This is how You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, Faber and Faber, Pp 213, $ 26.95
IN this collection of linked narratives about passionate love, illicit love, dying love, maternal love, the author, a professor at MIT, focuses on Yunior de las Casas’s life as a successful writer and college professor through a series of tumultuous romantic relationships. The stories are told through the lives of New Jersey Dominicans as they struggle to find a point where their two worlds meet, revealing the infinite longing and inevitable weaknesses of the human heart.
The collection begins with ‘The Sun, the Moon, the Stars’ where Yunior paints a sardonic picture of the upscale Dominican resort to which his girlfriend has dragged him on the eve of their ailing relationship’s demise. “A goddamn fortress, walled away from everybody else” with “beaches so white they ache to be trampled”. Sequestered there, he finds himself surrounded by “Garcias and Colons” who “come to relax after a long month of oppressing the masses” and the “melanin-deficient Eurofucks” who look like “budget Foucaults…too many of them in the company of a dark-assed Dominican girl.” In this story we get to see how the author Diaz must have lived as he presents a very realistic description of being poor, of being an outsider, of being a person divided.
Violence permeates Diaz’s work as becomes obvious in reading the stories. The violence of language in This is How You Lose Her, can be very painful to read. Still by locating its origin in the formative experiences of characters, the author traces the ways violence circulates through the processes of displacement, both physical and emotional, across the generations. Presumably the men resort to violence to define themselves and defend claims to power.
In Invierno, Yunior’s father brings his wife and two sons from the Dominican Republic to live with him in New Jersey, though separated for years. He imprisons them in a tiny apartment for the winter. When he catches his sons “making too much noise” or “staring out of the window at the beautiful snow”, he teaches them discipline…forcing them to kneel on the cutting edge of a coconut grater until they bleed.
Later, in story titled The Pura Principle, even as Yunior’s brother, Rafa, loses his own battle with cancer, he strikes out at Yunior, blindsiding him in the street with a padlock to the head.
The most poignant and indelible story is Otravida, Otravez where Yunior’s perspective is exchanged for that of his father’s lover, Yasmin. The descriptions of the dirty sheets from the hospital laundry where she works evoke those cycles of violence and hatred that target women far too often. Yasmin says, “I never see the sick. They visit me through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets, the alphabet of the sick and the dying…sometimes the stains are rusty and old and sometimes the blood smells sharp as rain. You’d think, given the blood we see, that here’s a great war going on out in the world. Just the one inside of bodies, the new girl says.”
The stories in general capture the connection between the past and present, between being and becoming, in a way difficult to replicate in a novel. You get a picture of the American immigrant experience and witness moments of triumph, such as when Yunior’s father Ramon saves enough money from his minimum-wage industrial work to purchase a home in the US or when Yunior escapes the precarious life of a small-time drug dealer to study literature at Rutgers. But each instance of hope accompanies countless others of illness, addiction, betrayal and lock-up – cycles of violence and oppression that question the truth about America’s promise as a land of opportunity.
The stories depict gross violence and leave behind an aching feeling.
(Faber and Faber, Bloomsbury House, 74-77 Great Russell Street, London-WC1B 4DA)