Junot Díaz’s Counterlife

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

A Union Square diner past its trendy prime, Coffee Shop looks like just a convenient place to meet the writer Junot Díaz a few weeks before the publication of his much-anticipated second short-story collection, This Is How You Lose Her. But it turns out to be freighted with a messy swirl of associations for him. This is where, a few years ago, Díaz arranged to meet his personal idol, African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, though their date fell through, and she died before they could reschedule. It’s where, at 26, he signed the contract for his debut collection, Drown, which made him the first Dominican-American literary star. And it also resonates with older New York memories, the kind that “make my art happen”: 15-year-old Díaz, fresh off the express bus from Parlin, New Jersey, for a night of clubbing with his boys, looking longingly through Coffee Shop’s giant windows. “This place had the reputation for all the hot girls,” he says. “You’d walk past and you’d be like, ‘Oh, shit!’ We were kids, man.”

Sinewy and almost too thin, Díaz looks sleek in a tight black collared shirt and Hugo Boss slacks, and flirts easily with our waitress—complaining about how ghetto it is that the kitchen doesn’t have grilled onions. But at 43, and having recently embarked on a new relationship, Díaz seems, more than anything, wistful for those girl-chasing days. “Look at them, they’re like 18,” he says of the waitresses. “I realize, man, when I was first running around New York, somebody probably just wanted to hug me.”

Yunior, which is what friends and family call Díaz, is also the name he’s given to the very Díaz-like lead character in both Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. A Dominican immigrant with an absent father and a fluency in both Spanglish and nerdspeak, he also has some serious issues with what Díaz casually calls “masculinist subjectivities.” The contract Díaz signed here seventeen years ago called for Drown and then a second book, about “the rise and fall of a young cheater.” Its working title, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” now belongs to the new book’s propulsive closing piece. Along with two other stories, it employs the second-person present: “You,” Yunior, a writer teaching in Cambridge, destroy a long-term relationship, cycle rapidly through physical transformations (weight gain, weight loss, yoga, back problems), and finally determine to turn all that pain into a manuscript.

“It took forever to get the fucking stories I needed to do this project,” says Díaz, whose lunch conversation runs like an advanced literary seminar taught by a bilingual stand-up comedian working very blue. One early version of the title story began at Rutgers, where he went to college and met his first love; another was set in Boerum Hill, where he lived in a cheap walk-up before Drown was published. Eventually, he put the whole thing aside to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a tragicomic picaresque set against the backdrop of his native country’s midcentury Trujillo dictatorship, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. Shortly afterward, he was asked to be on the Pulitzer Prize board, completing his rocket arc into the Establishment.

It was, in some ways, the worst time in his life. Díaz was engaged to marry a lawyer, and, just as Wao was coming out, five years ago, the relationship imploded. “My female friends were fucking pissed,” he says. “That was the one relationship they liked.” He blames it partly on his struggle to finish Wao, and, pressed to choose, he says he’d have preferred a wedding to a Pulitzer. But he knows it’s not that simple. “I wonder if I could’ve just been a better fucking human being and written my book without having to be a pussy about it.” He admits to cheating on about half his girlfriends, but in this case he says he “committed the most unpardonable sin, which is that I made her unhappy.”

That catastrophe—the breakup to end all breakups—became the catalyst for a newer, wiser “Cheater’s Guide.” Díaz was ready, finally, to tackle everything he couldn’t in his scrappier but more tentative first collection: not just his romantic bungles but his brother’s early bout with cancer (which he beat in real life, though not in This Is How You Lose Her). Díaz was well into the book when, about a year ago, he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. (He had surgery in late June.) A doctor traced it back to years of weight-lifting and a part-time job delivering pool tables during college. It was the perfect injury to give Yunior, amplifying the consequences of the backbreaking working-class, macho culture he could never quite escape.

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.

Junot Díaz’s Counterlife