Tuesday, September 18, 2012
How Junot Díaz Almost Made Me Miss My Bus Stop
Some authors are so good that I want to give them my full attention, which means not reading them on the bus. Sometimes I fail at this.
Back in April, I was on the bus on my way to the library when I saw that my magazine had the latest story by Junot Díaz. I told myself to save if for when I got home, so I could savor it. Then I told myself I would just read a few paragraphs. And then I almost missed my bus stop, hustling down the aisle and out the door, magazine in hand, before the bus pulled away.
The story was "Miss Lora," and like the best stories in his 1996 short story collection, Drown, it is electric, crackling with energy that seems to rise off the page. Here's a passage that practically dares you to stop reading:
"You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That's what happened with your girlfriend Paloma--she stooped to pick up her purse, and your heart flew out of you. That's what happened with Miss Lora, too."
Although Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, there are fans of his stories who swear he's at his finest in the shorter form. Do the words Pulitzer Prize-winner put fear in your heart? Fear not: his stories are as accessible as they are dazzling, their immediacy heightened by Díaz's exuberant use of language.
Although his stories are frequently irreverent in tone, they often traverse dark and emotionally complex terrain. In "The Pura Princple," Yunior, who narrates most of the stories and who previously appeared in Drown and Oscar Wao, recounts his volatile brother's final months and his marriage to Pura, whom his mother hates. "She'd never been big on church before," Yunior says of his mother, "but as soon as we landed on cancer planet she went so over-the-top Jesucristo that I think she would have nailed herself to a cross if she'd had one handy." In "Alma," Yunior tells of his first love, "one of those Sonic Youth, comic-book-reading alernatinas," and his foolishness. When Alma reads his journal, which recounts an infidelity, she confronts him, to which he replies with "a smile your dissembling face will remember until the day you die: 'Baby . . . this is part of my novel.'"
All the stories above and more are included in Díaz's latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her. I checked my copy out on September 14th, just one day before the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through October 15th. It's a time to celebrate the contributions of American citizens of Spanish, Mexican, Caribbean, and Central and South American descent. I'll be celebrating with Díaz's latest stories, grateful to him and to the grade school librarian he spoke of at his recent Chicago appearance, a woman who didn't speak any Spanish but who empathized with the young boy, only recently arrived from the Dominican Republic, and said the magic words: "Have some books."
Who are your favorite Hispanic American writers? And feel free to share any suggestions on how to celebrate Hispanic American Heritage Month.