JUNOT DIAZ’S LITERARY STAR keeps rising. In the past two weeks, The New York Times featured Díaz in their Sunday A&E section, the cover of its Sunday Book Review, and last week in its magazine section replete with pages from his notebooks. Earlier this year, he had three stories in The New Yorker – two that appear in his new collection and another perchance a chapter from a new work in progress. This Is How You Lose Her is currently on the Times top ten-fiction bestseller list. The book’s launch in New York City drew a wraparound crowd of nearly 1000. And last week, Díaz received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
I first met Junot Díaz ten years ago at what is now Texas State University in San Marcos. He was a guest of its Creative Writing program headed by Tom Grimes and visiting his friend and fellow writer Dagoberto Gilb. I was then book editor of the San Antonio Express-News. That evening Díaz read from a work in progress, Monstro – a sci-fi tale set in the Dominican Republic. Over dinner, our conversation centered on two Dominican actors that had made it in Hollywood: Maria Montez and Rafael Campos. Junot had heard about but never seen Montez’s cult film Cobra Woman (1944) and Campos’ scene-stealing role as a Latino teen in Blackboard Jungle (1955). At the time, neither film was on video, but I had taped both off a cable network. I later sent Díaz VHS copies. He thanked me with a bottle of fine Dominican rum.
Reading Díaz is to discover a new voice in American lit that continually amazes as it informs, his text a vast storehouse of literary references, footnotes, and genre-bending throwaways. His groundbreaking use of Spanish without italics or translation is deeply refreshing to Latino readers, as it is to any reader who recognizes it as part and parcel to the bilingual Latino experience. In This is How You Lose Her, Díaz’s protagonist is Yunior – previously introduced in his story collection Drown and again as a witness and a narrator in Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior narrates eight of its nine stories in This is How You Lose Her. Readers discover he is a writer of fiction and a self-referential alter ego for Díaz. The unconventional telling of Yunior’s story, moving as it does from first person to second person POV, is not unlike Travis Bickle staring in the mirror saying, “You talking to me? Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” Díaz is slowly but surely picking up the pieces of Yunior’s life and converting them into a multi-volume tale not unlike Phillip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom or even James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan.
Díaz has also published a list of books he lost – or his ex took — while writing and living Lose Her: Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Samuel R. Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, and Sandra Cisneros’ My Wicked, Wicked Ways (from which Díaz gets the book’s epigram), and Brother Herna...read more