As tales of relationship redemption go, each of the nine relatable short stories in Junot Diaz’s consummate collection “This Is How You Lose Her” triumphs. In nonlinear vignettes of brotherly, paternal and romantic love, his characters — who dig themselves into holes and then must grin through the grit and bear it — remind us of the power of self-preservation. While not explicitly present in every story, Yunior — aged 5, 15, 20- and 30-something — is at the core of them. As “the most awesome ex-boyfriend in the world” but a “terrible boyfriend,” he never comes out the victor in a traditional sense, but he proves to be a survivor, continuously learning from his mistakes.
What are the roots of his indiscretions and inadequacies? Diaz suggests that immigrating to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic and witnessing death at an impressionable age contribute to Yunior’s commitment-phobia. “Part of the art [of writing] is not to look at the most obvious answer,” Diaz says. “When I think of what’s wrong with Yunior, I think: make a list of the things he’s lost.” That laundry list — not limited to losing his brother to cancer, his own youth to the responsibilities that beckon afterward and his girlfriends to his vices — doesn’t excuse Yunior’s flawed, sometimes chauvinistic behavior. But Diaz doesn’t judge or shame him for it either; rather he acknowledges that the person hurt most by a cheater is himself. We sympathize with Yunior, transgressions and all.
Through interrogative second-person narration and colloquial language peppered with Spanish, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author authentically captures Junior’s cultural and emotional dualities. We get real with Diaz about falling in love — and getting back up again.
How did you tap into Yunior’s various life stages, which feel raw and identifiable?
I wish that I could say that I had a secret or that it came easily, but what ends up happening is that I spend a lot of time steeping in my characters, steeping in their moments. And in fact, I always think that I could do better.
Having written a character who repeatedly fails at monogamy, do you yourself believe in it?
I think it’s difficult, but I think: God, what isn’t difficult? Given how easy it is in our culture to jump out, it makes that struggle all the more difficult. I think the debate is how honest we can be with ourselves with other people. Most of the time we just hurt the other person rather than talk to them. Don’t you think a lot of our views of the world are not very clear-minded, that we tend to be thinking from our place of hurt? We’re hurt, so we tend to have a more shrunk-down, impoverished view.
In your final story, you poignantly say the half-life of love — the length of time it takes to let go when a relationship ends — is forever. Have you at least found an effective prescription for moving on?
Heartbreak is one of our great challenges, and enduring it really defines our character. My feeling has always been, if you’re in pain, the only thing that you can do is feel it. If you’re overwhelmed by loss, the only thing you can do is be overwhelmed. It’s sort of simplistic, but I’ve never found anything else that worked.