Díaz recently published a short story in The New Yorker, which he discusses in this interview with the magazine’s Cressida Leyshon.
In this week’s story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” your narrator, Yunior, confronts life without his fiancée after she catches him cheating. You’ve written about infidelity in your fiction in the past, of course, but this is a fairly unstinting look at Yunior’s culpability in the collapse of a relationship that he didn’t want to see end. The story plays out over the subsequent six years. Why did you choose to tell it this way, with Yunior’s fiancée present only as an absence?
I seem to enjoy telling stories with a central absence, with a lacuna tunnelled into them. In “Drown” the father, and later the dead brother, was the absence at the heart of the book. In “Oscar Wao,” we have a novel built from its absences—we have Oscar, who never directly addresses the audience, we have Oscar’s father, who is entirely elided from the novel, and we have the agent of the family’s misfortune, the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who looms large in the text but rarely emerges from the shadows. And now I have a love-loss story where the lost love is never usefully described. What a surprise, right?
I guess I could have written “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” with the fiancée in it, but that just felt unnecessary. She is lost to Yunior completely, irrevocably, and I figured best way to communicate that loss was by being literal—by making her unavailable to the reader as well. I wanted Yunior’s loss to work on its own terms, for that loss to become its own force the way serious loss often does. I wanted to capture those heartbreaks that never seem to leave us—that stay in us like radiation—those heartbreaks where getting over it becomes an epic battle with ourselves. This is why I took the six-year approach. And hopefully the longitudinal scope works with the absence of the fiancée to open up a question that the text can’t answer but which is still worth pondering: If the destruction of the relationship hurt Yunior, its villain, so deeply, how must it have wounded the fiancée, its victim?
Another reason for the fiancée’s absence, of course, has to do with one of the story’s Big Themes. A large part of Yunior’s problem as a character is that he suffers from that most typical of masculine deficiencies: an inability or unwillingness to imagine the women in his life as fully human. He really can’t see the woman he messes with, not really. I don’t present the fiancée because Yunior never really saw her in the first place. Part of what happens to Yunior in this story is that by the end he begins to address that socially acquired deficiency—he actually starts to gain the ability to see women. Perhaps now, for the first time, he can cohere an authentically human self—but only future tales will tell.
Yunior’s been an integral part of your fiction over the last sixteen years, but your earlier stories have often been set during his adolescence or early adulthood. Was it challenging to write about Yunior in the present day, as a man on the early side of middle age?
Shit, it’s a challenge to write a character of any age well—but Yunior’s been with me a long time, and that makes it a little easier. I’ve watched this frustrating fool grow up and have a pretty good sense of his kinks and contradictions. It helps that I thought out some of his later years when I was writing “Oscar Wao”; I needed to know where the hell he was going to end up in his adult life in order to write him as the novel’s narrator. As you point out, the story ends with Yunior about to turn forty, which is a very liminal place to be, especially for an immigrant dude like him. It’s one thing to be an immigrant ten years out from arrival and quite another to be an immigrant thirty years out from arrival. When I was a young I always thought I would reach a point where my immigrant-ness would suddenly fall away, and I would miraculously become an American. Now I know that’s not what happens: being an immigrant is one of those things that is forever. Ain’t a bad fate, to belong to two worlds, weirdly, and it’s something that I gave to Yunior in this story. But his age also makes the loss of the fiancée all the sharper. The forties are more or less when you realize that there’s some shit you’re never going to get a second crack at, when you realize that some losses are permanent, some consequences are forever. These realizations, too, I poured into Yunior’s character and into his heartache.
You’ve left New Jersey behind in “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” and Yunior is living in Boston, a place he has little affection for. “Boston, where you’ve never wanted to live, where you’ve been exiled, becomes a serious problem,” he thinks. You, too, have lived in Boston for several years. Do you have more affection for the city than Yunior?
Technically, I split my time between N.Y.C. and Boston. But what you’re asking here—that’s a tough question. I’ve made some of the best friends of my life in the Boston area. Gotten to know the town and its peculiarities really well. I have community in Boston and Cambridge. There are places like The Million Year Picnic and East by Northeast and Merengue that feel like home to me. But the Boston area is also a deeply fucked-up place. A lot less tolerant and diverse than I’m used to. For all its supposed liberalism, the racism in Boston can be stark, reminds me at times of the racism of my first years in the U.S.—seventies blatant.
But at the end of the day, it all comes down to a simple fact: I dream about N.Y.C. and N.J. and the D.R. in ways I never dream about Boston or Cambridge. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in New England, or maybe it’s just the way I’m built. It’s like that awesome line in “El Secreto de Sus Ojos”: “A man can change anything: his face, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s something a man can’t change. A man can’t change his passion.” And my passions are my three original homes: the D.R., N.J., N.Y.C. That’s where my heart returns always.
“The Cheater’s Guide to Love” will appear in a new collection of stories, “This is How You Lose Her,” in September. It’s your first collection since your début, “Drown,” was published in 1996. Does the act of reading (or writing) an individual story change when you think about how it will function surrounded by others? What has it been like to put the collection together?
This is my second collection of linked stories—which is a strange hybrid when you think about it. These little Calibans are by no means novels, but they’re not your standard anthologies either. It’s a neither-nor form I happen to like—probably the Caribbean in me. After all, when linked story collections work well they give the reader both the glorious ephemerality of the short story—its ability to capture what André Bazin called in a different context “contingency,” the singular one-time event—and also some of the cooler aspects of the novel: its relational longue durée and its what-comes-next propulsion. I haven’t done a straight-up story collection where each story takes place in its own unconnected world with its own unconnected set of characters. What a pleasure that would be! The truth is that in both “Drown” and “This Is How You Lose Her” I wrote each individual story with my top eye aimed always at the large flow of the narrative. Of course I wanted the stories to work well on their own, but that wasn’t enough. The stories also had to work with and against the other stories, had to produce collectively that arresting surplus of feeling and knowledge beyond the simple sum of the parts. Really it was the overarching demands of “This Is How You Lose Her”—its patterns and themes, its heart and movement—that determined what stories I was going to write and how I would write them. Over the years, I had swell ideas for stories that I had to dump in the end because they would never fit into the larger pattern of the narrative. There were also other stories that I would never have written but for the fact that the larger narrative demanded them in order to produce a necessary fire between some of my themes. These stories, curiously enough, tend to be the most successful pieces, the ones I get the most thoughtful mail about. But yeah, it’s a slow, frustrating process, a lot of fumbling in the dark, a lot of intuitive lunges.
But to me, it’s well worth it. I’ve always conceptualized linked collections as these wonderful Lagrange points between the story collection and the novel. In them there’s this weird bit of space—again not as much as in a novel, but more than a standard collection—from which wonderful stuff can be spun, stuff that neither the traditional novel nor the traditional story collection can generate. A fascinating patch of liminality that writers haven’t done quite enough with, in my opinion. In “Drown,” I used that Goldilocks space (not too much, not too little) to create a weird Dominican Odyssey from the Telemachus point of view, from the point of view of the son left behind on the island while the father is on his epic immigrant journey. A tale that is necessarily incomplete but whose very incompleteness adds to its poignancy. In “This Is How You Lose Her,” that space helped me chart one cheater’s tortured journey through to real heartbreak, a crisis from which he emerges, if not necessarily cured, at least closer to possessing something we could call an authentic human self. Maybe I’m dead wrong on all of this. Maybe I could have written conventional novels from both sets of material but I’m not convinced I could have gotten the same jagged punch, the same longing and silences that rise up from the gaps in and between the linked stories.
I guess I’m just hopelessly fascinated by the realities that you can assemble out of connected fragments. I am a Derek Walcott man in this regard. You know the famous quote: “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”
And: “This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places.”
More pain, but also, we must remember, more care.
This is the third piece of fiction we’ve published by you since April. “Miss Lora,” the first of the three, will also appear in your new collection, and “Monstro,” which ran in the Science Fiction Issue in June, is the opening of a new novel you’ve embarked on. Have you been working on these for a while? Or have you turned into some kind of super-efficient writing machine?
Now there’s a dream—that I could write like a machine. Never going to happen—I’m just not built for it. But yeah, given my slow-as-shitness, it is odd for me to publish three of anything in a row. This is just one of those freak years when a couple of old projects staggered to completion at more or less the same time. I seriously doubt it will ever happen again. Just seems to take me a long time sitting with my characters before I can write a single word, good or bad, about them. I seem to have to make my characters family before I can access their hearts in any way that matters. And as any elder can tell you—you can make a friend in a minute, but family requires a different order of commitment. Seems you got to put your whole life into it for it really to work. And that seems to be the scale I operate on as an artist. My friends, of course, just laugh at my overwrought bullshit. They keep it simple: you just slow.
If you are a subscriber to the magazine you can access the story through this link: http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2012-07-23#folio=060
For the original report go to http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/07/this-week-in-fiction-junot-diaz-1.html#ixzz22wh0zAIn