Engendering the Dominican Diaspora: Junot Díaz’s Guide to Love and Loss

Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012); 213 pages; ISBN: 9781594487361 (hardcover).

• November 2013

This Is How You Lose Her is Junot Díaz’s follow up to his phenomenally successful novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). In this short story collection, we reencounter the Dominican American narrator “Yunior”—who also features in Díaz’s novel, as well as in his first story collection, Drown (1998)—and the fraught and often splintered family relations of the Dominican American diaspora struggling to make ends meet in the larger New York metropolitan area. Yet this collection also breaks new ground in how it addresses much more insistently and from a more personal first-person perspective the terrain of adult romantic relations; young Yunior has grown up.

As suggested by the collection’s title story, “This Is How You Lose Her,” and that of its last and longest story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior has accumulated sufficient experiences to now reflect on his past sexual dalliances and romantic relations and contemplate their challenges and failures. The final story, for example, begins, “Your girl catches you cheating” (175), and then chronicles the emotionally scarring aftermath of the narrator’s loss of his relationship with his fiancée. Thus, if “Yunior” in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao declares himself at the end confidently a “new new man,” settled happily into a committed (and mostly monogamous) romantic relationship, in This Is How You Lose Her we have an older and more disenchanted Yunior, who rather than proffering a successful “guide to love” tells of his failures to keep it.

The male narrator in “A Cheater’s Guide to Love” and other stories (“The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” and “Alma”) recounts with keen self-awareness his cheating ways and describes the emotional havoc he creates thereby, not only for the women who feel betrayed by him but also for himself. The reader is not allowed to dismiss him too easily as just a “bad guy.” In fact, the book opens with the main character’s declaration, “I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everyone else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good” (3).  The male narrator’s nonchalant and quick-paced retelling of his betrayals (“I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties freestyle hair” [ibid.]) are accompanied by a heightened critical self-awareness that explains why the mainstream media quickly declared This Is How You Loser Her to be Díaz’s most decidedly “feminist” work.

The collection certainly makes at least one concerted effort to insert a strong woman’s voice amid its often-testosterone-fueled tales. The story “Otravida, Otravez” takes on the first-person perspective of a young Dominican woman named “Yasmin,” who tells of her life working low-end jobs and of her relationship with a married Dominican man who, like many others, has left behind his wife and family in the Dominican Republic in search of a better life in the United States. Interestingly, Díaz’s storytelling notably slows down when he tries to render this woman’s world, and his normally quick-fire sentences and abrasive tone give way to more measured sentences and sentiments. This story thus appears as a laudable effort to give voice more directly to a female character, but Yasmin lacks the panache, emotional texture, and brashness that make Díaz’s male characters so compelling and even sympathetic; after reading these stories you want to hang out with Yunior but not necessarily with Yasmin. It is perhaps too much to ask of Díaz to create a female character equally as captivating as Yunior, but what is troublesome is that much of Yunior’s own vocal bounce and verve in these stories come from how he plays off of and plays up (often self-consciously) his largely schematic view of women. What would remain of the jocose voice and plucky persona of Yunior if he granted women greater emotional depth and complexity?

Díaz himself has in public presentations and interviews spoken at length about the challenge to render and think of women as fully human in a society that teaches men otherwise. Significantly, Díaz rejects that such gender issues are solely a “Dominican problem” and points to pervasive gender inequalities across the world, including in the United States. At the same time, readings that suggest that these are universal stories about “love” or gender inequality tend to diminish the highly specific things they tell us about the experience of the Dominican diaspora in US society. The fact that, unlike with Díaz’s previous two books, this context takes a backseat in mainstream reviews reveals, at least indirectly, how Junot Díaz has transitioned in the US literary sphere from being thought of as an important “Dominican American” or “Latino” author to being simply considered an “American” author. This, of course, is no small feat; yet once these tales are read as a general “American” story, what is missed in such readings?

What might be overlooked is how these characters and their stories are indelibly shaped by their experience as subjects from a small country in the US Caribbean backwater, whose stark economic and social inequalities propel them toward migration and cannot be understood outside the aegis of a longstanding history of US imperialism and intervention in the region. The difficult social reality that this history has produced in the Dominican Republic is described with great poetic acuity by Díaz in observations such as, “I’d tell you about the street where I was born, Calle XXI, how it hasn’t decided yet if it wants to be a slum or not and how it’s been in this state of indecision for years” (10). Indeed, Yunior’s strategies of making do, his street savvy, and quick on-the-spot improvisations (and their often noxious gendered effects) cannot be separated from his condition as a postcolonial Caribbean subject that leaves him with his “frowning I-had-a-lousy-Third-World-childhood-and-all-I-got-was-this attitude eyes” (45).

The fact that this stance of “all-I-got-was-this-attitude” is no less a strategy of making do in the United States points to the constraining realities that racial and ethnic minorities face here. Besides the ever-present economic hardship, Díaz’s stories give repeated glimpses at how US racism, particularly in the Boston area, shapes his characters’ daily lives with hostile reactions by whites and frequent police stops, and where “security follows you in stores and every time you step on Harvard property you’re asked for ID” (178). Yunior’s and the other Dominican American characters’ lives speak amply to how the constraints they face produce everyday forms of getting by that make moral certainties much harder to afford, including in gender relations (or, perhaps, there is just less verve left for convincingly claiming moral certainties when surviving the pressures of economic, social, and racial inequalities). Thus, however “universal” the theme of love in This Is How You Lose Her may appear, Díaz’s stories resolutely draw out that how we love and who we love (or do not love) are thoroughly embedded in the texture of our lived reality, which for “Yunior” and Díaz’s other characters is ineluctably that of the Caribbean diaspora struggling to make do in the United States.


Maja Horn is an assistant professor in the Department of Spanish and Latin American Cultures at Barnard College. She is also affiliated with Barnard’s Africana Studies Department and with the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the literature, visual and performance art, and political culture of the Dominican Republic and its diaspora.


Related Articles