TL;DR Junot Diaz writes some crazy awesome immigrant lit, although his female characters are pushed to the margins of this otherwise pleasing collection of short fiction.
I first encountered him in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a book I can only speak of in superlative synonyms of awesome. I’d even go ahead and say that anyone who didn’t enjoy it is either lying or being a racist (hehehe).
This time, I decided to read Diaz’s short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her. Most of the stories, except for one, is about Yunior, a Dominican Republic native who immigrated to the US as a kid. As the title suggests, the stories in this book mainly focus on capturing the experience of a relationship once it starts rolling downhill.
Interestingly, the two stories I like the best are “Otravida, Otravez” and “Invierno,” both not related to Yunior’s failed romantic pursuits.
“Otravida” is about a Latina immigrant who works in a laundry shop and is in a relationship with her boss. It’s also written from the perspective of the female protagonist. Props to Diaz for trying, although I think he just went the typical “soft and meek” route of portraying a woman (I’ll speak more about this later).
“Invierno” is also about the immigrant experience of being alienated, of feeling displaced in a foreign land. This is the story where I meet Yunior’s dad and take a peek at his family’s first attempt to live thru the cold American winter. The ending is fucking depressing, ‘tang ina.
The sense of being “the other” is also present in the rest of the stories. I meet characters like Pura, a “fresh-off-the-boat-didn’t-have-no-papers Dominican” who pretty much extorted money off of Yunior’s dying brother, Rafa (“Pura”). I witness Yunior face casual racism in Boston during his recuperation from a terrible break-up (“The Cheaters Guide to Love”). Even without knowing who Diaz is, you can pretty much hear the immigrant sensibilities screaming in every story.
Diaz’s language reeks of a very strong Hispanic flavor as Spanish words are thrown here and there. At the same time, his words also give off the impression that he probably speaks English better than Spanish. This concoction of cultures makes Diaz’s style so distinct.
It kind of feels bad to say that I like Diaz’s “distinct” style, with “distinct” essentially serving as another word for “colored.” It’s as if I am “othering” him when appreciating his works. It’s like saying I wouldn’t like his books had he been a non-immigrant who writes in crisp, straight English. (I sincerely wish I were more adept at critical analysis so I can be certain of what my position should be.)
But anyway, another criticism ever-present for this book is its shallow portrayal of women. The females seem to be mere tools used to solidify Yunior’s character—they’re like people in the sidelines pointing flashlights at Yunior so we can see him better. That is quite true, unfortunately. The ladies in this book are either submissive or lying bitches who don’t have much depth. While no author is obligated to be all-encompassing when it comes to portraying marginalized sectors, any piece of literature will always be better if it at least attempts to go beyond stereotypes and generic sketches.
However, I’d say Diaz somehow recognizes such inadequacy in his treatment of female characters. I may be stretching it a bit, but a closer reading of the title reveals an awareness of man’s wrongdoings to the “hers” of the world. You lose her because you cheat on her then try to woo her back with sex and letters and persistent phone calls. You lose her because you treat like a piece of pig-shit, like an object.
On a personal note, reading Yunior’s stories actually made me feel bad for myself as a girl who’s um, not fuck-worthy. Yunior, if we ever meet in real life, would never consider me “fly.” Everything on my body is flat—tits, ass, face. I’ve been called “pretty” only a handful of times, and only by old ladies and some gay colleagues back in QC. “Ugly” or “pangit,” on the other hand, are words I grew up with. At this point, I wear the “ugly” badge like some proud motherfucker. I’m so used to it that I have mastered the art of putting on a poker face. But I digress.
To cap this off, sure, I’d recommend this book. Although if you really want to experience Junot Diaz’s brilliance, you should definitely read Oscar Wao.