Last updated: January 21, 2013 4:23 pm
The economy of love: an interview with Junot Díaz
TORONTO (CUP) — Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz has just released a new collection of short stories titled This Is How You Lose Her. The Strand sat down with him to discuss his new work.
The Strand: I want to start by asking about the epigraph to your latest collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her. First, it’s from a poem by Sandra Cisneros. I’m curious what your relationship is to her work specifically? As a writer? As a man? As a person of colour?
Diaz: As someone who is interested in writing about men, no one can inform you better than women of colour. I mean — who is at the sharp end of the knife of what we would call New World masculinity? When I think about Sandra Cisneros — listen, she was one of my foundational inspirations to be a writer and to be specifically a U.S. Latino writer the way that I am. Her books were very important, they set the benchmark; the benchmark of minimal courage. I think that you can’t come any weaker than Sandra Cisneros, and not that we come any braver — you can’t. But I think that’s where you’ve got to set the bar — then you just jump. And we all come beneath it but it’s worth trying.
The Strand: The epigraph seems to frame the text so well — it is almost like a call to something, an exhortation. There should be stars ... you know? It echoes this listless (and sometimes it seems doomed) search for love and intimacy that Yunior, who is this really contradictory character, is on. And to me, it feels like the epigraph and the central story “Otravida, Otravez” are mirroring or answering Yunior in a way. It’s like we get the other side of the story and that is really interesting since Yunior writes the story and isn’t present in it.
Diaz: I mean, yeah. The last story in the book reveals the metanarrative of the whole book which is that you suddenly realize that he [Yunior] is writing the book you just read. So yeah, all those kind of in-jokes about this book, this novel, like you said it takes on a double meaning.
The Strand: I’m interested in the imagined female voice that answers. Can you talk a bit about how you understand the ways that women of colour love? And how do we understand the epigraph and title and how they influence the ways we can read the book’s stories?
Diaz: It all depends on the level of participation that you want. One of the things that’s interesting about certainly my last two books is that they permit high level participation. They permit you to almost entirely restructure the book in, I think, fascinating ways. Which is to say that there’s room here for the reader to have an enormous amount of authority.
Now, of course there are ways to read this more [traditionally]. You could just read the book beginning to end and you just want to kind of kick back and not have to do a lot of work.
But for those who want to come in at a higher level, [by] which we don't mean superior, but just a level that requires more participation, there’s room for that too. And I think the question of how the women characters play out and are played out in this book changes depending on the level of your participation. I think there’s a way of thinking about the gap between how Yunior sees the women in this book versus how the book permits a reader to see them.
I think that what matters about the women characters in this book is that there is a gap between how Yunior views the women in his world and how the women or men that read this book can view these women. And I think that gap is really important. I mean, the big irony of the book is that he finally is able to see women correctly but the woman he wants to see isn’t present. Is that a failed strategy [on my part]? Perhaps. Every strategy that we take is a strategy because it can fail.
But it felt to me that what was important was to be incredibly honest to what I would call the traditional masculine view in a way that I think is excruciating. And I hope that the reader will see the ways that these women don’t fit these guys’ reductive, myopic view of them.
The Strand: It was excruciating. Your story “Nilda” in particular was hard to read for me.
Diaz: Why “Nilda” in particular?
The Strand: I don’t know, something about her character which I empathized with as a female was heartbreaking. She just seemed so sad, she really didn’t value herself at all anymore. And all of the sexual exploitation, too.
Diaz: Well no, I guess I understand that deeply. But I think that there is, I always feel, a very productive juxtaposition that I think it’s important to take a look at. Yunior and fucking Nilda begin in the exact same place.
The Strand: How so?
They’re from the same neighborhood. They’re probably from similar families, yeah? You discover that drug dealing is not a distant thing in Yunior’s family. They begin in pretty much the same exact place but gender plays its role. And suddenly you see at the end where this girl is like, you know, she’s still pushing forward in life. And Yunior is on his way to college.
And my sense of the story is that we sort of forget that in some ways this is a study of what happens with privilege and what happens with how the average masculine life is not about being constantly attacked for your sexuality. I mean, Nilda spends the entire time being preyed on because she has a pussy. And Yunior doesn’t spend his whole childhood being preyed on. And it gives him freedom.
But what’s fascinating, and again I point this out, is that Yunior bears witness to it. And the only reason you’re excruciated with it is because Yunior, instead of pretending like most guys that this is naturalized, bears witness.
I think the thing with Yunior is that he says he loves her. And think about what it must cost to bear witness to that. I’m not saying he’s worse than her but in some ways that story reveals the DNA of the book. This is a kid that in one way loves a lot of the women that he’s watching being destroyed and he’s participating in their destruction because he graduates from watching Nilda to doing that to other women.
The Strand: You said in an interview with Paula M.L Moya for the Boston Review that you wrote Yunior as this character on a quest for “decolonial love”. Can you talk a bit about what “decolonial love” is? I’m interested in how you define it, what it means to you, how you came to the idea and how we can move through the world carrying it out. How do you embody decolonial love?
Diaz: It’s a supremely academic definition. Which doesn’t mean it’s not useful. I think for me one of the things that happens at the most molar level is that as colonial subjects, as people who continue to endure the weight, the history, the possession, the haunting of colonization and the long term effects of that — to actually value your own identity matrix over whiteness — is a revolution.
And for a male in a heteronormative relationship to try to discover the ways that his masculinity has been organized vis-à-vis women of colour, is part of this colonial enterprise too. And then the horror of it is that in situations of love we usually run away from people who put us in conversation with ourselves.
As a person of colour, [when you date a white person], first of all you get rewarded both inside and outside of the community. Second of all, it’s like an escape psychologically because you’re the one who always has authority around issues of identity. This person can’t speak back to you.
Third of all, you can no longer be reminded of yourself. If you date somebody from your own group — which this is not an argument that people who date outside of their group are terrors. I'm not saying that. But part of this process is the colonial process.
When you’re looking at someone from your own group, you’re suddenly confronted with yourself and history and colonization in ways that these other things don’t bring up. Look, Yunior is an interesting guy because we encounter him dating a white girl. But Yunior is like, “This is not where I’m going.” And for a man of colour, that’s unheard of. What decolonial love is and how we pursue it is a conversation. And for me, my conversation engages some of these questions and practices.
The Strand: While he is the inheritor of this brand of misogyny that doesn’t really let him see women as full human beings, in a lot of ways Yunior also feels like a really decolonial character to me. He is into red-lipstick wearing, willful Latinas that take up as much space as they damn well please. You get the feeling that he doesn’t shrink away from powerful women. How does Yunior embody the contradictions that are a part of ‘decolonial love’?
Diaz: I think it’s more than a feeling. Yunior’s problem is that he likes strong women of colour who will find his ass out.
The Strand: So you think that’s decolonial?
Diaz: I absolutely think that. I mean, Yunior likes really fucking smart women. I think what’s interesting about his character is something that gets sort of skipped, which is that this motherfucker is a little bit — I don’t know I think that he’s — there are simpler ways to be a cheating asshole. Think about the women his brother favours. Rafa favours women who will not only put up with his abuse but who end up in these really fucked up codependent relationships.
Whereas the women that Yunior dates, they discover a transgression and they cut his fucking ass off. Where does he want to meet women? Like, where does he want to meet women of colour? Where does he want to meet Dominican women? He seems to want to meet them in a place that’s equitable. In a democratic space, you know?
The Strand: With respect to your upcoming book, Monstro, you said this during your interview with Paula M.L. Moya: “The whole reason I started writing this book is because of this image I have of this fourteen-year-old girl, a poor, black, Dominican girl, half-Haitian — one of the Island’s damnés — saving the world. It’s a book is about this girl’s search for — yes — love in a world that has made it its solemn duty to guarantee that poor, raced, conventionally unattractive girls like her are never loved.” Talk to me about that image you have. I am also interested in how this girl will inform a character like Yunior through the whole intertextuality thing. She is not from the same universe but can she been seen as a complement to the ways in which Yunior is also excluded (and excludes himself ) from love?
Diaz: [All of] my projects so far have been explicitly about how intimacy — so difficult to attain and so difficult to withstand — is in many ways the home that one must build for one’s self. We have Oscar pursuing love against all the prescriptions of a kind of toxic masculinity, yeah? We have Yunior trying to find love in a parallel story. Oscar Wao is trying to find love, courage despite dictatorship, and Yunior is trying to find love [on] a smaller scale. We see Yunior in the first book attempting to find what we would call familial love. Love of how does a family come together across fucking diaspora. So it’s no accident that here comes, hopefully, part four. You know there are these “love laws”, to quote Arundhati Roy, that have been produced in a world that is overwhelmingly white supremacist. Whether it’s in our own community or it’s coming from outside, white supremacy rules supreme. And there is an ecology of love. There’s an economy of love. Some people are at the top and some people are at the bottom. Sure, there’s stuff that happens in between but no matter what as a dude, however low you are set on that scale, there’s always a girl set lower than you.
Hopefully there’ll be more of a textual connection because the girl in question is Isis, Lola’s daughter. You know, the daughter that Lola has at the end of Oscar Wao. The daughter that Yunior wishes was his, yeah? She’s named Isis. My joke in my mind is that this is Isis on Earth 3, in an alternate universe. What happens when the person who's being asked to save the world is the person who the world has spent all its time hating? What is the obligation of that person to this world?
The Strand: You seem to hold the genres of fantasy and science fiction close to your heart. I know you’re a huge fan of Octavia Butler. Talk to me about the potential that genre holds for you as a writer. You’ve been critical of the coded allegorical racism in Tolkien’s work in the past, but do you see the genres as holding the potential to be subversive?
Diaz: No question. I mean, you don’t need to hear that from me. Critics have been doing that work now for decades. I think there’s no question. I think there’s a lot of confusion around the discussion about mainstream writers getting involved in genre type work.
The Strand: How so?
Diaz: Well because I think that [there’s] difference between being a genre writer versus being a mainstream writer who dips into genre. And I think that we have to be really careful about the way privilege works from writers who are “in the genre” versus writers who in some way have mainstream legitimacy. And how we get fucking standing ovations for doing work that genre writers have been doing for decades and no one gives a fuck about them. I think we cannot have a discussion about the way genre works in mainstream and slipstream without the word privilege.
But the answer to your question is simply yes. Part of the reason Oscar Wao works for me is because I deploy the metaphors of the fantastic to make up the distance that realism cannot cover. I think that realism has failed to describe the Caribbean experience. Realism has failed to describe fucking Trujillo. It has failed to describe these kinds of dictatorships. But by deploying fantastic metaphors, I would argue that I’ve gotten closer to describing this reality and that people who do [this] get closer to describing reality.
I feel like Toni Morrison, when she’s fantastic, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is a better description for me of what it means to be of African descent in the New World than any realistic book. And that’s [also] why I can’t exist without Octavia Butler. She is the compass which guides me around the world. Not that realism doesn’t have its role, I live and die in realism. But I can’t find myself or the world without the fantastic.