The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Junot Díaz


Junot Díaz is the most interesting kind of… hmm… I was going to use the word “genius,” but maybe that’s not quite right for a man who spends seventeen years honing one brilliant book.

It seems almost, if this makes sense, dismissive of his level of struggle, of his attention to detail, of his voracious devouring of other writers’ work and the level of his engagement with his characters and their world. A “genius,” it sometimes seems, just sits down at a piano one day at the age of five and begins spontaneously composing music by ear. Díaz is, in the truest sense of the word, a craftsman. I’ve been more than a mild fan ever since the publication of his debut book, Drown, but his latest, the linked collection This Is How You Lose Her, is my favorite of his three wildly acclaimed books, including Pulitzer winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. All three books center on Yunior, a frighteningly smart, reluctantly machismo boy-from-the-hood-turned-intellectual-and-damaged-man, with a deep weakness for willful, sexy Latinas and an even deeper weakness for betrayal.

What makes Díaz’s work most fascinating is its brutal, no-holds-barred emotional honesty, which allows for a complex array of interpretations from readers. He was recently taken to task in Elle Magazine for his portrayals of women and the men who…well, cheat on them. The reviewer quipped that his new book failed to introduce her to any women who weren’t summed up as “big stupid lips and a sad moonface,” or “this one piece of white trash from Sayerville,” and went on to say that parts made her “flinch.” “The constant dismissal of women as sets of culo-and-titties slams a door in my face,” she writes, concluding of Díaz and her failure to engage in This Is How You Lose Her, “It’s not me, it’s you.” Yet while this reviewer and I are probably both self-identified feminists who would agree that so-called “male subjectivity” is not exactly “underreported” in fiction, I read her assessment of Lose Her as though reading about a completely different book than the one I’d experienced.

As Díaz and I discuss in this interview, this entire collection seems, to me, a frenetic, desperate struggle for love and connection, and to understand the human beings we so often Other due to our own insecurities. In particular, the chapter “Otravida, Otravez” is as fine a piece of first-person writing from a female point of view as I’ve read from a male writer, and Díaz’s intentions (not originally gleaned by me) as to how this piece fits into Yunior’s own understanding of women would definitely seem to take the relevance of culos and titties down a notch. Yet the beautiful danger of Díaz’s work is that he never preaches in the story itself—that he lays worlds and hearts out bare and allows his reader to simply react. The relationships in Lose Her far transcend sexual bravado, encompassing the fraught and angry bond of brotherhood, the legacies of lost fathers on sons, and the steel and suffering of women left to serve as familial glue by default—women who love fiercely without any comforting notions of being understood or saved by the men around them.

I first had the pleasure of publishing an interview with Díaz in Other Voices magazine, when Drown was his only book. That time, I was stupid enough to assign the interview to one of my editors, rather than conducting it myself…she did a fabulous job, but the loss was mine. This time, I didn’t make the same mistake.


The Rumpus: So I’ve read that you’re dubious there will be the kind of hype about This Is How You Lose Her that there would be for a novel—and that certainly does seem to be true in the industry. I love the short story form, so, like a lot of people, this pisses me off. I personally read this book very much as a novel, though. The pieces all stand alone, but particularly because of the haunting specter of Rafa’s death looming over the book and weaving through so many of the pieces—as well as on how Yunior’s father’s and brother’s womanizing impacts him as he becomes a man—it seems to me very true that this is a work meant to be read as a whole. The experience deepens. The opening piece, for example, “The Sun, the Moon and the Stars,” focusing on Yunior’s relationship with Magda, reads very differently by the end of the book, given what else we’ve learned about Yunior. With traditional collections, that isn’t necessarily true. Even great collections don’t really have to be read ensemble for their full impact. I was a little surprised, given the marketing climate these days in publishing, that This Is How You Lose Her isn’t just being positioned as a novel by Riverhead’s publicists…I think it could get away with that—with it being an episodic novel. I mean, if you consider something like Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting a novel…I’m not sure where my question is here, but I guess it starts with how you personally conceptualize the difference between collections and novels, and whether there’s a reason that you wanted to preserve the integrity of this book as a collection, not a nonlinear novel.

Junot Díaz: Well, yeah, there’s little question that short stories, like poetry, don’t get the respect they deserve in the culture—but what can you do? Like Canute, one cannot fight the sea, you have to go with your love, and hope one day, things change. And yes, I have no doubt this book could have been easily called a novel—novel status has certainly been granted to less tightly-related collections of stories. By not calling this book a novel or a short story collection, I guess I was trying to keep the door open to readers recognizing and enjoying a third form caught somewhere between the traditional novel and the standard story anthology. A form wherein we can enjoy simultaneously what is best in both the novel and the short story form. My plan was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human—the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability. In my mind what novels do best is that they immerse us deeply into our character’s world—they truly transport us deep into these spaces—but the same way you know a Hollywood movie won’t end after thirty minutes, you carry in yourself the implicit contract that the novel won’t throw you out of itself ’til the very end. That bulk of pages is a form of consolation, of security.

Of course we all know that’s not how life works. The novel that is our life can end at any time. Sometimes even on page one. We know story collections end when they end, as well—the pages serving as a countdown—but nevertheless the standard story anthology hews closer to what makes being human so hard: it reminds you with each story how quickly everything we are, everything we call our lives can change, can be upended, can disappear. Never to return. Usually at the end of each story we’re thrown clear out of the story’s world and then we’re given a new world to enter. What’s unique about a linked collection is that it can deliver both sets of narrative pleasures—the novel’s long immersion into character-world and the story anthology’s energetic (and mortal) brevity—the linked collection is unique in its ability to be both abrupt and longitudinal simultaneously. How fucking cool is that?

This Is How You Lose Her is, among other things, a tale about a young man’s struggle to overcome his cultural training and inner habits in order to create lasting relationships—in my mind, the do-over culture of the serial cheater creates this whole fractured sense of self and seemed to me perfectly suited to this third form. I could have written a traditional novel with these same characters and these same themes—and perhaps one day I will—but for now I didn’t think it would have the same punch. The way there are some types of drawing paper that make blacks and red pigments pop more; well, linked collections bring out your narrative silences and lacuna, make them pop more—and that’s no small effect. Therefore the form helped to underscore my subject. But really when all is said and done I have a deeply-held belief that the linked collection is able to capture certain aspects of the human experience better than either novel or the anthology.

Rumpus: It’s actually interesting, because you seem to be creating a body of work where reading any of your three books deepens the reading experience of the other books. The “whole picture” of Yunior is informed deeply by each work, with a kind of cumulative effect. Of course it’s not unusual for genre writers to write continuously about the same character—novel series are popular in genres like crime fiction or mysteries—but this is less common among authors of literary fiction. When it does occur, it strikes me that it’s often deeply rooted in place, like in Faulkner…whereas Yunior moves around a lot, and the stories span a very large chunk of his life, and they don’t have that kind of place-as-character continuity…Yunior himself is the “place” to which we keep returning. What is it about this character—I mean, he seems somewhat autobiographical, but that alone doesn’t explain it, of course, since a lot of writers have written autobiographical characters…but what compels you so deeply about Yunior? I know you’re working on an apocalyptic novel now that I presume doesn’t include him, but do you think he’ll continue to appear in your work for the duration, from time to time?

Díaz: I suspect Yunior will appear in future work but not in Monstro. That’s a different world from this one, with a different ethos.  Yunior I’ve come to know well over the course of these three books; he’s my hypertonic alter-ego, but familiarity alone is not the reason I pursue him so relentlessly. The fascination that Yunior exerts over me has much to do with the fact that he is about as fucked-up a guy as you can imagine when it comes to issues of gender and intimacy, when it comes to his relationships with women, and yet he’s also far more receptive and sensitive towards the women in his life than most of the guys that I grew up with. He certainly isn’t afraid of women’s intelligence or their competence—which in my world is pretty astounding—and clearly seeks out strong, smart women, the girls a lot of guys stay away from. Then there’s the underlying contradiction in of his character—the deep desire he has for intimacy. Love is his central drive, as much as it was Oscar’s central drive in the novel Oscar Wao. Yunior longs to fall in love, to fulfill what he sees as the ultimate human vocation: communion with (in his case) a woman, and through that communion create a covenant with the future. He’s smart enough to know that there really ain’t no higher calling than that. It’s why we’re here on this planet. He knows as well that what’s wrong with him, how he has been damaged as a person, is precisely through the failure of his father to create such a covenant. He is the child of infidelity, and his father’s infidelity and the family’s subsequent disintegration haunts him. In his heart Yunior wants relationships with these great gals, knows that through that door lies his own healing, but dude has none of the skills, none of the courage, to stay in these relationships.

That’s what makes him for me such a fascinating guide into the world of men: he wants traditional love and yet is terrible at it. He’s fucked up and yet he’s very aware of his fucked-up-ness.  He longs to do better and yet he can’t. It’s these conflicts and cross-currents that makes him, for me at least, endlessly productive as a character, and why I keep returning to him. If he was just a lout he wouldn’t be all that interesting. He’s so close to being a good guy and knows that it wouldn’t take much for him to cross the line and yet (at least until the end) he’s too afraid to make the leap. That’s what’s so frustrating about him. And for me at least what’s so interesting about him, too. How close he is to achieving his longed-for intimacy and yet also how far.

Rumpus: Only at the very end of the book, in “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” does Yunior’s identity as a writer emerge. It was interesting to me that his writing, rather than a resolution of his love life, serves as a kind of emotional epiphany for this character. What role does his being a writer play for you in Yunior’s character arc?

Díaz: I guess I saw the ending somewhat differently. I thought Yunior’s epiphany in this book—if he has an epiphany—had more to do with his belated hard-earned recognition of the hurt he caused his ex-fiancée, a leap of the imaginary, a practice of compassion, that he was previously incapable of. By the end of the book he manages to do something he has never done before: confront the damage he has caused the woman he loves. He feels not only remorse but is also able to imagine how horrible that pain he caused must have been. He feels responsibility and compassion. All of this is only possible because he finally begins to see the women in his life as fully human. He finally gains, after much suffering, a true human imaginary. Something that for the average guy is very difficult to obtain, considering that most of us are socialized to never imagine women as fully human. Male privilege in all our societies predicated and facilitated by this very blind spot. Just look at the Yunior who greets us in the opening chapter, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars.” That Yunior can’t even begin to approach Magda’s pain, her sense of betrayal and humiliation; his reaction to being caught cheating is to try to “fix things” as quickly as possible, to get the relationship back to normal. His idea of fixing certainly doesn’t involve accepting real responsibility. To address Magda’s pain, of course, would have been too much at this point, would have meant taking responsibility and also addressing his father’s betrayal of the family and all the wounds that came with it. He just wasn’t ready to face that reckoning and that’s why he ultimately loses Magda. But with each failed relationship he gains insights that will lead him to that final apotheosis. Why do you think Yunior the writer imagines the other woman in his father’s life in the chapter “Otravida, Otravez”—he imagines the woman that his father left his mother for as fully human and not simply some caricature of the Other Woman. This is an act of compassion, of sympathy he would never have been capable of at the beginning of his journey. The fact that the tale occurs when it does in the collection was meant to signal an increasing humanity in him. Brings him one step closer to the place he has to be to stop his fucked-up-ness altogether.

At the end of the book, Yunior is in no place to practice his new human imaginary in a relationship. He has no one around him, he’s still got some mourning to do. But we see him putting that new imaginary to work on the book that you are reading. So as a reader who has finished the book you are now the judge of whether or not he has actually learned anything, if he’s really in a new place at all. The end of the book throws you back to the beginning and asks you to take stock of the entire experience, to judge. If the book works for you, and you are convinced that Yunior has learned something, then you the reader will be able to imagine a future for Yunior where he finally is able to fall truly in love, where he is able to enter into true intimacy. On the other hand, if Yunior’s narrative fails to convince you, if you think what he’s written here shows only sexism and bullshit, then you’ll imagine a future where he never gets better, where he just keeps cheating women and of course, himself. The book’s final pages throw the reader back to the beginning of the book and asks her the important question: has he really changed? Are these fictions I’m reading indicative of an imaginary that has learned something about viewing women as human beings, or are they indicative of the same kind of sexist logic that will lead to the same old bullshit he’s been pulling all along?

At least that’s how I thought of the writing, the role it had in framing the book for the reader. But probably it’s something that no one will notice, a game too cryptic for anyone to play.

Rumpus: Probably my favorite thing about Yunior as a character is his blend of street culture and so-called “high” culture. What’s especially fascinating about this to me—I guess because of personal experiences growing up poor and urban—is that Yunior doesn’t seem to view academic learning as a means of escape or “getting out” per se—he is simply, though he doesn’t actually say this, interested in things. As a character, he never (in this book) talks about wanting to escape his neighborhood of origin or wanting more money to buy nicer things. He does talk about certain aspects of self-loathing that exist in his childhood environment, like the great bit, “None of us wanted to be niggers. Not for nothing,” which is a theme you repeat numerous times. But Yunior grows into a man who still keeps very close to his culture of origin, who still prefers to date women from the Dominican Republic or at least Latina women, and who doesn’t seem to fall prey to the mythology of “getting out” or assimilation. That said, he clearly travels a great cultural and intellectual distance from his youth to adulthood. Always brainy despite himself, the adult Yunior seems to have embraced his book smarts and commonly alludes to things only a highly educated person would know—he also obviously has some money as an adult, given the kinds of resort he and Magda stay in. Yet he also often speaks in the old, Spanglish way of his youth, in urban street dialect, and he holds on to certain machismo aspects of his upbringing even when they don’t serve him well or seem to even…suit him, if that makes sense. This whole contrast in his character is fascinating to me. I think American lit often approaches immigrant stories as a bit either/or, in the sense of writers either depicting sentimental nostalgia about the “purity” of the old culture, or a kind of ruthless determination to break away and leave it all behind. Your work seems to transcend that binary kind of lens to viewing culture. Can you talk about that?

Díaz: I think a lot of the most interesting immigrant writing involves stepping outside of that old, dreary binary. Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker is a great example. Same goes for Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Yunior, like a lot of his generation—me included—belongs to this tradition that’s trying to find lifepaths that are somewhat more complex, more human, than the old familiar formulas.

I modeled Yunior clearly on my own experience as an immigrant kid growing up in NJ. That binary you described above of home/failure or away/success—I grew up with that shit all around me, the Scylla and Charybdis of my childhood. On one side you had the escape narrative that insisted that the only way out of economic social deprivation—the only way to advance, to make something of yourself—was to abandon your community and build a life exclusively in the larger (whiter) world (as if the reason one is poor and marginalized is because of one’s community). A narrative that was on me particularly hard as an immigrant, as a kid who had been designated as “smart.”  The idea that I would maintain any loyalty to my broke-ass landfill neighborhood once I got to college was considered on all sides as pretty absurd. (Clearly I understand the desire to escape insecurity and hostile material conditions, but I don’t agree you need to erase the past that made you possible to do so. Any success that requires you to sacrifice your younger self over the altar of Advancement is no success at all—at least not to me.)

And then there was the other side of the binary, that other lame yawn that came out of the community and didn’t have the power or the legitimacy of the escape narrative but that was present nevertheless—the narrative that states that the only way you could be an authentic “brother” was to “stay in the projects forever.” I felt that narrative acutely, too, especially as a boy. Masculinity and neighborhood all caught up in one.

As an immigrant and an honors student (before I got kicked out of that track senior year) and as a kid who grew up deep in the neighborhood, I had both narratives on me to an oppressive degree. And felt a lot of pressure to choose one side or another: to either embrace home like mad or reject it like mad. Of course within each choice was embedded a whole set of expectations. If you stay at home, don’t talk too much about books, don’t try to get motherfuckers to engage in “intellectual’ discussions,” don’t talk about an ethnic studies course you took or the study abroad you did in Japan. Same thing: if you go away to say college, don’t dwell too much on race and certainly not on how racialized poverty and class are in this country. Don’t mention white supremacy. Keep your ghetto shit to yourself. Of course I’m being a little stark to make a point, but it sure as hell felt stark growing up in it. Over time I became very aware that people had a lot invested in you choosing sides. You had to choose one or the other but not both, not neither. Complexity was out of the question. Multiple loyalties were another way of saying betrayal. I eventually realized that these bipolar choices were not only ridiculous, they would also require me to jettison the essence of who I am. My multiplicity, my complexity, my simultaneity. A lot of us in my cohort came to the same conclusion. It didn’t hurt that we had a lot of contact with people who had wholeheartedly embraced one side of the binary, and in the long run didn’t seem like it had served them too well.

So when it came time to design Yunior, I baked these tensions right into his character, made it part of his journey. Like you, I like that Yunior defies easy categorization. Like you, I like that he doesn’t seem at first glance super-intellectual and yet is so fucking brainy he scares even me. Like you, I like how he inhabits all sorts of seemingly contradictory subject positions. He is both Dominican and an urban NJ kid. Both ghetto and grad school. Both bruto macho and perceptively sensitive. Both immigrant and a native. Maybe in the past someone like him would have seemed unlikely, but go to any college in the East and you’ll find Yunior-esque kids from the neighborhoods who are trying to defy all the old formulas, who are trying to stay in touch with home while also embracing fully the world. That was the path I chose for myself, a path I set Yunior on and one that I think that makes this fucked-up world bearable.

Rumpus: Did you happen to read Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing?

Díaz: Of course I did. That book had legs, and here again was a writer trying to do something interesting with that liminal space between the novel and the short story anthology. I’m a sucker for these sorts of books and while I think there are market forces that push for novelizing short story collections, there is also artistic, aesthetic motivations as well for working in the Goldilocks zone.

Rumpus: There’s a story in there about the couple down the hall—the only story in that collection that doesn’t fit cleanly into the novel-in-stories concept, that has a very different feel. I kept thinking of that piece when I read “Otravida, Otravez.” This is one of the most haunting stories in the book, with an incredibly vivid, stoic, prematurely-old and quietly devastating female first-person narrator, Yasmin. It’s also the only story in which Yunior doesn’t directly appear—which I now, thanks to this interview, understand is due to your envisioning him as the author of that story. I didn’t get that on my first read, and kept feeling like I was missing something. I kept thinking Yasmin’s lover had to be Yunior’s father…but the names didn’t line up. I remembered from Drown that the father has another marriage—

Díaz: Yes, that is Yunior’s father and the woman in the letters is Virta, Yunior’s mother. I took some liberties, of course. Changed dates around, but I guess I didn’t mind the incongruities since I was trying to get Yunior to flex his imagination, having him imagine the other woman for the first time. (His mother has lost her first children in Drown though it’s never discussed, only the scars remain.) Remember, Yunior’s father is named Ramón in Drown and this is the same Ramón in “Otravida, Otravez.” I guess I should have made the connections clearer. Especially since I altered the dad’s biography, etc.

Rumpus: The Yunior we encounter in This Is How You Lose Her seems to be a somewhat…gentler Yunior than the one we meet in Drown. There aren’t any references to drug dealing, to having hit women, to uncertainties/shame about his sexual orientation.  The two books are separated by a long period of time for you as a writer. Has Yunior’s persona changed over time? I mean…well, this is kind of an existential question, maybe, but is Yunior always the same character/person, literally, in your mind? Or has he become more fluid, and kind of an embodiment of something wider than one man? Logistically, of course he has the same brother, the same basic life story, and obviously any person does have many sides and facets. But between that and what you say about altering the father’s biography, it also made me wonder whether it’s even important for Yunior’s exact logistical details to be identical in each version of “him” that appears in your work, or whether he’s allowed to be reinvented with time, and as it suits you and each new book?

Díaz: I guess I was operating under the rule: no need to tell the same story twice. Yunior narrates Drown almost as it’s happening, so there is a rawness, an immediacy—like the writer who wrote the book, he’s really going for the kill. He’s a young narrator with something to prove and has all the young man’s ferocity. But the Yunior of Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her is like the person who wrote them older and not so much interested in the same things as his younger self. He’s ruminative and focused more on consequences. He’s looking at his life over the long term. Describe a fire the day after it happens and you can get the fire right, but you often don’t nail the context or the larger significance of the calamity. Describe a fire twenty years later and the description of the blaze may not be as immediate, but what it meant over the long term is suddenly more clear. That’s the difference, I think, between these books. Yunior has grown up, has other interests. The violence of Drown I’m looking at from another angle, less sensational but for me at least equally troubling.

I definitely meant Yunior to be more postmodern as a character—by which I mean someone that is not unified and coherent and whole. For me it was always okay if he seemed different from chapter to chapter. I think on my past and I don’t even recognize who I used to be. I’m so different from my twenty-year-old self, and yet I am him and as a writer I have to account for these disparities in some way. One of the first lessons you learn as a writer is that the level of character consistency is sometimes overvalued.

Rumpus: The moment when Rafa clocks Yunior in the head with a padlock from a distance, while Rafa is dying of cancer—I love this moment. It’s darkly hilarious and irreverent and strangely intimate, and seems to embody so much of the ideology of Yunior’s world. Familial love doesn’t seem to be rooted in things like kindness or reciprocity or affection, but in something primal and elemental, that has breathing room to encompass cruelty and revenge but yet that remains somehow unshakable. No matter what Rafa does, or what Yunior does to Rafa, or what hell either of them put their mother through, they are still Family. There is an unconditional love there, even if it’s not a particularly tender love—even if it’s fierce and has fangs. Whereas the love between men and women—between lovers—seems highly conditional, and usually impermanent in your work. Provided you can answer this without pissing anyone in your personal life off, do you see romantic love is a transient thing, whereas the bonds between siblings, between mothers and children, can’t be shaken even when we may want to shake them?

Díaz: I believe committed love between partners is possible. I’ve seen it, I’ve tasted it. It’s not the mystical Kirin; the shit is real. It’s not like families don’t break up, either. Intimacy is just hard, and in our automatized, dehumanized world harder still. Of course Yunior and his family are tight. The shit they had to survive couldn’t have been survived without that tightness. Yunior lacks his brother’s Old Testament loyalties (and vengeances) but he’s still very loyal to his family. He just hasn’t learned (’til the end) how to transfer those types of loyalties to the women in his life. Shit, part of Yunior’s problem is the kind of non-love he experienced at home guaranteed he’d be lousy at love in the larger world.

Rumpus: You’re a relentless reviser, from what I understand, and it took about a decade-and-a-half to complete and compile This Is How You Lose Her. I have a couple of questions around this: first, what do you think is the biggest change the manuscript went through—was there anything you altered that would have really changed the direction of the book or of Yunior’s life or character? And second, can you maybe talk a little about coming to peace with your own process as a writer. Did it ever bother you to be a “slow” worker, or have you always been easy with that? It seems so many young writers are pushed to “write every day” and that there’s a concept that “practice” is the most important element, and while I see wisdom in that, of course, it’s never been my process, and a lot of writers I respect are slow writers or binge writers…what’s been your trajectory with your own process?

Díaz: The original plan for the book actually held together pretty good during the seventeen years it took to write it. But damn, I had seventeen years to do the kind of deep thinking and story selection that helped reinforce the book’s overall integrity, so I’m not sure it was that hard to keep the book on track.

As for my slowness as a writer—that’s been a struggle, no question. We live in a culture that values and rewards machine-speed productivity. Even the arts are expected to conform to the Taylor model of productivity. Used to be in the old days, only the pulp writers wrote like machines. Now everybody is expected to be literary John Henrys. So in that context someone like me is an anomaly. For many years I felt pressure and even felt bad that I wrote so slow. But what can you do? As an artist you’re on a journey of discovery and sometimes that journey takes a long time, doesn’t subscribe to [a] train schedule, to the punch-clock. And I need to read a lot to make my pages happen. A book a page seems to be standard rate of exchange. I read a book, I get one page. But it’s clear to me that us slow-poke writers are a dying breed. It’s amazing how thoroughly my young writing students have internalized the new machine rhythm, the rush many of my young writers are in to publish. The majority don’t want to sit on a book for four, five years. The majority don’t want to listen to the silence inside and outside for their artistic imprimatur. The majority want to publish fast, publish now. The professional aspect of the practice is stressed over the artistic dimension. I was recently teaching in a school famed for its writing program and a lot of my students—not all of them—got more excited talking about advances and agents than they did the books they’ve read recently. In this atmosphere, I’m a total outlier.  That really struck me—how many of my students wanted to be writers but how few of them practiced the kind of reading that would help sustain all the writers we’re producing. But there were a few who did read and who believed in it, and those were a great joy, believe me.

Rumpus: What have you read recently that excited you?  What are some contemporary books you’ve come across that you think should be far more widely known and read than they are?

Díaz: I’m a reading lunatic so I’ll just throw out some titles. Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine (one of the most fantastic debuts in a long time). Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai (a book so ridiculously haunting I do not have words for it). Ana Menéndez’s Adios, Happy Homeland (tragically overlooked and arrestingly brilliant.)  Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (this opus requires you to read hard but you will be immensely rewarded). Douglas Light’s Girls in Trouble (really wonderful collection about some rough-ass lives—this dude is the real deal). Paul Yoon’s Once The Shore (elegant and mesmerizing). R. Kikuo Johnson’s Night Fisher (a graphic novel about meth, Hawaii, and high school foolishness.) Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning and Gina Franco’s The Keepsake Storm (these poets are about as courageous as they come.) I. J. Kay’s Mountains of the Moon (this is a master clinic on how voice can power a narrative, though that whole “Africa” thing. . . ) Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing (reporting at its best.) And my boy Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, which is one of the best novels I’ve read in years. Finish this book and you will be reminded what love is and what it costs and how it saves us.


Photograph of Junot Diaz © 2012 by Nina Subin.

Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction and a forthcoming memoir, Blow Your House Down. Her novel A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014) is currently under development by Netflix as a series produced by Charlize Theron’s production company, Denver & Delilah. Her most recent novel, Every Kind of Wanting (Counterpoint 2016) was included on several “best of” lists for 2016, including Chicago Magazine’s and The Chicago Review of Books’. She has nearly 20 years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, and as the faculty editor for both TriQuarterly Online and The Coachella Review. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, the LA Times, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and in many other magazines and anthologies. After two decades of teaching at many universities, including UIC, Northwestern’s School of Continuing Studies, UCLA Extension, the University of California Riverside Palm Desert, Roosevelt University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College Chicago, Gina is excited to be a student again at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Program for Writers, where she has returned to complete the PhD she left unfinished twenty years ago. More from this author →