Sometimes you come across a book that is completely different from what you’d normally pick up. In this case, I had just finished a book and was having commitment issues about picking a new book when my co-worker, Amara, recommended Junot Diaz’s recent collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her. The collection traces “the haunting, impossible power of love–obsessive love, illicit love, fading love, maternal love” (Amazon.com), mainly (though not all) from the perspective of Yunior, a semi-autobiographical recurring character in Diaz’s work. Yunior, like Diaz, graduated from Rutgers and is deeply connected with the Dominican immigrant community and the Dominican American experience.
Diaz burst onto the scene in 2008 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He is a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, a professor of creative writing at MIT, and fiction editor at the Boston Review. He is an “It” author, a creator of contemporary classics. To read Junot Diaz is to cultivate literary cache.
Yet Diaz’s writing is exactly the opposite of what you might expect. His writing is visceral, gritty, vulgar, and real, the language of the people, whomever those people might be. He is a proponent of diversity in writing and shifting the perception of “Literature with a capital L” away from being just that written by “white, straight males.” (For a glimpse of his thoughts on this issue, his syllabus for his undergrad creative writing courses at MIT, and the source of these quotes, check out this article from Salon.) This Is How You Lose Her absolutely emphasizes that focus on diversity and authentic voice. At the same time, there is music to his writing, a rhythm and melody that feel like a modern incarnation of the Latin Caribbean oral and song tradition, winding their way through the Dominican slang and Spanglish phrases that are peppered throughout the narrative. It’s yin and yang, staccato and lyrical, urban and island, literary and colloquial. It’s gorgeously lush and uncomfortably harsh, beautifully and painfully capturing the universally human elements of love through the individual experiences of a specific community.
Diaz’s masterful creation and manipulation of language aside, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book. I certainly didn’t dislike it. I felt enriched by my first experience reading Diaz, his status as a modern master certainly deserved, and by reading something so completely outside of my reading comfort zone. It pushed me out of that box that I unconsciously cling to when selecting my next book. I connected with the characters’ commonalities, empathized when I could and sympathized when I couldn’t, and marveled at the intricate interconnected nature of the stories. But I didn’t enjoy it.
The reviews call it “funny”, “comic”, “comedic”. Amara said it was a lovely book of humorous love stories. The truth is, it just made me sad. The entire thing was weighed down with a weariness and a resigned acceptance of these characters depressing lots in life. It was beautifully sad, but still sad. So maybe I just didn’t get it. I don’t know. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. You should. You absolutely should. Diaz is a powerful voice in the literary world, one who will be profoundly important for years to come, and this is a great introduction to his work.