Junot Díaz lives with apocalyptic visions. Maybe it's because the 43-year-old author lived in the Dominican Republic until he was six years old, a place that he calls, along with Haiti, "the most apocalyptic in the world." Or maybe it's because he spent his formative years in New Jersey near a large landfill and within slight distance of New York City, during the nuclear threat of the 1980s.
"I was one of those kids that grew up in a time where we'd be sitting there watching the news, and they'd suddenly flash a map of New York City, and they would show a big black ring of every area, of every town, every person within that range that would be utterly obliterated," Díaz says by phone from the East Coast where he splits his time between N.Y.C. and Cambridge. "And of course, we were deep in the heart of that ring."
Inspired in part by personal hero Octavia Butler—author of the brilliant, Nebula Award–winning novel Parable of the Sower—Díaz has spent years trying to write a science fiction novel inspired in part by his apocalyptic dreams. An excerpt from his latest attempt-in-process appears in the June issue of The New Yorker. "Monstro" takes place in the Dominican Republic and tells of an epidemic that springs up in Haiti, producing 40-foot-tall cannibalistic creatures. It's the stuff of nightmares, told in the typical Díaz voice of a 19-year-old Dominican-American male who's more interested in getting laid than soul searching at the abyss.
Still, Díaz isn't very interested in discussing his latest project, which he says is just in the early stage, though he does admit that the "apocalyptic history of both the Dominican Republic and the United States has resonated with me and continues to shape a lot of the interests in my work." That, plus a steady diet of movies like The Terminator, which he's actually used in the curriculum in a post-apocalyptic lit class. "That's how nerdy I am," he says with a laugh, after proclaiming that "it's not only Sarah Connor that dreams of the world exploding."
Díaz' latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her, follows the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but he says it was written over a span of 17 years. Though they may not deal in actual end-of-the-world matters, the collection's stories capture the steady unraveling of one Dominican-American man (aside from one told by a female narrator) from childhood through adulthood. Yunior, the character also at the center of Drown, the 1996 collection that got Díaz pinned as the next "it" writer, reappears here. Yunior also happens to be Díaz's childhood nickname, though the stories are packaged as fiction and not memoir.
"I'm not a bad guy," Yunior says in "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," the opening story. "I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it's true. I'm like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good."
The next 200 pages show Yunior to be a cheater and an occasional liar, but always a man struggling for clarity and love. The last story, "A Cheater's Guide to Love," especially nails this point home, when after a failed long-term relationship, Yunior goes on doomed self-improvement kicks (running, Bikram yoga) that end in injury and emotional despair. The ending remains unresolved, with Yunior on the "cusp of transformation," in the author's words, but still not quite there. "It's up to the reader to write that final chapter," Díaz says.
Yunior is a reader and a thinker, but he's also trapped in what Díaz describes as "hetero-normative patriarchy." He and his "boys" describe women as bitches and ho's, and define women and lovers first by their body parts, second by their personalities. When I offer up that, as a woman, it was difficult at times to see past this raw voice, Díaz claims that it's important not to confuse representation with approbation.
In an era when the denial of racism or sexism dominates discourse, says Díaz, those who do the best job of reminding people of their oppression are artists. Looking away from the ugly side of life won't do anything to make things better, a point driven home in This Is How You Lose Her.
"How can you even be in on the conversation if you avoid it?" Díaz says, choosing his words with deliberate emphasis, as befits his job as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We've gotten into a very weird place in our culture where most of us are deeply avoidant of the kind of conversation that would be required to, in many ways, alter or improve our situation. Because to alter and improve our situation means looking into the abyss."