What Can We Steal From Junot Diaz’s “Miss Lora”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Miss Lora,” short story
Author: Junot Diaz
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the April 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. As of this writing, the story is available for free on the New Yorker web site. You will also find the story in his collection This is How You Lose Her. You will also find the story in the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories.
Bonuses: Very cool! The Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned Nathan Gelgud to adapt “Miss Lora” into the form of the graphic novel. You can view it here. Writer and critic Charles May shares some thoughts about “Miss Lora.” You may or may not agree with them, but you should enjoy the discussion. Here are my thoughts about the Junot Diaz story, “Alma.”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Exposition
You are a young Dominican man whose brother has recently died. Your girlfriend Paloma is the “only Puerto Rican girl on the earth who wouldn’t give up the ass for any reason.” Why? She doesn’t want to make any “mistakes” that would prevent her from going to college and succeeding in life. That’s why you start sleeping with Miss Lora, a teacher who is so skinny that she “made Iggy Pop look chub.” Miss Lora makes you cheeseburgers and “gets naked like a pro.” Time goes on. Miss Lora gets a better job, you and Paloma go to different colleges. One of your college girlfriends tries to confront Miss Lora for sexually abusing you, but Miss Lora never enters the door. Years later, you try to track Miss Lora down.
Look at what Mr. Diaz does in the first few pages. After establishing that the bulk of the narrative will take place in the past (“Years later,”), Mr. Diaz heaps the pathos onto the reader. The narrator has some kind of interesting sexual affair and his brother is dead and he’s very in love (sexual and otherwise) and his current girlfriend isn’t quite fitting the bill. The first three sections increase in length; Mr. Diaz is doing what I call the “flood and release.” The reader is given some highly emotional content…and then the narrative jumps, providing the reader with time to digest and contextualize the narrator’s unique situation.
At least one of Mr. Diaz’s lines made me stop and consider what he meant. About halfway in, the narrator describes Miss Lora by saying, “She gets naked like a pro.” I could think of at least two meanings for the sentence:
- Mr. Diaz could be making use of the “like a pro” idiom.
- Mr. Diaz could be referring to people such as prostitutes who do indeed get naked for a living. (I gather that the nudity is a prelude.)
I’m not sure other readers will see ambiguity in the sentence, but the line stuck out to me for whatever reason. I suppose what I’m recommending is that you take a moment to consider something that may not occur to you very much: the literal meaning of idioms. Why do we lightheartedly call a group of judgmental folks a “peanut gallery?” Why have we chosen to point out that congenital complainers are “the squeaky wheels” that “get the grease?” Why does a sale get us “more bang for the buck?” The reader (if fluent in English, of course), absorbs the language as a figure of speech. The real words remain, however. I wonder what linguistics and other really smart people think about this subject. How do the literal and figurative meanings of idioms affect our reading?
Mr. Diaz made a choice in this story that isn’t to my personal taste. I hasten to say that I understand many great writers make this choice…and they’re not necessarily wrong. Mr. Diaz eschews quotation marks in his dialogue. As with any decision, there are costs and benefits. Why do I make the personal choice to use quotation marks? Here are a couple big reasons:
- They eliminate confusion as to which sentences are spoken by a character and which are contributed by a narrator. Maybe it’s just me, but I always find ambiguities and spend time trying to figure out which words are which. When I write a story, I want my reader thinking about the characters and situation, not trying to divine what I mean on so basic a level.
- They offer a clear distinction between dialogue and non-dialogue scenes. When I see a bunch of quotation marks, I know that the writer is crafting a scene between people instead of offering the narrator free rein.
What Should We Steal?
- Imbue your exposition with an ebb and flow. The release of exposition should resemble a pleasant weekend drive. Your foot is sometimes on the gas and sometimes you coast to enjoy the scenery.
- Take a moment to consider the literal meaning of idioms. Literal and figurative meanings influence the way we perceive a sentence, don’t they?
- Complete a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether or not you want to employ quotation marks. Writing is an artistic pursuit, isn’t it? We should all have some justification for the choices we make.