'The Baseline Is, You Suck': Junot Diaz on Men Who Write About Women

A conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author about his new book, This Is How You Lose Her

Junot Diaz

The stories in Junot Diaz's new collection, This Is How You Lose Her, tread some familiar territory. Unfolding in Bergen County barrios and on Santo Domingo beaches, they feature fast-talking Dominicans (from there, from here) struggling against the pinions of racial prejudice, poverty, and immigrant status. But the specific focus on romantic relationships is new for Diaz. Each story depicts the complex negotiations between men and women held in thrall by the thrill or ravages of love, the lure and pathos of betrayal.

Eight of the nine stories here are narrated by Yunior de Las Casas, the poet and career philanderer whose acerbic silver tongue spoke Diaz's first two books. But This Is How You Lose Her is a long way from the cocksure swagger of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2006). Yunior's older now, more contrite and desperate and vulnerable, and his cheating's catching up with him. "I'm not a bad guy," he tells us in the first sentence of the book. Like the excuses and alibis he slips his jilted lovers, it's a lie he badly needs us to believe.

The guiding irony of This Is How You Lose Her is that Yunior never does lose his women—not fully. Even after the cheating, the screaming and hair-pulling, the train-wreck breakups, Yunior's exes haunt him in visceral ways: "The half-life of love is forever," he confesses in the book's final epic "The Cheater's Guide to Love." There's a paradox here—loss can have a permanence love rarely attains. In this light, each story is a shrine to the women who, because of his own limitations, Yunior loves most earnestly, and most loyally, in hindsight.

Two questions underlie the propulsive energy of this book: Why does Yunior scuttle his relationships as soon as they hit full sail? And who are these women really? They're never fully visible in the narrator's machismo, anatomical confessions. I discussed these and other questions with the author, who spoke to me by phone from Harlem.

How long have you been working on these stories? What's the oldest? The newest?

When I was working on Drown—this was way back in the mid-'90s—I had this idea that I wanted to do another collected stories. I wanted to do another book like Drown that focused specifically on infidelity. Male infidelity was something that kept coming up in Drown, and I wanted to follow my main protagonist Yunior in his progress through cheating. It grew into the idea for this book.

That was in the mid-'90s, and then it took absolutely forever to get the damn thing done.

So Drown and This Is How You Lose Her are, in a sense, sister projects.

Yeah. They definitely had their geneses at the same moment.

Sometimes writers write stories and realize themes or common threads much later. It sounds like you took the opposite approach: You wrote many of these stories with an eventual collection already in mind.

Oh, I would say all the stories I wrote with this collection in mind.

Why does cheating make such compelling subject matter?

Well... there's just something spectacular about it. There's a bit of a spectacle to it. It also ties into what I would call our "neighborly narrative interests"—who's fucking who, and who's up to what.

People are always fascinated by infidelity because, in the end—whether we've had direct experience or not—there's part of you that knows there's absolutely no more piercing betrayal. People are undone by it. Love is understood, in a historical way, as one of the great human vocations—but its counterspell has always been infidelity. This terrible, terrible betrayal that can tear apart not only another person, not only oneself, but whole families.

In the archaic record, this idea of infidelity is elevated to a national level: In The Iliad, we see this kind of treachery tear apart nations. And I think anyone who's ever been betrayed like that certainly feels a little bit of the Troy in them. When your heart gets torn to bits, it feels like a nation being torn to bits.

So there's the epic scale, but then it's so extraordinarily intimate. I think that the combination is really a brilliant one-two punch.

How would you describe the maturation process that Yunior undergoes throughout the book? In the early stories, his cheating stems from brute, simple lust—but by the end of the book his betrayals are far more complicated.

And just to add one final wrinkle, in [his ability to imagine] the consequences of what he used to consider just flippant activity. I mean, you read the last story in the collection: It's almost impossible to look back at the earlier stories that are played for laughs without wincing. I think that was one of the effects that I was looking for. God knows if it works. You know, you try.

To talk about Yunior is to talk about an individual that fascinates me, because he's aware that his various decisions block his ability to be in a real relationship. Part of what drives Yunior in the novel Oscar Wao—and it's never really stated, but it's at the margins of the book throughout—is that Yunior has a fascination with Oscar because Oscar permits himself, despite the fact that he has no hope in succeeding, to be utterly vulnerable to the possibility of love. Oscar consistently thrusts himself, places himself, openly, in the hands of other people. In the hands of the women that he thinks he loves and who always reject him. Yunior is fascinated by this because he himself is never able to take off any of the armor, or any of the masks, that a person has to completely take off to expose themselves to the vulnerability of love.

Yunior is often betraying the women who he cares most about—choosing women he doesn't love over the ones he does. Why?

There's a point when you're with somebody in a relationship where the decision comes down to their love or your mask. And by "the mask," we mean your terror in exposing yourself, your terror in making yourself vulnerable to this other person. I think Yunior's tragedy in a number of places in this book is that he keeps choosing his mask. Sometimes he does it compulsively, sometimes he's unaware. But it grows on him that he plays at relationships.

Being in love means you actually have to be in the game. And to be in the game means that you have to actually risk losing, right? It's not a game if you can't lose. It's something else. And I think Yunior likes to pretend that he's in the game. But really he's not. Really, he can't lose. He's always got some other girls up the way. He's always got something going on.

I always joked that Yunior was the guy who you think is stranded out in the open sea with you, but he's got a life vest tucked between his legs.

What's ironic about This Is How You Lose Her, though, is that Yunior never really doeslose these women—not fully. They continue to haunt him. It's almost as though he leaves them in such awful, heart-wrenching ways because it somehow ensures they'll be with him forever.

But this is the problem with such a dumbass. He doesn't get it! What you just said is absolutely the tragedy. That in the end, brother, in the end—the closest that he can come to being faithful is in ministering the loss. In that loss they are permanently frozen in a certain kind of relationship. But it's so empty; it's so non-fulfilling.

I think that once you get over the age of 20, you begin to understand that there's a lot of places where you can fall in and they are just locations of stases. Locations of paralysis. Places where there's no growth. And whether it's a job, whether it's a way that you decide to pursue your life, whether it's a philosophy, whether it's a politic, we all know in our hearts when we're choosing paralysis. When we're choosing the dead zone over life. Yunior is one of these characters. I think that in some ways the closest he can come to love is after it's fucking gone past and it's only a shadow blasted in the wall. Then he'll come every day and bring flowers to it.

In Oscar Wao, but also in these stories, there's something your characters are always saying about Dominican men: "Oh, Domican men. You know what they're like." Incapable of loyalty. What does it say about a culture when it supplies its men with this self-fulfilling myth of fallibility? How does that play into these stories?

For me, I always joke around when I think about the way that the conversations around Dominican men unfold. That in some ways, it's a blind. It's really just a way to talk about masculinity in general. It's like Dominican men are this larger metaphor for a specific kind of masculinity, which is in many ways general.

If you were able to bring in the women of any culture, like, if you brought in all American women, and said, "Hey! Would you recommend American men?" You would not get many votes. You would not hear them saying, "Oh yeah, American men, they're wonderful. All that child support we get." All that child support we don't get, I mean. "How many of us are battered and are in fucking shelters?"

One of the things that feminism in the Dominican Republic has been able to do is to state the obvious of any culture—which is that these dudes are privileged in ways that make them really fucked up vis-à-vis women. In the U.S., you get that, but you get it in such an obscured, cloudy way. In Santo Domingo, they make it real clear. They're like, "Listen, I can't speak about Bolivia. I can't speak about Argentina. I can't speak for Canada. But Dominican men fucking are crazy." This is a bracing bit of honesty. If the American experience wasn't so universalized in that imperial sense, where we think of ourselves as the default mode, I think a lot of American women would be willing to make that categorical jump and say, "Those American dudes are fucking nuts, man."

And then, in a way, I think people like Yunior are so self-perceived. I don't think Dominican men hear these things and think it applies to them. When they hear stories about Dominican men, they're like, "Well, even if I'm a cheater, I know I'm not that kind of a cheater." It's a statement that has been more useful for the women as a category of analysis than for the men as a banner of identity.

I notice that you use the second-person voice in many of these stories. Why are you so drawn to the second person as a narrative vehicle?

There is something about the second-person—maybe simultaneous distance and cloying familiarity—that I kind of needed. I don't know what it was. It was as if I just couldn't tell the story without this point of view. I couldn't tell the story without that kind of distance. There was a part of me that needed that to make these stories unfold. I still don't understand it. It's almost like it wouldn't work without it. To be honest, when it comes down to it, I prefer the first person. The first person is far easier for me. It's far more natural. It's far more human. It's less, I would say, fashioned.

There is one story in the collection, "Otravida, Otravez," that's narrated from a female character's point of view. This intelligent, sensitive voice arises from the sea of male misogyny. Does the story serve a wedge function in the collection, reminding the reader of Yunior's narrative limitations?

I wonder. The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck. 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.

To address your question more directly, the hope, of course, was to see the life—to see this kind of experience from as many angles as possible. When you have a fragmented, linked collection, you've got to get your depth and you've got to get your Rashomon effects—this idea of looking at your material from different angles. You have to in many ways take shortcuts because you don't have the same amount of room you have with a novel. You just don't. The thing about a linked collection is you get certainly a lot more room than with a standard anthology but you don't have the same kind of generous breadth that the standard novel provides. So you have to look for all kind of strategic shortcuts. For me, one of the ways that I was attempting to allude to a more profound vision of the wrestling between men and women across love was through that story.

It sounds like you're saying that literary "talent" doesn't inoculate a write—especially a male writer—from making gross, false misjudgments about gender. You'd think being a great writer would give you empathy and the ability to understand people who are unlike you—whether we're talking about gender or another category. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

I think that unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations. Without fail. The only way not to do them is to admit to yourself [that] you're fucked up, admit to yourself that you're not good at this shit, and to be conscious in the way that you create these characters. It's so funny what people call inspiration. I have so many young writers who're like, "Well I was inspired. This was my story." And I'm like, "OK. Sir, your inspiration for your stories is like every other male's inspiration for their stories: that the female is only in there to provide sexual service." There comes a time when this mythical inspiration is exposed for doing exactly what it's truthfully doing: to underscore and reinforce cultural structures, or I'd say, cultural asymmetry.

So how do get away from that? Especially in a collection that delves so deeply into misogyny, and yet also tries to give the female characters dignity?

Each story is always such a particular little animal and it requires its own strategy. I think that much is gained in a self-conscious approach. Much is gained by admitting one's limitations, by seeking help around those limitations. As a writer, I believe that if I have had any success, it's because I always turn to my female friends and say, "What do you think about these women characters? What do you think? What could we do with them? What's going on with this stuff?"

There's an enormous resource for any male writer—and they're called women. This is not fucking rocket science. There's so many feminists out there who have created simple little rules, like Alison Bechdel. She has this hilarious movie test about women in movies. It's a simple three rules. A movie has to have at least 1) two named women in it, 2) who talk to each other, about 3) something besides a man. Do you want to know how many fucking movies don't pass that test?

This is how limited we're talking. We're talking about the average movie does not have two named women characters in it who talk to each other about something other than a man. We're not talking about trying to go up from a B- to a B. We're trying to bring people up from a 2 to like a 50.

Can you think of any female writers whose male characters strike you as especially well-drawn?

I think the average woman writes men just exceptionally well. That's just the way it works. You look at Anne Enright. She's a monster. Writes fucking dudes like nobody's fucking business. She's a fucking monster. You look at somebody like Maile Meloy. Fucking writes dudes. A beast. Jesmyn Ward, who wrote Salvage the Bones? A beast! Just powerful. Look at Toni Morrison's male characters.

Even look at the young adult books. Look how well the boys are rendered in The Hunger Games. Again, as a male, I feel that women bring us over the finish line. I could recognize the males. These are fucking human beings.

Men who write women well?

I think that in some of his earlier books, Haruki Murakami did fantastic women. Sometimes a little bananas, but I think that he did a very good job. Sputnik Sweetheart is a book where it's like—wow. You're taken aback. This is some good shit.

Or do you know the writer Michel Faber who wrote The Crimson Petal and the White? That book is fantastic! That's someone else who I think did a very nice job with his male characters. I think women reward him for them. It's a really popular book.

Your character Yunior is a writer, which is a funny choice for someone with such extreme empathy problems. But maybe it's appropriate. Is an essential project of fiction to broaden one's empathy for people who are unlike you, to broaden your ability to imagine what it's like to be someone else?

In some ways Yunior has to write. In other words to write a fucking good book you don't need lots of talent; what you need is more humanity. Yunior becomes very aware that part of what he lacks both in a relationship as a lover and perhaps even as an artist, what he lacks is not training, not will, but humanity, or what we would call sympathy or compassion.