Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her (2012)

For our second book review, we are distancing ourselves from the nineteenth-century industrial novel, and moving forward to a contemporary text: Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her (2012).

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Junot Diaz and his work, I’ll offer a brief note of biographical information. Diaz was born in Santa Domingo, DR, but his family immigrated to New Jersey when he was a child. He has published three longer works, Drown (1996), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2012), and This Is How You Lose Her (2012), in addition to writing a number of essays which have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories. He currently works as an editor for The Boston Review, and teaches creative writing at MIT. In his career he has won a number of awards, including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the 2012 MacArthur “Genius grant” award, and most recently, the Sunday Times Short Story award in 2013.

Now this review will be a bit different from the previous one on Gaskell’s North and South, primarily because it will take the form of a discussion between myself and a former classmate, Paul. Paul and I met years ago in undergrad while taking English classes; in one of our classes, “Global Literature,” we were introduced to Diaz’s Drown—since then, we have been avid readers of his works and continue to follow his literary career. As such, it is only natural that we chose This Is How You Lose Her as our first joint piece.

This Is How You Lose Her is a collection of nine short stories which concentrate on “the haunting, impossible power of love—passionate love, illicit love, fading love, maternal love.” –taken from the book jacket 

Me: For someone who has not read This Is How You Lose Her, how would summarise it?

Paul: It is a collection of short stories that are seemingly about the same person, although that’s not explicitly stated, and all revolve around relationships the protagonist, Yunior, has with women, his parents, etc.

What is your overall reaction to the book after now reading it twice?

What is your reaction to “Otravida, Otravez?”


I've read the book more than twice actually. I only have a few contemporary works in my library, and I read them over and over again anytime I need a break from academic reading. That said, every time I read it, I pick up on something new. For example, this time I really paid attention to chapter titles and lengths—which may sound obvious, but sometimes when you gain momentum you overlook such aspects. Overall I think Diaz does a great job of engaging with the Spanish language, Latin culture—and he does it in such a way that even someone who doesn't have a basic knowledge of Spanish will understand the overall meaning. At times the text appears to be misogynistic but I don't think it is in the same way that Franzen is, for example. Diaz is giving us insights into Latin culture, which is incidentally a very patriarchal based culture—so I take the misogyny to be a symptom, rather than a driving force. 

Out of all the stories, I just couldn't connect with “Otravida, Otravez,” and I think it's mainly because it's written through a female perspective. Throughout the stories you can't help but sympathise with Yunior, despite all his shortcomings. Whereas here, the development in character is lacking—could it be because he isn’t as comfortable with writing female characters? Yea, it’s a possibility. On the other hand, his portrayal of immigrant life is insightful. As a reader you come to understand their struggles. Their relationships with other immigrants, their work lives, their aspirations to make money and own something of their own, is all too real.

I've been a huge fan of Diaz ever since I (we) were introduced to him by that professor we had. Diaz has a unique simplistic style that kind of reminds me of Chris Rock's comedy. They both make you laugh and keep things enjoyable, but there is a harsh shock value within the jokes, and in the realities that they expose through their respective choice of mediums. Reading through "This is How You Lose Her" for the second time, I didn't read critically, that is to say I wasn't looking for anything specific. I did, however, make notes of anything that popped into my head as I read through the short stories. I would not call Diaz misogynistic; I would say that his stories are representative of a larger, generalized patriarchal Latino culture, led by dominant-to-a-fault men and their subservient women. 

What I really enjoy in Diaz's writing is how he kind of explains how his characters came to be, without giving a linear straight forward explanation of their past. Having grown up in the same socio-economic circles as his characters, I understand all the background and circumstantial events that conspire together to produce flawed characters, as well as characters struggling to prove to the rest of the world that they are breaking free from those environments. 

I want to delve a little deeper into “Otravida, Otravez,” which translates to “another life, again.”  What were your thoughts about Yasmin, the main female character? Did you think she was wrong for being with a man who had a family back home? Do you think she truly ever believed Ramon had moved past his old wife? 

Ok here's the thing. I don't think it's a question of her being wrong or right. I think Diaz was just trying to show another perspective in regards to immigration. If we think ahead to “Invierno,” Yunior talks about the time he, his mom, and Rafa (his brother), spent in DR while Papi (their father) was in America working. And although it can be assumed that his dad has mistresses, it is never explicitly stated. In “Otravez,” Diaz gives us the other side of the coin, per say. Ramon has been living in America for years, while Virta (his wife), and son are left back home. “Otravez” as a whole, is a story that portrays the struggle of immigrants, and how lonely, isolated they feel in a foreign land. So while morally, Ramon is wrong for being in a relationship with her, you can sympathise with him and understand his motivations. In terms of our protagonist, Yasmin, I think she's wrong for demanding that Ramon cuts ties with his wife, but again, you can understand that she too wants to find happiness. It's complicated, and I don’t think Diaz is trying to make the reader judge his characters- more of a, this is what happens when you leave your life in search of better opportunities.


That was exactly my response...less of morality, right/wrong issue and more of "this is the convoluted upside down world we are forced to live in as a result of being an immigrant in a new land.” It's so difficult to navigate through the economic and social hardships alone; everyone needs someone.

What do you think of the way women are portrayed throughout the book? All of the women collectively exhibit strength and weakness at different times, from the mothers and sisters to the girlfriends/friends. And keeping with that topic, what did you think of the girl in the last story, "Cheaters Guide to Love," the African American one (I presume) that he meets, who attends Harvard?

Here's the thing about his portrayal of cheating and his relationships with women. Throughout the novel Yunior denies all responsibility in the breaking down of his relationships. In the very first story he is blaming his girlfriend’s friends for their influence; in the last story, he again is blaming everyone else. Does he ever show remorse? It's difficult to say for sure. When he does, it's only after he loses them, and again it’s not 100% genuine. I mean, if he really felt awful about it, he wouldn't do it over and over again, as he does with each woman.

I agree with your point that he could've done more to try and fight the stereotype and the negative portrayal of women. But don't you think that be how callous he is towards women at points, that he is indirectly shaming his main character and men in general? I don't read through the book and think "wow" this is a character I want to emulate or "this is totally the way a man should act." There is a self-deprecation to his characters, almost like he can't get out of his own way sometimes and that's refreshingly honest. 

Yea. Definitely. So what do you think of Yunior’s cheating? And how it's a key theme throughout? And do you think there is a significance in the order of the stories? 

Obviously cheating is abhorrent, should never happen should never be accepted. But I wonder if Diaz is trying to say that it's an unavoidable, inescapable reality for men? Or for Dominican men? I'm on the fence about that...he seems to be greatly affected by infidelity, as it’s found throughout most of his writing.

I think there's absolutely significance in the order of the stories...they vary through the gamut of emotions until the knockout punch at the end, when you are forced to ask yourself if you sympathize with someone who was capable of such behaviour, regardless of how much he tries to justify or minimalize it.

What do you think of the title of the book? And how he uses the same line to conclude his story "Alma," which incidentally, is the short story in the collection.

I think the title serves as a cautionary tale; while he doesn't explicitly come out and say he was wrong or apologize for his behaviour throughout the short stories, there doesn't seem to be any redeeming qualities about any of his behaviour. 

Yes, exactly. I think the themes of the stories themselves, and the actions of Yunior are objectionable. Yet, as we discussed previously, Diaz never condones Yunior’s behaviour. As you said, they serve as cautionary tales—and the title of the book exemplifies this caution in the form of a simple statement/warning; if you follow in Yunior’s footsteps, this is how you will lose “her” and everything else.

What is your favourite story or episode in the book?

I guess “Invierno;” there were a lot of elements I related to from my childhood…having a “hard” father at home who worked hard every day and had expectations of me to be well behaved. I didn't have the language barrier because my parents raised me English speaking first, but I definitely remember feeling like the odd one out around certain neighbourhood kids. Also, the imagery of having his fathers' friends over and his mother cooking a typical meal brought back a lot of memories.

Although I too enjoyed “Invierno,” “Miss Lora” was my favourite, not only for its shocking subject matter, but for the way Diaz approaches such a delicate/controversial topic. Incidentally, Diaz also won the Sunday Times award for this story; I think it’s only fitting to include, and perhaps conclude this post with, a short quotation from his interview with the Guardian, when discussing his motivation for writing “Miss Lora":
“‘We tend, as a culture, to think of boys having underage sex quite differently to how we think of girls. I find that quite disturbing, and wanted to question the logic of that. If a boy has sex with his teacher, people under their breath are kind of high-fiving the kid. If a 16- or 15-year-old girl has sex with an older teacher – forget about it. No one's celebrating. That seemed really strange.’"

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