of the Dominican Republic during the time of Trujillo, I guess what pisses me off is the flippancy with which the narrator talks about it...
I'm not necessarily offended by these things being written about in this way...if there's a point. Perhaps a scathing commentary about the misogyny in Dominican society. But he doesn't get there and I was left with so much anger and confusion."
I disagree with the commenter's remark about Oscar Wao's "flippancy." To me, Yunior's sometimes-wry tone serves to blunt scenes that might otherwise be unreadable for their horror. But some of the reviewer's criticisms, that women are depicted as "objects" and that they are "cheated on," are applicable to This Is How You Lose Her—and I'll admit that Yunior, this time around, is a flippant raconteur. How do we discern a "scathing commentary" from something that's just sexist?
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Diaz said he wrote the book, in part, to acknowledge the deep sexism that pervades our culture but frequently remains unaddressed. He admits that, by tackling the topic head-on, he risks writing a book that is perceived as sexist (or is sexist). But he quoted a favorite line from James Baldwin: "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." In this light, Diaz feels he has a moral obligation to reckon with male privilege. "I think the average guy thinks they're pro-woman, just because they think they're a nice guy and someone has told them that they're awesome," he said. "But the truth is far from it. Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations."
The problem and paradox is that Diaz must allow for accusations of sexism in order for his work to read like art. If it's too clear what his feelings are, if an agenda or platform asserts itself, then the story's worth as literature is diminished.
"If it's too brute and too obvious," Diaz said, "then it becomes allegorical, becomes a parable, becomes kind of a moral tale. You want to make it subtle enough so that there are arguments like this." The value of literature, then, comes from presenting readers with morally ambiguous situations and letting them react. "For kind of sophisticated art I'm interested in," he said, "the larger structural rebuke has to be so subtle that it has to be distributed at an almost sub-atomic level. Otherwise, you fall into the kind of preachy, moralistic fable that I don't think makes for good literature."
Still, there are clues about the author's alignment. In This Is How You Lose Her, Diaz cites the fact that Yunior's behavior results in persistent unhappiness. "All of Yunior's fucked-up visions of women never get him anything," Diaz told me. "They end up with him more alone, more frustrated, more aware of his dehumanization and farther away from the thing that he deeply longs for—a human connection." The narratives in no way reward Yunior's perspective; in fact, they serve to undermine and subvert it (just not in obvious ways).
Perhaps the author's stance is clearest in "Otravida, Otravez," one of the collection's most affecting and successful stories. The story achieves an abrupt shift in perspective: It's narrated by a Dominican-American woman named Yasmin whose boyfriend's wife stayed behind in Santo Domingo. When Yasmin discovers the wife's pleading letters, she must question her role in a family's dissolution: Please, please, mi querido husband, tell me what it is. How long did it take before your wife stopped mattering?
The language becomes more brooding and gentle in this story. By displaying his stylistic range, Diaz reminds us just how subjective Yunior's brutishness is. Furthermore, Yasmin's portrayal veers drastically from the butt-waist-bust women who populate Yunior's stories. She's sensitive, capable of stunning insight and self-reflection, but she isn't perfect or romanticized. Her crime, betrayal, is Yunior's, and her participation is similarly complex. Ultimately, she is able to do what Yunior can't—achieve empathy for someone else. Another woman leaps from a stack of letters, full-blown, into her mind, and it causes her to change her life.
Still, Diaz admits that writing in a woman's voice comes with certain risks. "The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck," he told me. "The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women's representations of men are. For me, I always want to do better. I wish I had another 10 years to work those muscles so that I can write better women characters. I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am."
For one of the most lauded writers of his generation to say he needs another decade of practice to write better women is no small thing. But Diaz told me that he's often appalled by the portrayals of women in celebrated novels.
"I know from my long experience of reading," he said, "that the women characters that dudes [write] make no fucking sense for the most part. Not only do they make no sense, they're introduced just for sexual function."
He gave a high-profile example, though he wouldn't name names.
"There's a book that came out recently from a writer I admire enormously. A woman character gets introduced. I said, 'I promise you, this girl is just here to throw herself at the dude, even though the dude has done nothing, nothing, to merit or warrant a woman throwing herself at him.' And lo and behold. This brilliant young American writer, that everybody sort of considers the god of American writing, turns around and does exactly that. When I asked my female friends, we all had a little gathering, and I was chatting. I was like, 'Have you heard of a woman doing this?' They're like, 'Are you fucking nuts?'"
On the other hand, Diaz said, "I think the average woman writes men just exceptionally well." He cited Anne Enright, Maile Meloy, and Jesmyn Ward as examples of younger writers who write great male characters—and pointed to two of his idols, Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison, as timeless masters. But he also detects an across-the-board improvement even in woman-penned books that are less than high-brow, especially in Young Adult fiction. "Look how well the boys are rendered in The Hunger Games," he said.
Do women agree with this analysis—that it's easier for women to write male characters than vice-versa? For insight, I turned to Yiyun Li, author of The Vagrants, who I felt could provide a perfect counterview. Like Diaz, she's a foreign-born American (she's from China) who writes about immigrant experience; she's also written two celebrated story collections and one prize-winning novel; and she's also been a "20 under 40" author for The New Yorker. Most importantly, Li is a writer whose male characters have often struck me as eerily lifelike.
"I always loved writing male characters," she said. "Often times I feel they come very naturally to me. Probably more naturally than female characters, though I'm trying to catch up."
Li said that making the characters different from herself gives her more latitude to invent and get to know them. She cited the character who's most different from herself—Teacher Fei from "A Man Like Him," a pedophile who once seduced his female students. In order to write him, she had to cultivate a deep empathy—to come, in a way, to love him, she said. The stark contrast opened a door for further exploration.
But she also said she feels that some of the differences between male and female characters are "superficial." "When I write about men, after a while I forget that they're men," she said. "At some point I think you cross a line, and it doesn't matter. They just become your characters." In fact, she thought that writers fail most painfully when they're too "conscientious" about accounting for author-character gender differences. "When people are too conscious about writing from an opposite gender, that's when the characters feel artificial," she said.
Li acknowledges that, like Diaz, she's encountered many flat female characters, but also thinks it's important to note failings on the other side. "You also see men being turned into monsters, or jokes," she said. "I get really upset when any character is turned into a two-dimensional character."
She did cite two men who write women beautifully, in her estimation. First, the Swiss writer, Peter Stamm—"You wonder how he understands women so well." And Li said the Irish short story master William Trevor seems to sometimes write women more cannily than some women can. She named "The Dancing Master's Music," a story in which Trevor channels a 17-year-old maid, as a shining example of cross-gender narration's possibilities.
Still, Li acknowledged that Diaz faces some challenges she herself does not. She noted that he writes mostly first-person narratives, and that readers are less likely to confuse character and author intent in the third-person stories she writes. Also that a certain amount of baggage comes along with being a male writer: "Mary Gaitskill can get away with things that Junot cannot," she said. "It's sort of the opposite of the injustice of gender." Finally, she agreed that controversy and criticism are not always signs of failure—in fact, they can suggest the opposite. "In a way, it speaks to [Diaz's] craft if readers do get upset about it," she said. "It's like if you're an actor, and you act a villain so well that people hate you forever."
On the last page This Is How You Lose Her, the finale of "The Cheater's Guide to Love," we finally see a change in Yunior. He flips through The Doomsday Book, his nickname for a folder sent to him by his ex-fiancée. He's kept it "hidden under [his] bed," away from the reader, and from himself; it's the first time we learn about it. The folder contains "copies of all the e-mails and photos from the cheating days, the ones the ex-found and compiled and mailed to you a month after she ended it."
He goes through the whole archive, twice. And he admits that he is cowardly and scared and small. He admits he has lied and hurt. He admits—for the first time in the book, even though "it kills" him—that his ex was right to go.
This is the starting point, this is the baseline. Yunior begins then, as he has tried and failed for months, to write. He scrawls out a terse confession:
The half-life of love is forever.
The women he has loved and lost are in him eternally, like radiation; their cast shadows will only grow, like cancer. And he is sorry.