Chicano literature is nothing new: there’s Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, Luis Valdez. . .all writing from the perspective of Americans with a hispanic background. Their work includes “spanglish” — a dialect of English liberally spattered with Spanish euphemisms and colloquialisms. Their work dealt with themes of isolation, alienation, and the migration experience. Then along comes Junot Diaz — he’s not, strictly speaking, a chicano writer (he can’t be, as chicano literature is usually linked specifically to Mexican-Americans, and Diaz is, and writes as, a dominicano) nor is he, strictly speaking, a contemporary writer. His voice is a uniquely New York, New Jersey voice — it is the voice of the American dominicano, a uniquely separate and beautiful dialect. The dominicanos Spanglish is separate from the Chicano Spanglish — there is a different vernacular, it is used to emphasize different themes and ideas. It is something new, to most of America, and something very familiar to New York’s outer burroughs, and to Manhattan’s Washington Heights Area.
The back cover reads: Díaz turns his remarkable talent to the haunting, impossible power of love – obsessive love, illicit love, fading love, maternal love. On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness–and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in the New York Times-Bestselling This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”
Diaz’s greatest strength is in his prose, the words he strings together, the voice he utilizes. Yunior, a character recognizable from “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” serves at the narrator of the story. He’s smart, savvy, and a little boy in a grown up world. He recognizes the machismo and the bad qualities in his father and his older brother, yet finds himself unable to disengage when he finds himself falling into the same pattern. These are not a collection of happy love stories, romances that end with the boy finding the girl. They are stories about growing up, about losing love, about infidelity and immaturity and an inability to forgive. They’re about the Dominican machismo — the idea that Dominican men are sexual predators, that it takes a good woman to tie a dominican man down, and even then, she’ll have to turn a blind eye. It’s about the downfalls of machismo — the alienation, the inability to fit in with American society.
But it’s about the other side, too. The strongest love story in the entire novel is that of Yunior and his family — the love that he shows for his mother, the love for his older, Byronic brother. This familial love transcends las mujeres, transcends the novias, transcends the heartbreaks and failed teenage romances. It’s a Shakespearean family trapped in modern day New Jersey.
The father follows the Dominican prototype: he cheats on the mother, he feels the need to provide for his family, but also to control the family. He flies them out of the D.R. to stay with him, and then demands that they boys remain within the house, that Yunior, who has curls in his hair, have a buzz cut so that he doesn’t look “African.” He won’t let his wife interact with the world at large because she doesn’t know English — but he doesn’t, of course, teach her English. The family is further isolated by the weather — by piles of snow that dump down out of nowhere, by a cold that is foreign to their Carribbean pasts. Yunior is the only one to fully adapt, the only one to go out and play in the snow with the neighbor kids. But, when the father becomes abusive and indifferent, the entire family braves the snow the escape.
The story’s are about Yunior’s older brother, Rafa, who he both hero-worships and despises. Rafa is the Byronic hero of these stories — he’s handsome, charismatic, rebellious. He is the galan and cabron both — their mother’s golden son, and luckier with the ladies than Yunior could ever imagine becoming. He’s in trouble with the law, but even that doesn’t keep him down. Yunior detests the way his brother treats women, but also respects the multitude of them coming through the house. But then Rafa is diagnosed with cancer.
Yunior’s question throughout the stories is a simple one: does he follow in his father/brother’s footsteps, or does he step out as a kind of new dominican man. It shouldn’t be a hard question — there is the sense that, even to young Yunior, it isn’t a hard question — but it’s easier to take the path more followed, it’s easy to become the kind of person that everybody already assumes that you are. But Yunior isn’t a hero — not even the kind of dark hero that his brother was. He is, at heart, a story-teller, and a viewer of life. There’s a sense that Yunior himself doesn’t know who he is, or why he does half of the things that he does. He’s a modern day anti-hero — stuck between not two but three cultures: that of the D.R., of the elite, college-educated American society, and that of the streets — of comic books, hip hop music, hooded sweatshirts and busfare.
This is a short story collection written the way that collections should be — each story can be read alone, each is a small snippet (though some are significantly better than others) but, put together, they create an even stronger tapestry, a full picture of a family that isn’t so different from any other living down the street. Yunior is the jerk in your high school class, his brother is that one guy who dropped out, his mom that poor woman who works so hard. The women are women you know — teachers, girlfriends, good and bad girls who ride the bus. It’s a glimpse into a new life — not the old Chicano life of isolation or acceptance, but a new one of ownership and, if not idealism, at least one of a firmly established identity.