This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
New York. Riverhead. 2012. ISBN 9781594487361
These days, more and more people in both the United States and Latin America are “downloadeando” music, “parqueando” their cars, and eating “lonche” in the early afternoon. High levels of immigration from Latin America to the United States have made Spanglish a growing phenomenon, and in This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz’s long-awaited follow-up to The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (see WLT, Mar. 2008, 65), it takes center stage. Yunior, the protagonist of all but one of the stories in the collection, speaks an English peppered with Spanish, US street slang, and “grad school nerd stuff” as he examines his identity as a “sucio”—an “asshole,” a cheater—and, through this, his relationship with his family, his present, and his past.
Though Spanglish is scorned by protectors of the purity of the Spanish language (the Mexican writer Octavio Paz described it as “abominable”), Díaz’s characters remind us that, for many people, the very notion of an origin is becoming problematic. The Dominican Republic—“the Island”—is always slightly out of reach for the US-resident Latinos who populate This Is How You Lose Her. Treasured photos of family members left behind in Santo Domingo become increasingly out of date, and return trips end up in resorts filled with European tourists. “If I’m not Dominican then no-one is,” Yunior defends himself to one girlfriend, “but she laughs at that. Say that in Spanish, she challenges, and of course you can’t.”
Rather than simply describing these identity crises, the language of the stories embodies and performs them. The border between English and Spanish becomes blurred, and so we find phrases like “guapísima as Hell” and words like the hispanicized abstract noun “beserkería.” There is an addictive musicality to the language throughout the collection, with its combination of consonant-heavy Germanic monosyllables and the open vowels of Spanish: “cállate la fucking boca.”
What makes this code-switching so compelling is how naturally it fits within the single narrative voice. “It takes so much more energy keeping these things apart,” Díaz says in one interview. This is the great thing about This Is How You Lose Her: here is genuine linguistic innovation that is unpretentious and alive, and the resulting stories are funny, brilliantly observed, and devastatingly real.