Yunior grew up tough in a poor neighborhood. He's Latino with African roots, an immigrant and a super nerdy kid who went on to teach at a university. He's gruff and masculine, but he's also an artist — as well as the creation of one.
Yunior is the protagonist of Junot Diaz's first book of short stories, Drown, and the narrator of his prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Now, both Yunior and Diaz are back with a new set of short stories called This Is How You Lose Her. It tracks Yunior's struggles with fidelity, beginning with him cheating on his girlfriend and ending with him cheating on his fiancee with 50 different women.
Diaz tells NPR's Steve Inskeep about the theme of his book and the real-world circumstances that inspired it.
On why it took Diaz 16 years to write This Is How You Lose Her
"When I finished my first book, Drown, I realized that the theme of infidelity, which runs through the book, needed sort of a much more upfront presentation, and I concocted this project. It just really interested me. But you know, sometimes you chart out a course and you think it's going to be an afternoon walk, and you realize it takes you half your life."
On how Yunior sees his infidelity
"The progress of the character is ... really interesting because, you know, when you encounter Yunior at the beginning, he thinks that, you know, all he has to do is sort of 'fix the relationship.' And what I mean by that is that if you really, really had that compassion that this is a person, this is a human being that I've hurt, he wouldn't be so quick to scrub away his crimes. And I think that by the end of the book we see a Yunior that's completely different. The crime, the pain he has caused, the betrayal of a relationship [with] this woman, he can't escape [it]. And in some ways [it] hits him in the heart with an almost fatal blow. And it's a very, very different character at the end as far as his compassion than who we're introduced to at the beginning. ... I think that that's the most significant thing in the development of a person, especially a boy."
On how Diaz was taught to view women
"I grew up in a world, [a] very New Jersey, American, Dominican, immigrant, African-American, Latino world. And, you know, I went to school and it was basically the same. I went to college; it was basically the same, where largely I wasn't really encouraged to imagine women as fully human. I was in fact pretty much — by the larger culture, by the local culture, by people around me, by people on TV — encouraged to imagine women as something slightly inferior to men. And so I think that a lot of guys, part of our journey is wrestling with, coming to face, our limited imagina[tion] and growing in a way that allows us not only to imagine women as fully human, but to imagine the things that we do to women — that we often do blithely, without thinking, we just sort of shrug off — as actually deeply troubling and as hurting another human being. And this seems like the simplest thing. A lot of people are like, 'Really, that's like a huge leap of knowledge, of the imagination?' But for a lot of guys, that is."
On the Dominican women in the book who warn against getting involved with a Dominican man and how that reflects a larger reality
"You know, always the joke is who's making that accusation? And I just think that for the group of women who are making that accusation, Dominican men are standing in as the [everyday] male. But look, bro, are you telling me that if I get all the women of the United States and gather them all together and then say, 'Do you highly recommend American men?' that you're going to get, like, a sterling recommendation? That these women are going to be like, 'Oh, yes, American men are fantastic! These dudes have done so well by us.' I think that every culture, if you got all the women of that culture together and said, 'Grade your men,' I don't think any country — even a place like Denmark, which has this famous sort of gender equality — would give their men anything higher than F as a collective. And that's a reality."
On why, despite his smarts, Yunior struggles to understand women and the world
"This idea of what we [call] 'figure out the world' or 'figure out ourselves' — we're talking about wisdom. And, listen, I teach at a place, I teach in a town where supposedly the most intelligent, brightest people come out of, are developed and work. I'm at MIT and I'm near Harvard, I have affiliation with Harvard, and I've got to tell you, there is absolutely zero correlation between intelligence and wisdom."
On why Yunior ends the book alone
"I don't think that this book's representation of heartbreak would be so aching, would be in some ways so rough if this wasn't a person who was longing for love. And I think what we're left with at the end is certainly not the new relationship that would be the salvation. We're not left with this kind of typical American moment where we see him on a park bench meeting someone. But what we're left with is a character who, for the first time in his life, I would argue, is capable of being in a normal relationship, has the tools, has sort of the imagina[tion], has the heart necessary. And for a lot of people, they want to see the consummation; they want to see ... him married. But for me, it felt, as an artist, what mattered more is not that he found the love he wanted or that he's met the person, but that for the first time in his life he's actually ready. This would be a person who could be in a committed relationship, and I felt like that was an enormous victory for him."