Five years ago, Dominican American Jersey boy Junot Diaz’s debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, making him just the second Latino to achieve this honor, following Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love). This week, the 43-year-old scribe, who peppers his prose with Spanish and irreverent language, returns to the literary limelight with This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories centered on Latino characters trying to make sense of their romantic failures. In an intimate chat with Latina, Diaz spoke about his post-Pulitzer endeavors, the connection between bachata songs and his literary musings on love and fidelity, and his fascination with the apocalypse.
How has winning the Pulitzer Prize changed your life and career?
"Books don’t live and die by awards. You don’t listen to an Héctor Lavoe album because it won some awards. It could’ve gotten every award pero a tí no te importa. You listen to it because it stays in the conversation -- it’s relevant. A part of me is very grateful for the awards I’ve won. It’s been transformational for my career. Pero de verdad, all I really care about is the book lasting -- that’s what I dream about. As an artist, it’s very easy to get distracted by today’s applause. Today’s applause will destroy your work."
Why did you choose to write short stories instead of a novel after Oscar?
"I’d been working on this project for a long time. I wrote my first sucio story, as I call them, in 1997. This was always my “cheater’s book,” my book about sucios desgraciados. My plan was to write a book about how people deal with love and loss. This is a group of people dealing with what I call a tripartite loss. First, they’ve lost their home country: Santo Domingo is behind them. But there’s a second layer of loss—Yunior [the main character in most stories] loses his brother and it’s a death that haunts him. Third, there’s the most immediate loss: the inability to stay in love. All of these layers of loss are connected. There’s nothing like losing a country to make you not want to feel love. In some ways, I felt [these characters were] like the community in which I came up, a community that had so many compounded losses that it was very difficult for us to become these normal, vulnerable people and to find love. There’s all this history behind us that complicates what love means. Some people ignore that history; for others, it makes their love stronger. I have characters that represent all those different elements."
What fascinates you about infidelity?
"Part of it comes from having a father that was un mujeriego del diablo. When you’re a young person being exposed to this, it really changes your worldview. But, more importantly, I think infidelity is a window into the question of intimacy. In the dysfunction of a relationship, one can often see many truths about intimacies. It’s certainly easier to understand the complexities and the vulnerabilities of my boy characters when they’re screwing up. I think I’m attracted to people who are in free fall. These messed-up characters, they want to be in love so badly, but they can’t find the courage in themselves to find the love they want and need."
Was it difficult to write about love, given that we come from a culture that can be so machista?
"Well, I ain’t one tenth as romantic as the bachateros! I always thought of this book as one long bachata, and bachatas are all about, “I lost her! I’m going to slit my wrists!” There’s nothing new about a dude in our community talking about amor."
There’s this line in the story “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” that’s so poignant: “The half-life of love is forever.” Can you elaborate on that?
"When I think about my own relationships to the women that I really loved, it feels like that love, even after we’ve broken up and we’re no longer speaking, that love never goes away. No one told me that. Nobody warned me that when you fall in love, you really fall in love forever."
You talk about the apocalypse in your work quite a bit—even in This Is How You Lose Her.
"My [next] novel, called Monstro, is about the end of the world. I’ve always been obsessed with the end of the world. I grew up in the Cold War. I grew up with nuclear terror, with Ronald Reagan making a joke into the radio, “We begin bombing in five minutes.” I grew up in a time when it was right there: the end of the world. As a child, you become very vulnerable to these types of stories. And I’m from the Dominican Republic! How many ends of the world has Santo Domingo endured already? Who could be more apocalyptic?"