I’m not a bad guy, says Yunior, the recurrent protagonist of Junot Diaz’s stories, on the very first page of his award-winning book This Is How You Lose Her. Further, he says, I know how that sounds – defensive, unscrupulous – but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.
The self-defeating honesty of this declaration sounds suspicious, to say the least.
It has now been a year since Diaz wrote the devastating “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma”, an essay that recounts the time he was raped as a child. The piece, while being hailed as an important voice in the burgeoning #MeToo movement, also received criticism owing to the problematic connection Diaz made between his assault and the trouble he had maintaining healthy relationships with women.
Soon after the piece was published, writer Zinzi Clemmons publicly accused him of forcibly kissing her in May, 2018. Other women came forward with accounts of being verbally bullied and demeaned by him. Soon enough, the literary world was divided over whether Diaz was to be forgiven or be further vilified. In a statement he released to the press, he claimed responsibility for his past actions and said that it is important for men to continue learning about consent and boundaries.
Some time later, however, Diaz denied the charges, and subsequent investigations by, among others, the Pulitzer Prize board and the Boston Review – with both of which he was professionally connected with – cleared him of allegations of sexual misconducted.
The alter ego
Several elements of l’affaire Diaz are evident in his very own literary manifestation, Yunior, who first appeared in Diaz’s debut collection of short stories, Drown. He is a timid, bookish young boy exposed first to the routine horrors of life in the Dominican Republic, and later to the difficulties of being an immigrant to the USA. In his second appearance, in the Pulitzer prize winning The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, he is a sucio, an “asshole”, who spends his time chasing women, weightlifting, writing violent fiction, and ineffectually attempting to heal his emotional scars. Finally, in This Is How You Lose Her, he is a grown man, a creative writing teacher at Boston who is struggling under the burdens of multiple failed relationships, an estranged mother, a dead brother, and the casual racism he suffers daily.
Having seen Yunior grow through the years, it is impossible not to feel a flurry of emotions, often conflicting, for him. Readers find themselves hating him, pitying him, and disapproving of his actions, while also feeling a vague sense of resignation, like watching a twig get sucked to the center of a whirlpool, all at the same time. Throughout the narrative, his recurrent problems at maintaining healthy relationship with his partners leaves everyone wondering how Yunior stumbles through tragedy after tragedy without learning a lesson – and if he does, why in the world he does everything in his power to mess things up again.
Perhaps we can come closer to the answer by first understanding the nature of the problem.
Creating a persona
How we perceive ourselves has a lot to do with social and cultural factors. They are essential in determining the social identity we construct for ourselves. The mask we create becomes our basis for interacting with society. Any harm caused to the mask amounts to a direct attack on one’s identity. This selective self-representation, then, is how we deceive both ourselves and the world at large.
The creation of such an identity is plainly evident in Diaz’s fiction. In Yunior’s compulsive cheating (he ends up cheating on his fiancée of six years with fifty different women), deadbeat attitude, and apparent lack of sensitivity, we have the perfect illustration of a certain set of characteristics. Whenever Yunior comes close to having his mask removes, it results in a great unravelling, one that may force him to confront his overwhelming problems. It is so much easier to carry on the way he always has.
And for the longest time, Diaz was no different.
Deception and hope
The dangers of self-deception run deeper still. As philosopher Robert Solomon put it, truth can be a vice parading as a virtue. Yunior’s self-reflective honesty is just that: a troubled past justifying a more-troubled present. It doesn’t matter how many times he messes up – he doesn’t learn because he is too caught up in his ways. In fact, it becomes a way for him to keep his demons at bay. In fooling others, he is convincing himself of his lies.
And here lies the crux of the matter: Diaz is both a victim of his past circumstances and a perpetrator of his current deeds. He is both helpless in the face of his past and the architect of his future decisions. Through the very act of creating Yunior de la Casas, Diaz has created an elaborate system of self-deception that not only shields him from his past trauma, but also acts as a foil to justify his actions.
Yet, there is still hope. In his essay, Diaz claims he has changed. He writes that he is not promiscuous now, and that he doesn’t hurt people with his choices. He writes that he is taking responsibility for himself and that he’s come to learn that repair is never-ceasing. He has seemingly come to realise the potency of toxic masculinity (another key trait of Yunior’s), and, slowly but surely, is amending his ways.
This does not put him past his former behaviour but does certainly afford him the chance at redemption. Not the redemption of an unblemished career and an erasure of his actions from collective memory – rather, the redemption of apologising to those he has hurt, and committing himself to a different way of living.
To understand Diaz is to recognise that all of us are both heroes and villains of our lives. While we may aspire to be the completely virtuous person, the truth is that most of our lives are spent trying to be less of a monster. And this humbling realisation goes a long way in holding ourselves accountable for our actions.
For those who do understand this, change and redemption can’t be too far off. Even Yunior finds grace, years after his fiancée leaves him, as he sits down to work on his literary masterpiece, The Cheater’s Guide to Love. Even he comes to realise that only the truth, after all, is what will set him free.