Junot Díaz on Writing Men, Stories as Art, and Star Wars
The biggest name at this year's Miami Book Fair International is the white-suited New Journalism legend Tom Wolfe. His mammoth new novel, Back to Blood, purports to paint Miami in all its sexy, tribal, orgiastic glory.
But the book with the most insight into the Magic City is actually a slender volume by Dominican-American phenom Junot Díaz.
Díaz will speak on Monday night at Miami Dade's Wolfson Campus. But first he spent half an hour talking to New Times about sex, love, art, and Han Solo.
This Is How You Lose Her is a soulful story in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey. So it might seems strange that it - and not Back to Blood -- would speak volumes to Miami readers.
The book -- which Díaz says can be considered either a collection of short stories or a "broken novel" -- is a short and bittersweet look at love, infidelity, and the male psyche. Its Dominican-American narrator, Yunior, is an alter-ego for Díaz who also appeared in "Drown" and the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Like Díaz, Yunior has "an IQ that would have broken you in two." He's also a major fuck-up. Yunior dates one woman after another, each one rendered in Díaz's achingly sexy prose. (Magda is "short with a big mouth and big hips and dark curly hair you could lose a hand in." Alma has a "long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension.")
But Yunior cheats on them all. His infidelities make reading each chapter like watching a slow-motion train wreck. And yet, Díaz's description of Yunior is so honest that readers don't just understand the cheating bastard, they can't help but root for him to get his shit together.
Díaz's description of male weakness is devastating, but also refreshing. "I rarely encounter honest depictions of masculinity," he tells New Times. "I mean honestly, I read a lot bro and most of the time the male characters, I'm just kind of like 'OK, I don't know anybody like this but I'll go along with it.'" Instead, Díaz worked for 15 years on This Is How You Lose Her to make its characters as complex as real papi chulos.
"When a character in a movie does something that you'd never believe that they'd do, that's logical inconsistency," explains Díaz, a creative writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But when a [complex] character surprises us... like Han Solo coming back at the end of the first Star Wars, it's very inconsistent with his character but suddenly you're like, 'Yeah, that makes fucking perfect sense.'"
This Is How You Lose Her will make sense to Miamians who can identify with its Latino characters, Spanish and English idioms, focus on diaspora and broken families, and, yes, the sex that seeps from every chapter like oil from a fragrant perm. But the book is most remarkable in how it peels back layers, not just on the idea of the Latin male, but on masculinity itself.
"When I [write] about the complexity of masculinity, it's not because I'm looking for some free, sympathy handout for men," Díaz explains. "But because I think that by looking at its complexity it offers us opportunities to transform it."
Díaz's approach has paid off. Scores of men have sent him emails saying that - for better or worse - they see themselves in his broken but believable characters. "There are a lot of men who reach out and say...'Jesus fucking Christ. This is something unlike what I've read before but it feels very much like my life,'" he says. "I've also gotten a bunch of emails from mothers who are like, 'Dude, I read this book and it was like I was talking to my fucking crazy son.'"
"As an artist, you're trying to do something really new," Díaz continues. "Usually you find the new where people have gotten tired of looking. Most of us confuse the overabundance of males for honesty about men. There are so many male characters, so many books that are about men... so many movies that are only about men - where the women are just a beard, a love interest to keep the homo-social aspect of the story more suppressed - that I think a lot of us sort of think, 'God, any more writing about men I'm going to hang myself.'"
"But the realization that I made was that, certainly we have too much writing about men, but we also have too much incredibly low level and what I would argue is sort of generic writing about men," he adds. "I felt what we need is far less writing about men, but the writing that we get should at least be somehow sharp and honest."
Díaz is famous for his painful approach to writing. Oscar Wao took a decade to write. This Is How You Lose Her took even longer, stretching over 15 years of the 43-year-old author's life. But Díaz says that slow, careful process is at the center of his art.
"I think any learning that I have done comes from the fact that I threw out so damn much," he says. "Because listen my brother, I always think the first few passes, you're always just regurgitating the formulas you've learned, no matter how good those passes are. So I try my best. I don't always succeed, but I try my best to get past, to write through my formulas. But of course you've got to be open to throwing away a lot of stuff because believe me, some of my formulaic passes are actually quite good. But sometimes you've got to throw them away, even if what comes next is not all that great. I would rather try for something different and suck than do something good that's pretty much the same."
Díaz says that many of his students have it backwards by focusing on success instead of self-exploration.
"You'd be surprised how many of my young, creative writers are not interested in pushing deeply into themselves," he says. "In fact, they think of this as more of another profession. They think of this not as an artistic calling, this is just a replacement for being a dentist. And I think that's not uncommon. Rare is the writer who is serious about being an artist and doesn't think about this as being a profession. If you think of your writing as a profession, I can always tell because you're in a rush. You're in a rush to get published. You're in a rush to get applause. But if you're thinking about this as an artist, the only thing that you're in a rush to do is to fucking be in life. And your art tends to come very, very slowly."
Díaz, who was recently awarded a MacArthur "genius grant," says that when it comes to writing "there is no secret."
"I always feel that if one reads enough and works hard enough, then all the things that we are talking about become very apparent," he says. "For some people, voice is not that interesting. I think that that's OK. I would argue that Stephen King is far more interested in storytelling than he is in having an instantly recognizable voice. Stephen King's storytelling muscle is the size of Jupiter. This guy could tell a fucking story that would break the fucking Empire State Building into a million pieces. So you've got to remember, there are many, many aspects to this art. Depending on what you're interested in, you focus on different things."
What all great literature does have in common, however, is its ability to cut through the crap of daily life - whether in Miami, New Jersey, or the Caribbean.
"What you want a book to do is to open up a space where people can meet themselves," he says. "You know, it's great to have an iPhone. I have an iPhone. But running and buying an iPhone doesn't teach you anything about yourself. Rooting for your favorite fucking baseball team doesn't put you in contact with your human self."
"But art, and reading a book like this, it opens the possibility that in the process you will meet your human self," he says. "If we spent more time with our human selves, I think we'd be happier."
Junot Diaz appears at the Miami Book Fair tonight at 6:30 p.m. Visit miamibookfair.com.
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