Yunior de las Casas’s voice sounds like no other in contemporary fiction—peppered with profanity and slang, code-switching seamlessly between Spanish and English, the language of the streets and the language of the academy. Over the course of three books, and nearly two decades, Junot Díaz has used the character of Yunior to explore the intersections between love and loss, displacement and desire, within the American immigrant experience.
Díaz emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey at the age of six. He grew up in a poor, immigrant community, eventually working his way through school at Rutgers as a pool table delivery driver and a steel worker. In college, he began writing the stories that would appear in his debut collection, Drown. Published in 1997, Drown introduced the character Yunior along with the rest of the de las Casas family. The collection details their journey from the barrios of Santo Domingo to the inner city of New Jersey.
A resounding critical success, Drown established Díaz as an exciting new voice in fiction, but his novel The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, published 12 years later (2008), cemented his reputation as one of the most important authors working today. That book, in which Yunior returns to narrate the misadventures of a sci-fi obsessed Dominican-American “ghetto nerd,” earned Díaz both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In his most recent collection, This Is How You Lose Her, Díaz refocuses on Yunior’s own life as a successful writer and college professor struggling through a series of tumultuous romantic relationships. Following this book’s September publication, Díaz received a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship honoring his lifelong achievements as a fiction writer.
From the barrios of Santo Domingo through the rough streets of New Jersey to the ivied brick of Harvard’s halls, Yunior’s journey closely mirrors that of his creator. In This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior’s voice holds all of these worlds at once in a singular and intoxicating balance.
The collection begins with “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars.” Yunior paints a sardonic picture of the upscale Dominican resort to which his girlfriend has dragged him on the eve of their ailing relationship’s demise: “A goddamn fortress, walled away from everybody else,” with “beaches so white they ache to be trampled.” Sequestered there, he finds himself surrounded by “Garcías and Colóns” who “come to relax after a long month of oppressing the masses,” and the “melanin deficient Eurofucks” who look like “budget Foucaults … too many of them in the company of a dark-assed Dominican girl.”
In this passage, as in much of Díaz’s work, Yunior interrupts his narrative descriptions to directly address the reader—“Let’s just say my abuelo has never been here, and neither has yours,” and “Chill here too long and you’ll be sure to have your ghetto pass revoked, no questions asked.” This technique creates a sense of intimacy, at the same time foregrounding the fact that Díaz writes with a very specific reader in mind: one who has lived, as he has, through the experiences of being poor, of being an outsider, of being a person divided. Even as the stories in this collection see Yunior navigating some of the literal and figurative boundaries that confined him in the past, he remains defined by the legacy of these formative experiences.
Díaz’s short stories capture this connection between past and present, between being and becoming, in a way difficult to be replicated in a novel. Yunior’s is a life rendered in fragments, where the past is always present and events unfold in cycles and patterns rather than through novelistic progression and resolution.
This aesthetic choice also functions as a social critique—a novel typically unfolds according a narrative logic of progress, but Díaz’s stories disrupt the social narrative of progress that shapes our understanding of the American immigrant experience. They contain moments of triumph, such as when Yunior’s father Ramón saves enough money from his minimum-wage industrial work to purchase a home in the U.S., or when Yunior escapes the precarious life of a small time drug dealer to study literature at Rutgers. But each instance of hope accompanies countless others of illness, addiction, betrayal and lock-up—cycles of violence and oppression that challenge the validity of America’s promise as a land of opportunity.
Díaz tells nearly all of his stories through Yunior, but his voice mutates and multiplies, from the sparse first-person perspective of Drown to the vivacious, pseudo-omniscient narration of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz uses a fragmented narrative structure to challenge social narratives of progress, and his amorphous approach to character challenges the boundaries of our socially constructed identities … particularly, in this collection, the boundaries between men and women.
Violence permeates Díaz’s work, from his early story “Ysrael” in which a child’s disfigured face becomes an object of fascination and ridicule, to tales of the sadistic Trujillo regime that haunt the pages of Oscar Wao. Here, in This Is How You Lose Her, violence emerges as the means by which men define themselves and defend claims to power.
In “Invierno,” Yunior’s father brings his wife and two sons from the Dominican Republic to live with him in New Jersey. Though separated for years, he imprisons them in a tiny apartment for the winter. When he catches his sons making too much noise or “staring out the window at the beautiful snow,” he teaches them discipline … forcing them to kneel on the cutting edge of a coconut grater until they bleed. Later, in “The Pura Principle,” even as Yunior’s brother, Rafa, loses his own battle with cancer, he strikes out at Yunior, blindsiding him in the street with a padlock to the head.
Yunior himself wields an emotional violence against women. In these stories, he cheats, deceives and ultimately loses every woman he loves. As a young man, he resigns himself to what he sees as his inevitable fate: “Your father used to take you on his pussy runs, leave you in the car while he ran up into cribs to bone his girlfriends. Your brother was no better, boning girls in the bed next to yours. Sucios of the worst kind and now it’s official: you are one, too.”
Yunior’s language often reduces women to disposable objects of desire. Demeaning terms—“pussy,” “bitches,” “sluts,”—infest the habitual patterns of his speech. Yunior inherits his hateful view of women from his father, brother and the world of men they inhabit, but he also understands that becoming such a man means power over women and over each other can only be upheld through violence and hatred. In this way, he betrays not only the women he loves, but himself. And in “The Cheater’s Guide To Love,” the final story in this collection, the betrayal will ultimately cost him his health, his sanity and even his will to live.
When asked at a recent public lecture in Seattle about the origins of his character Yunior, Díaz offered the following insight about his own experience as a student at Rutgers. It speaks directly to the depiction of masculinity in his work.
“The question was always, for someone like me: What is the role of a male artist in the feminist struggle? We can’t be feminists, I think. Our privilege prevents us. We can be feminist-aligned in some way. And so the women kept saying to us dudes, the best thing you can do is draw maps of masculine privilege. You can go places we can’t. Draw maps so when we drop the bombs, they land accurate.”
The violence of language in This Is How You Lose Her can be painful to read. Still, by locating its origin in the formative experiences of characters, Díaz traces the ways violence circulates through the processes of displacement, both physical and emotional, across the generations.
The most poignant and indelible story in this collection, “Otravida, Otravez,” exchanges Yunior’s perspective for that of his father’s lover, Yasmin. The descriptions of the dirty sheets from the hospital laundry where she works evoke those cycles of violence and hatred that target women far too often.
“I never see the sick;” Yasmin says. “They visit me through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets, the alphabet of the sick and the dying … Sometimes the stains are rusty and old and sometimes the blood smells sharp as rain. You’d think, given the blood we see, that there’s a great war going on out in the world. Just the one inside of bodies, the new girl says.”
Yasmin’s voice, in this story, offers an antidote to Yunior’s pervasive language of sexism and violence. Taken together, the two voices form the contours of a detailed and devastating map of masculine privilege. The heartbreaking depiction of Yunior throughout This Is How You Lose Her as both victim and perpetrator reveals something critical about the nature of violence itself. It poisons both those who wield it, and those who receive its blows.
Robert Alford is a Seattle-based writer and critic whose work has appeared, most recently, in PopMatters, Bookforum.com and Real Change News.