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Junot Diaz: This is why men cheat

AuthorsJunot DiazAdulteryFictionPulitzer Prize AwardsMassachusetts Institute of Technology

Junot — and Yunior — are back.

Junot Diaz is the MacArthur Fellowship-winning writer whose work reflects his Dominican roots and his Jersey youth, and who has dazzled critics and audiences with a virtuosic narrative voice that weaves tales of young men similar to the ones he grew up with.

Yunior is one of Diaz's most indelible characters — brilliant, posturing, alienated, self-destructive and, for better or worse, unable to fully inhabit his own mask.

Readers previously met Yunior in the 2006 short-story collection "Drown" and in the novel "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

But Diaz wasn't done with Yunior. Far from it.

The 43-year-old author, who teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently chatted by phone about his newest book, "This is How You Lose Her." The collection of linked stories time-travels between Yunior's childhood in a strange new country to his present as a successful writer and professor.

The author is currently doing some traveling himself for his book tour; on Friday, Diaz will deliver the keynote address at the "Facing Race" conference in Baltimore, a city he loves.

"In the '80s, I used to come to Baltimore for a week every summer," Diaz says. "We'd jump into our cars, hang out with our friends, have a blast. These were some of my first independent journeys as a kid."

What was the inspiration behind "This Is How You Lose Her"?

I wanted to write a book about male cheating, its roots and consequences. I wanted to write a book that gets at the inner lives of men.

I haven't found many male characters who seem realistic from my point of view. They don't talk the way the men I know talk when they're alone with their friends. These characters seem like incredibly brushed-up and packaged-for-public-consumption versions of the guys I grew up with.

I'm glad you're revisiting Yunior. His vulnerability makes him difficult to dismiss, despite his bad behavior. He truly loves his girlfriends despite the nonstop infidelities, and he suffers when they dump him.

Yunior doesn't understand himself in fundamental ways. He wants intimacy but can't muster up the courage intimacy requires. It's not unusual that when many of us find ourselves terrified of intimacy, we concoct an escape hatch.

He could pick tons of girls who would put up with infidelity, who would give him a second chance, who would make excuses for him. That's not who he dates. He dates girls who never are going to forgive him. He's even proud of them when they break up with them. He picks them smart, and he picks them interesting, and he picks them as wounded as he is.

But Yunior also is an incredibly incisive observer on the front lines of masculinity, of its micro-aggression against women and the way it attacks and disenfranchises them. If you were to grab 10 books written by men, I doubt you'll find any that bear witness to how fundamentally misogynistic men are.

Women who fear intimacy have an escape hatch, too. They can get so clingy they'd drive anyone away. Women are usually more verbal than men, so they control the narrative of the relationship. I'm not sure that does either gender any favors.

This is a culture that spends a lot of time telling women that they're wrong and guys that we're right. Imagine how difficult it is for a guy living with that privilege to turn around and see women as wholly human. Our oppressions and our privileges don't exactly help us to chat and communicate.

Does Yunior change from the beginning of the book to the end?

The book asks that very question. The job of the reader is to come up with the answer.

Does a story start for you with a character, a line of dialogue, or some other way? If I understand correctly, you mull things over in your head for a long time before you begin writing.

It all sort of builds up. Maybe I'll start by describing a house, or a bad mood. Characters accumulate; emotions accumulate; events accumulate. Slowly, over time, the confusion comes into focus, and I have this set of characters and conflicts. I'll write 20, 30, 40, 50 drafts, and by the time I get to the 50th draft, I'll have a good idea of who the characters are and what their plight is. And then I'll write the next 30 drafts, and a story emerges.

Fifty drafts, literally?

Yeah.

You have this virtuosic narrative voice. It mixes Spanish and English and juxtaposes the occasional ethnic slur with poetic observations comparing the sky to "the color of pigeons." One short sentence will contain street slang and a reference to Herman Melville. [From "The Sun, The Moon, The Stars": "When I ask her if we can chill, I'm no longer sure it's a done deal. A lot of the time she Bartlebys me, says, 'No, I'd rather not.' "]

I try to balance things that aren't always easy to balance. Partly, I'm attempting to capture the Jersey world where I grew up, where different cultures and languages live cheek to jowl, all sharing the same lunch table. Yunior is hyper-educated, but he comes from a community that doesn't privilege hyper-education. There's an entire generation of kids who come from these tough neighborhoods who are in college. I'm fascinated by that interplay.

I've read that your father drove a forklift and that your mother worked in factories. What did your family think when you became a writer? Were they proud when you won the Pulitzer Prize?

Not that I've noticed. Maybe they said congratulations. I don't remember. I've never heard my family discuss my books. I think my mom has read one of them, but my siblings? No. In a family like mine, being an artist is considered a little bit odd. There's a general suspicion toward the arts.

It's a weird situation, but I've never pushed the matter. I suppose I should be more conflicted, but I'm not. I have a lot of things to talk about with my siblings that have nothing to do with my achievements. Maybe that's healthier for our relationship.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Junot Diaz will read from his new book and deliver the keynote address for the Facing Race Conference at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, at the Baltimore Hilton, 401 W. Pratt St. Rates for the three-day event range from $125 to $325. Call (510) 653-3415 or go to arc.org/facingrace.

The book

"This Is How You Lose Her," by Junot Diaz. 224 pages. Riverhead Hardcover. $26.95.

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    AuthorsJunot DiazAdulteryFictionPulitzer Prize AwardsMassachusetts Institute of Technology
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