Irreverently Teaching Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

PALS Note: We welcome a guest post from Tiffany Austin. Austin is an Assistant Professor at the University of The Bahamas where she teaches academic and creative writing. This post looks at Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her in light of initial reactions that students often have about the text. At PALS, we have also written about Diaz here and here

I remember two conversations about Junot Diaz as I started to teach his works some years ago. A fellow poet argued if Diaz was him, a singular black man (read not “exotic”)—meaning non-Dominican, non-Caribbean, not-from the U.S.—he would not receive the same acclaim or be allowed the same license to write what he wrote, but would merely be considered a “hip hop” writer not writing anything out of the ordinary. This came after Diaz used profanity while interviewing Toni Morrison in 2013. The other conversation happened over a dinner talk about feminism, one woman arguing to her sympathetic boyfriend that Diaz “just got it” concerning machismo and we should be grateful for his comments on race and gender.

Junot Diaz

This night concluded with me, sitting on the floor, paraphrasing James Baldwin, commenting that racism would not cease to exist until “white” people stopped considering themselves as white.  Perhaps I stated this because I had similar thoughts about gender; sexism wouldn’t discontinue until men stopped believing they were men.  And I have found that these polar opposite responses to Diaz were paralleled in my students’ reactions to reading and discussing his novels and short stories during literature courses I taught. He either was too profane to be any good and his character Yunior disguised a misogynist writer, similar to a hip hop artist “keeping it real,” or he gave them freedom to be similarly profane and sensitive to the gender and ethnic/cultural/neo-colonial issues plaguing them as well.

Now I’m teaching This Is How You Lose Her to creative writing students to explore what could be done with character—the short stories perhaps revealing the opportunity to unfetter judgments and enter a character’s head and allow him or her to speak through mouth and movement—honestly. After reading the collection and beginning our class discussion, one student, astounded by the language and This is how you lose hersexuality pervading, expresses, “I hate this.” Another student, just as astounded by the honesty in that same discourse on language and sexuality, relates, “This is possible.”

And so beyond the themes of sex, love, identity, and naming, all colored by machismo and vulnerability, there is the ambiguity—the contradictory struggle of the voice and characters speaking of cultural tradition and residue, of present expectations regarding gender—and the language and tone at once vulgar and tender with the same or different hands, fingers, tetas, vaginas. The scene in “Nilda” shows it best. Rafa, after coupling with Nilda on the bus, tells his brother, Yunior, “Smell this…This is what’s wrong with women” (34). We experience the disdain and the struggle for Yunior to understand his brother’s actions and his thoughts, both brothers victims of “male privilege.” After Rafa is dead from cancer, and Nilda shows up at the funeral, Mami could only remember “she was the one who smelled good” (41). Here it is again, the empathetic side of Yunior, recognizing the feminine through Mami. This ambiguity shows up in my students’ views on how to write fiction, also. How autobiographical can it be? Am I exploiting myself, the people around me, culture, language, even?

One classroom exercise I employ has the students free write about a “real” person they have disdain for or simply “hate.”  Then they must become that character and write a short story from his/her perspective.  They start from the autobiographical experience, but they then must use empathy to see the world through that person’s experiences—experiences they must imagine and understand.  I find this exercise to be a difficult one for students.  They must throw “political correctness” out of the window, then usher in motivations for their own idiosyncrasies and impatience with others’ idiosyncrasies.  One student ends up writing about a philanderer, the other about her mother.  The ambiguity arises when they are forced to be that philanderer or mother—somehow ugliness becomes beauty in its awe-inspiring sense.

In my own personal practice, a friend and I pass the time by orally creating fiction at the airport whenever we travel together. We sit and observe the people passing by, choose one person, then create an imaginative narrative about the person: “He is returning to his family from a business trip (filled with golfing with colleagues), but he doesn’t want to return—he moves quickly because it has to be done and he would rather move quickly than think about it.” We know we are doing something eschew and being simply voyeuristic. But our “gaze” comes forth from a desire to know their stories, consciously knowing we are not “right” about their personal narratives. We wouldn’t mind the same being done to us as long as we wouldn’t come to know about it and it didn’t become the “truth” of who we are. The truth is in the desire to know some “being” about them.  I confess this to my students to show them not only that all imaginative work is some form of exploitation (if we’re relating the idea of taking advantage of, but not, if it’s being done unfairly) but also that there are many ways to know a character–the way she walks to her terminal, the way he laughs.  In studying Diaz, for them, the most highlighted form to know the character comes down to the way he speaks.

James BaldwinRather than paraphrase, I quote James Baldwin now: “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”  Accordingly, I teach my students to tell lives as near to contradictory honesty—eating peppermint and onion at the same time, I paraphrase Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, this time—as they can. Diaz, in his works, is the cheeky kid who confesses before a priest. We can either become the priest or the hidden listener there with him in the world he has recreated and created. When teaching Diaz, I invite my students to be both. Is the language necessary or partly meant to shock? Has Yunior been complicated enough so we can empathize with his dysfunction, his half-hearted attempt to start again? Not only do they learn empathy in terms of entering their characters’ minds and hearts, but they also become more astute observers of the anguish we all experience as beings.

And maybe to teach Diaz is to teach the struggle of expressing that masculinity simultaneously framed by cultural and familial mores and its vulnerability. In terms of Diaz’s work, maybe its profound importance is to focus on that—he smells.

Contributor Bio:

Tiffany Austin currently teaches rhetorical and creative writing at the University of The Bahamas while researching African Diaspora studies, including African American, Caribbean, Afro-Latino(a) and African literature. She has published poetry in African American Review, Callaloo, Obsidian, pluck!, Valley Voices, and Sycorax’s Daughters, a speculative literature anthology, along with a photo essay “A South in Sound” in TriQuarterly.

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History’s Inconsistent Characters

My students expect authors who make it onto the syllabus to be “good” people.  If these writers don’t have sound morals, why would we care about what they have to say?

Some of my students want the same thing from authors and historical figures as they want from fictional characters: consistency. Because of this, I see students lump both fictional characters and actual people into the overly general groups of “good” or “bad.”

Of course, this overgeneralizing is a problem that I try to tackle from the get-go each semester.

In nearly all of my literature courses, I introduce students to a chapter titled “Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom It May Prove Worth Considering” from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1856).  In this chapter, the narrator directly addresses readers and their mounting concerns about the novel’s “inconsistent” characters.  The narrator first acknowledges that in fiction “there is nothing a sensible reader will more carefully look for, than that, in the depiction of any character, its consistency should be preserved” (75).  Next, despite this seemingly reasonable criterion for judging a character’s effectiveness, the narrator refutes:

while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity to understanding them. (75)

I find the narrator’s rationale here persuasive and so do my students.  People are, by nature, inconsistent and complex.  I frequently change my mind about things without any reasonable explanation, I listen sometimes to opera and sometimes to death metal, I donate to animal rights organizations even though I eat meat, but all of this is ok.  According to Melville’s narrator, my behavior is natural—it’s simply human—and I’m reminded of several lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (224)

While my students readily and enthusiastically agree that humans are inconsistent, they still struggle to apply it at times, especially with figures they’ve long-term internalized or romanticized as “good” or “bad”. They can’t conceive how I would allow a morally “bad” author to have a voice in the classroom. Such is the case when I teach James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Last of the MohicansAlthough The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian War, Cooper writes, and subsequent editions appear, throughout the peak era of Indian Removal. I like to use the Broadview edition that includes relevant historical documents that provide context for the narrative, such as excerpts from the “Indian Removal Act” (1830) and excerpts from Andrew Jackson’s “Second State of the Union Address” (1830).

I initially ask my students, “So what do you think Cooper tries to accomplish in The Last of the Mohicans?”

Students generally respond that the text is explicitly sympathetic to indigenous plight not only because of how Uncas and his father Chingachgook, the heroic Mohicans, are depicted as wise and brave but also because even the villainous Magua only seems to be villainous because of white influence. The English manipulate Magua to act against his own nation and turn him into a drunk, resulting in his exile and fueling his desire for revenge.

However, based on everything scholarship knows about Cooper’s life and political ideologies, The Last of the Mohicans actually functions as a justification for Indian Removal, and Cooper himself was, in fact, pro-removal and pro-Jackson. By setting the novel in the context of the past and focusing on the extinction of a particular tribe, Cooper essentially argues, “It’s a shame about those Indians and their suffering, but it’s too late to do anything about it now. It’s ok though because as long as we remember them fondly, we don’t have to feel guilty about anything. Progress must continue.”

This typically comes as a surprise to students and forces them to reevaluate the connection between the novel and the section of the supplemental document, Jackson’s second “State of the Union Address,” in which he explains:

Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth.  To follow to the tomb the last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections.  But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. (451-2)

Students realize that just as Jackson discusses indigenous groups in terms of “extinction” and suggests that philanthropy can “reconcile the mind” of white Americans struggling with guilt and “melancholy reflections”, Cooper like-mindedly believes that literature can further help to “reconcile the mind,” so Americans can move forward with progress. Rightly so, my students see this as a “bad” and brain-washy thing.

This is the point in discussion where my students outwardly mourn. I hear students say: “What Americans did to Native Americans was horrible,” “Native Americans were here first, and the land was rightfully theirs,” “Native Americans were treated so unjustly, so unfairly,” “Jackson and Cooper—they were both terrible people who made everything worse.” My students ask me why I would assign a novel that is basically, in their opinions, propaganda for the historically “bad” team.

I don’t see the novel’s value in the classroom as determined or affected by whether or not Cooper was a “good” or “bad” person.  I’m okay with understanding Cooper, as I understand many other early American authors, as inconsistent.  I teach Cooper’s novel because it reveals so much about American culture in the Jacksonian era. I also teach the novel because it reveals so much about my students in the contemporary era.  I say to my legitimately concerned group: “Well, this campus stands on what was once Iroquois territory. Why don’t you take action, right the wrongs of the past, and give it back? The Iroquois nation still exists—give it all back.”

As expected, I hear no enthusiastic “yes!” from the group. Instead, the following type of dialogue ensues:

Students: “Well, we can’t do that. That doesn’t make sense”

Me: “Why not? You clearly feel indigenous people have been wronged. You feel sorry for them.”

Students: “But we can’t just give land back. We’ve done so much and accomplished so much with this space over all these years.”

Me: “Ah, you’ve ‘cultivated’ the land—it’s now too late to make a change?”

Students: “If we just give everything back, where would the university go? Where would our cities go?”

Me: “That kind of large-scale displacement would cause a lot of chaos…”

Students: “And what would Native American groups with populations way smaller than ours even do with all of the space?”

Me: “So, the land would be ‘wasted’?”

In a nutshell, the student rationale for why we can’t give the land back today sounds a lot like the rationales provided by those “terrible people” Andrew Jackson and James Fenimore Cooper.  In his address, Jackson, like my students, explains how Americans have “accomplished so much” with the land:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion? (452)

The most common arguments for removal in the 18th and 19th centuries centered on the idea that indigenous peoples failed to cultivate land and use it to its full potential. As a result, what mattered was not who was there first but who was using the land most productively and efficiently.

I ask my students, “Does that mean you’re all ‘bad’ people?”, but this question only yielded silence.

To get students talking again, I ask, “Was Thomas Jefferson a ‘good’ person?” They respond with a definite “yes.” I ask them to explain why, and they, as expected, cite the “Declaration of Independence” and his role in the American Revolution. I then tell them that as president, Jefferson devised manipulative plans to trick Native Americans into debts that they would only be able to pay off by giving up lands. Jefferson was unquestionably pro-removal. I can point to specific letters Jefferson wrote which prove so.

Is Jefferson still a “good” person? Is the “Declaration of Independence” enough of a reason to forgive his problematic ideologies about other races? Even if my students aren’t familiar with Jefferson’s plans for indigenous peoples, they are aware that Jefferson was a slaveholder.

But why do people feel compelled to categorize Jefferson, anyone else for that matter, as “good” or “bad”? Why this drive to figure out in which group to place history’s characters? Why do we need to see Jefferson as a hero and Jackson as a villain instead of as what they are: flawed, contradictory humans?

I tell my students an overly simplistic story: Once upon a time, there was a boy who was orphaned because his family died helping others during a war.  Despite being an orphan, the boy worked hard and became a lawyer.  Now a man, he eventually fell in love, got married, and tried to have children, but his wife couldn’t conceive, so they adopted. One of the adoptees was a Creek Indian, orphaned when his parents were killed during a battle. The man claimed that he saw himself in that orphaned little boy and felt compassion for him.  About 40 years later, the man got a really important job, but before he could start, his beloved wife died on Christmas Eve. In her memory, and because he loved children and was once an orphan himself, every Christmas he would go to the city orphanage and bring all the children presents.

Can my students guess who this story is about? No. How could they possibly believe that Andrew Jackson, a “bad” man who readily exterminated indigenous populations could ever do something as inconsistent and “good” as identify with, adopt, and raise an indigenous child? Jon Meacham’s 2008 biography describes Jackson in the following way:

He was the most contradictory of men….A sentimental man who rescued an Indian orphan on a battlefield to raise in his home, Jackson was responsible for the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands….Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins. (xix)

Does a story about bringing orphans Christmas presents justify or forgive Jackson of his policies or actions regarding Indian Removal? Absolutely not—those are things that can never be forgiven or forgotten, especially by those whose ancestral lines were directly impacted.

But the anecdote about Jackson does at least reveal that he, like Cooper, like all other humans, is inherently contradictory. My own students, certain of their own “goodness” shared sentiments quite reminiscent of Jackson’s and Cooper’s during our discussion of The Last of the Mohicans. Does that mean they’re secretly “bad”? I don’t know. Regardless, I think they will consider their own inherently contradictory natures before hastily applying labels like “good” or “bad” in the future.

Works Cited

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Edited by Paul C. Gutjahr, Broadview,

Jackson, Andrew. “Second State of the Union Address.” Gutjahr, pp. 451-3.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House, 2008.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, Norton, 2006.

Spengemann, William C., and Jessica F. Roberts, editors. Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.  Penguin, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Spengemann and Roberts, pp. 165-225.