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Junot Díaz’s Counterlife

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Just like Yunior, Díaz has seen his friends force their mistakes on a new generation. “A lot of the nonsense they could get away with in their twenties, they were still doing it in their early forties with their fucking kids,” says Díaz. The cycle of male “dumbasses,” as he calls them, comes full circle when Yunior watches his buddy neglect his daughter, and identifies with the latter: “This used to be me, you’re thinking. ‘Me me me.’ ” Díaz might still like to have kids, “but there’s a part of me that’s beginning to wonder for the first time if the fact that I don’t have kids is intentional. You have to work super-hard where I grew up not to have a kid. It’s easier to write ten awesome novels than to not have a kid.”

Díaz still keeps a place in Harlem but lives about half the time in Cambridge, teaching courses at MIT on everything from “bildungsromans of color” to media studies and postapocalyptic fiction. (He calls his facility with theory his “best-kept secret.”) Those ideas are refracted through the ids of Díaz’s lost-boy characters, as are the earth-shattering events—dictatorship, colonialism, cancer—that fill out his fiction. It’s literature masquerading as autobiography, a technique Díaz attributes to an unlikely influence, Philip Roth. “There is a game he played with readers that is wondrous, man”—those hall-of-mirror characters, sometimes called Philip Roth, who blur the line between writer and narrator. “He’s a Jersey boy—a bad boy, a very bad boy. But with an astonishing commitment to the fucking craft.”

Díaz has an even more powerful inspiration, though: the telenovela. “In a telenovela,” he says, “the chasing of a girl or a boy will allow people to put up with anything—genocide, slavery. So you can talk about an alien invasion or genocide as long as you have some girl-chasing.” The device showed up in “Monstro,” Díaz’s story in The New Yorker’s recent science-fiction issue. It’s an excerpt from what Díaz hopes is his next long novel, about a 14-year-old “Dominican York” girl who saves the planet from a full-blown apocalypse. Díaz has been trying to write a sci-fi novel for twenty years, and he believes he’s closer than ever. Having taken eleven years to write Wao, he knows that, “no matter what anyone says, the real measurement of who I am as a writer will be taken after I write my next novel.”

The stories, he understands, won’t make the same splash. When he told a friend about them, “an image sprang to mind, which was the look on my grandparents’ faces when somebody told them a daughter was born. They were … happy,” he says, offering a disappointed half-smile. “If you’d seen their faces when a son was born, you would’ve known something they were happy about. Writing short stories in a culture like ours is like giving birth to girls in a Dominican conservative family in the fifties.” But that doesn’t mean he subscribes to the hierarchy. “As an artist, I know what I have to do. I have to fucking do this book. And I loved it. I love girl children.”

This Is How You Lose Her
By Junot Díaz.
Riverhead Books.
Sept. 11.


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