The Philosopher and The Poet: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

I used to divide my personality into two extremes: the philosopher and the poet. It was how I would defend myself when I did something to hurt someone. I argued that the hurt person had been wooed by my poet-self and hadn’t realized how frustratingly rational my philosopher-self could be.

Over time, I realized this distinction wasn’t satisfactory, and gradually began to consolidate the two selves. I think this consolidation was what drew me to hip-hop; if done right, the beauty of the lyricism and the story-telling (poetic) reveal some rational truth or argument about the world (philosophical).

It is this hip-hop aesthetic that draws me to Junot Díaz. Díaz’s most recent collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her does not shirk from this aesthetic. The collection focuses mostly on Yunior, Díaz’s narrator that he developed in both Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This collection, like Drown, has Yunior as the main character of most of the stories, but unlike Drown, many of the stories focus on Yunior’s early adult years.

Díaz’s prose is beautiful. Laden with slang, the pages have a beat to them. From the first paragraph, Díaz establishes himself as a language musician, effortlessly painting pictures with his rhythmic writing:

I’m not a bad guy. I now that sounds–defensive, unscrupulous–but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.

Díaz’s language sets up one of many dichotomies that exists within his writing. Of course, Díaz’s entire task is to wreck these dichotomies. In this way the slang versus beauty distinction collapses into a truth in which his writing is beautiful because of his use of slang.

Similarly, Yunior waffles between stories of his youth in which racism manifests itself in terms of poverty and stories of his adulthood in which racism manifests itself in bigoted remarks from white people. This, too, is a false distinction. Both types of racism are undercurrents in all of the stories. The first type explains why he feels so alone in his adulthood and the second explains why he feels like such an outsider in his childhood.

Or there is the dichotomy that exists between Yunior and his older brother Rafa. When Rafa appears in the story, he foils Yunior in such a way that Yunior appears effeminate and bookish. Rafa is the model of manliness and is frequently characterized as a womanizer. But in the stories without Rafa, Yunior himself is a womanizer. A formula quickly appears: Yunior + Rafa = bookish Yunior, Yunior – Rafa = womanizing Yunior. But in the last story in the collection, Díaz obliterates this dichotomy as well. Yunior is a professor at Harvard by this time, but in the very beginning of “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior admits to sleeping with fifty women while dating his fiancee. In this story, Yunior is both bookish and womanizing.

Díaz also narrates two of the stories–“Alma” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”–in the second person. This option fits his simplistic style really well. And it complements Yunior’s self-deprecation.

The magic in Díaz is that somewhere in the stories about women and ex-girlfriends riddled with slang, we get truth–the sorrow and confusion in a brother’s death, the difficulties and triumphs of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and, of course, lost love.

Reflections, or, He Shoots Lightning From His Feet

I want to pack up every thought I’ve had in a box and place it in a corner where I will one day forget about it and when I finally rediscover it I will assume it’s a box of old basketball trophies (the kind you get for participating) and because you can’t do anything with old basketball trophies I will put it out with the trash and never have to think about it again.

I want to pull back all the words I’ve ever spoken as if they existed on measuring tape and I could push a little button on the side of my head and they would all come back to me and even if the shock of all of those words hurt me a little and made me feel a little dizzy at least they would stop hurting anyone they have stung.

I want to walk backwards through life and watch as everything I’ve ever done unravels and I want to know how it feels for the pressure to decrease steadily steadily steadily steadily.

I want to line up every person I’ve ever known and I want to stand on trial before them so they can judge whether I have helped or hurt them not because I want to know if I am a good person or a bad one but because I want to know how to maximize the helping and minimize the hurting.

I want to write down everything and everyone I have ever loved so that I can chart it [love] and diagram it [love] and dissect it [love] and maybe figure out what it [love] means.

I want to curl up into God like He is a king-sized bed and I am a three-year-old child and I want to feel all of my secrets wash away under me deep under the covers into long-forgotten and never-traveled bed-spaces.

I want to gather all the people I have seen but whose names I do not know and feed them cake and throw a party with small talk and then later big talk and then much later tears and when I leave I will know many new names and I will have made many new friends and fallen in love perhaps twice or more.

And I want to dance so hard that I create a storm and no one will be able to get near me and they will look at me and they will say that storm used to be a boy but then he danced and now he shoots lightning from his feet.

Let’s Get Some Things Clear: Whitman, Slavery, and White Privilege

I observed a HS English class today. The students were learning about Walt Whitman and were using a biography from poets.com. It had this passage in it:

It was in New Orleans that he experienced at first hand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city.

Let’s get something straight: Whitman could not experience “first hand” slavery. Because he was not a slave. He may have “seen” it or known slaves. But he could not experience it.

Now this may just be poor writing and bad wording. But we don’t question this kind of thinking. If I go live in a low-income neighborhood, no one will question me if I say I “experienced” poverty first hand. That’s part of my privilege. Likewise, no one questions the fact that the wonderful poet Whitman had first had experience with slavery. Because he was white and well-off.

Not all of the literature we teach in schools has to be about race. But let’s not make Leaves of Grass into a treatise for racial equality. It wasn’t.

Langston Huges says it best when he responds to Whitman’s “I hear America singing”:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides, 
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.