This Is How You Lose Her was no The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, but not much can beat that book for me. It’s not often I come across a book that so perfectly captures the Hispanic immigrant culture, and Junot Diaz nailed it with that one. That said, I still love Junot Diaz and this collection of short stories once again shows his incredible talent as a writer. Writing like this makes me want to stick to scribbling grocery lists for the rest of my life.
The are two problems people have with Junot Diaz. One, his writing is raw, often vulgar, and his main character, Yunior, is a louse. Kind of? When I read reviews like that, I wonder if people have read Drown or The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, because if they have, I don’t know how they can’t have at least a little empathy, or if not empathy, understanding for Yunior’s incorrigible promiscuity. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does explain his behavior. Not everyone with his history reacts as he did, but it’s not unheard of and if what I have read is true, Yunior is Diaz’s alter ego. Yunior’s reactions are Diaz’s reactions, and I’ve read he is still not over the girl who dumped him. That kind of breaks my heart.
If you want to know what I’m talking about and don’t mind blinding neon sign spoilers, read this LARB interview. This is another great review of the book, and it mentions my complaint with the collection–the anticlimactic ending–but we can talk about that in the comments.
The second problem people have with Junot Diaz is his unapologetic use of Spanish and Spanglish in his writing without translating it for the reader. One person gave him one star for this, saying it was alienating and that she couldn’t enjoy the book because she was not familiar with Hispanic culture and that perhaps you had to be from the United States (where people are more familiar with those people and that culture) to appreciate the book.
Funny, I’m 0% Russian, know exactly 0 Russians, and have never, not once, stepped foot in a Russian restaurant, let alone visited a Russian community, Russia, or a country familiar with “those people,” and yet I managed to get through Anna Karenina. I’m sure I missed several nuances, but that’s why they invented the internet. Well, for those people references and for cat videos. Was it easy for me? No, but I didn’t think Leo Tolstoy was out to get me, either. I tend to agree with Junot Diaz on this one, although I he could have been more diplomatic.
Still, it’s true there are one liners or phrases that one may not get immediately. I was shocked when someone told me Anna Karenina was supposed to be funny in parts. My response: where?!
For example, page 100, when Yunior’s brother Rafa was sick with cancer and their mother was worried sick.
Her eyes were shining behind her black Madres de Plaza de Mayo glasses.
Unless you are up to date on your Argentine history, you might not know that is a reference to the Dirty War, a period from 1976 to 1983 where people who spoke against the dictatorial government disappeared. They are/were the desaparecidos (the disappeared/those who have disappeared). You spoke against the government and you disappeared in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day at lunch, on your way home from work, etc. Between 10,000-20,000 people are still unaccounted for to this day, and 3 of the 14 founding madres have also “disappeared.” The madres wore white head scarves over their heads to symbolize the baby blankets of their children. The met every Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo and marched for the desaparecidos. Their last annual march was in 2006 because the current government is not related to the atrocities committed during the Dirty War.
The mothers became a symbol of the quiet strength of motherhood. There is actually an interesting discussion to be had on how the group put a different face on 1970s feminism by claiming their strength came from clinging to the traditional role of woman as mother, but that’s a topic for another day. What’s important to take away here is that by saying Mami’s eyes shined behind her Plaza de Mayo glasses, Yunior acknowledged his mother’s pain, her strength, and her refusal to give up while accepting the inevitability of a tragic ending. Well. At least that’s what I think is going on. Just my luck she’s really wearing glasses by a brand called Plaza de Mayo.
Sorry about that crazy tangent. You crack open the door to Argentine history and I kick it wide open, tear down the walls, and add a new room! Sheesh!
I’ll just stop here while I still have readers….