You might know writer Junot Diaz from his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao," or his first collection of stories, "Drown," published in 1996.
Now Diaz is back with a new collection of short stories that took him 16 years to finally complete. The collection, "This is How You Lose Her," deals with the themes of love, love lost, family and the immigrant experience, plus it includes a narrator that Diaz fans will recognize, Yunior De Las Casas.
Diaz joined Madeleine today to talk about his newest collection of stories and which parts were mined from his own experience as a young immigrant man tackling societal contradictions of masculinity.
Madeleine Brand: These are not fairytale versions of love … Why was this the focus of this collection?
Junot Diaz: I am always more interested in the human version of any story. I kind of have has sort of had front-row seats to a lot of my friends' relationships, and the way they describe those relationships have no bearing on the reality on what I saw and even what they perceived. I guess a part of the thinks there is something beautiful about our kind of flawed, messy loves than our fairytales ones.
MB: We tell ourselves stories to do what?
JD: Why do we always tell ourselves stories? To comfort, sometimes to avoid responsibility. Certainly the narrator in these stories, Yunior, tells himself a lot of stuff that really isn't all that honest. I think he likes to duck from things, which in the end you can only duck so long.
MB: Is Yunior your alter ego?
JD: I guess he's the most productive alter-ego I've ever created. Yunior's such a screw up and such a blockhead and such a dumbass, he allows me to explore a lot of themes that I enjoy and that I'm interested in.
MB: In yourself, you mean?
JD: Not only in myself, I guess there's only so far narcissism can go, I have interests that exist in a social dimension, so I'm interested in masculinity, I'm interested in patriarchy, I'm interested in how boys from a certain kind of background wrestle with the contradictions in their lives, which is on the one hand they're told never to be vulnerable, and on the other hand to be in love one has to be vulnerable.
MB: The story "Invierno," is about Yunior's father. In it you say, "I didn't know what to make of him a father is a hard thing to compass"
JD: I think that's probably the most autobiographical sentence I have written ... I met my father really for the first time when I was 6 and he was in the United States working the rest of that time and suddenly he shows up and everybody's like, 'This is your dad. You've never really met him before, you don't know him, but this is your dad and you have to act like you've known him your whole life,' and that's a very big jump for a kid. I was in Santo Domingo.
MB: He had gone to the United States for a better life?
JD: Well, gosh, isn't that what we tell ourselves? I think partially he went for a better life, partially he went to escape the post-dictatorship craziness that was happening in Santo Domingo … We didn't go to Washington Heights or The Bronx, sometimes I think it would have been better had we. We went straight to Central Jersey, my beloved second home.
MB: Is the story "Invierno" really your story?
JD: Well you know how you are as a fiction writer you sort of look around and you have the same sets, you've got all these clothes, you've got these characters, and you say well let me just use all of these things that are familiar with me, but sort of reconfigure them into strange combinations. So I feel like there's a lot of that story that comes out of my life, but there's a lot that's invented too. A whole lot … I guess the true parts are London Terrace, I guess the true parts is the Winter, I guess the true parts is meeting a dad for the first time, and I guess all the other stuff if made up.
MB: The dad in this book is abusive and kind of hard to love.
JD: He's a super lightweight version of my dad, my family members would look at this character and say, 'wow you made up a lot.' I think I made him nothing like my real dad. My read dad would be a very difficult person to write about right now. My dad is a very difficult person. I don't have enough fiction to communicate what a difficult individual he was. I think right now its easier for me to write about made up difficult men than to really begin to communicate his sharpness and his real authoritarian lunacies.
MB: What does your father think of your success?
JD: I have no idea, I think one of the things me and my five siblings have in common is none of have any contact with our father…I have heard rumors that he's alive.
MB: Did he leave you when you were young?
JD: Yeah I was 12, so I knew him for about six years. I grew up with my mom, I think to this day she's never had a day off. She's one of those women who really they carry the weight of the entire world on their back. She's an extraordinary individual that way.
MB: Did you think of your mother when writing "Otravida, Otravez"?
JD: Strangely enough, and you'd have to be a real grad student nerd to see it, the story is about the woman who, Yunior's father, almost ran off on the family, so the father character, his name's Ramon, the woman is The Other Woman, and in fact I wasn't thinking of my mother I was thinking of the father character's other woman and the narrator Yunior, his attempt to imagine the woman who put his family most at risk. But certainly I was thinking of that generation of Dominican immigrants who came over and just broke themselves trying to make things better for their kids.
MB: In this book, men don't treat women very well...
JD: You're a woman, what would you grade American men on an A through F of their universal treatment of women? I think they would be lucky to get an F. So I guess, my question is, as a writer would I be seen as even remotely being honest or remotely being relevant if there wasn't sort of a critical view on masculinity.
MB: Do you consider yourself a part of that?
JD: I wouldn't write if I wasn't. I think if these stories have any power, if they reach anyone, I think it would have to do with my attempt to sort of point at the world by first pointing through myself.
MB: You were writing this during the time you were writing your novel...The novel is a lot different than this...
JD: This was a parallel project. I was just interested. I was always told when I was growing up and I would read "boy" books, "boy" books would always have romance and love as like the 4th thing, there were always three things happening before it. I kinda wanted to do a boy book where romance and love was #1. Even if the boys were failing at it. It wasn't about them running off to war or some sort of big drama at the level of nation. I sort of wanted to write a small perverse domestic love drama from the point of view of a Dominican male slut.
MB: There's something about the story of your writing style…I feel that reading these stories is more like reading about your real life...
JD: I think that as a fiction writers, one of the things that happens is we're so aware of how people read. I don't write because I know a lot about writing, I write because I know a lot about readers. Readers and my experience as a reader is we're always jumping to the immediate conclusion that, 'oh, this must have happened,' especially if its good, especially if its really. Especially if it somehow has a parallel to the writer's life. We dream that its incredibly real. As authors, that the line we love to play with, I love to encourage these ideas in people. I want people to confuse this story for real because it allows them to do extra work that I don't have to do. When you import this authoritative sense that there's something true about this, that makes my work all the easier to convince you that this is true.
Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author