When I first heard about this story, I raced to read it as I generally need help in all four areas. And the story pretty much reads like an instruction guide, only as it goes, it unfolds an incredible subtext of the poverty and racism faced by the ‘you’ of the story.
Diaz gives helpful advice. ‘Clear the Government Cheese from the refrigerator.’ ‘Hide all the pictures of yourself with an Afro.’ He gives advice on what to say to the mother of the girl that comes around, what to say to the boys in your neighbourhood. How to ignore the guy in the neighbourhood who weighs two hundred pounds and walks his two killer dogs that tear cats to pieces. As Diaz says ‘never lose a fight on a first date or that will be the end of it.’
Diaz’s story I think is a good example, of what I’ve heard called iceberg storytelling (I’m not sure if it was Hemmingway or someone else who came up with this term, but it’s a good one). Only one eighth of the story is actually revealed, the rest is lurking below the surface. As a reader you get a very accurate picture of the person Diaz is portraying, even though you only learn through the helpful advice he gives you.
A line like ‘[she says] I like Spanish guys, and even though you’ve never been to Spain, say, I like you’ says so much outside the actual literal meaning of the words. It’s a beautiful technique that Diaz uses to full effect in his stories.
Diaz was born in the Dominican republic but emigrated with his family to the United States when he was eight years old, where he lived in a poor neighbourhood in New Jersey. As he says in an interview, ‘[he has] seen the US from the bottom up.’
I myself have been comfortably middle class all my own life. Even when I’ve been unemployed, or working in a factory, I know I’ve always had a safety net. Yet the stories of the poor have always fascinated me. Like Orwell says, you can’t write when you’re desperate for your next meal, so most of the stories of the poor are told through observation. Diaz himself, says that he was lucky, and that he wrote his stories in his collection Drown, while he was working as an editorial assistant for a university press. However, his family around him continued to have mixed fortunes, with two of his brothers going to jail.
How to Date… is a great story, and well worth a read, as are the other tales in the collection ‘Drown.’ And as Diaz reminds us at the end of the story, when the date is over, remember to put the government cheese back in the fridge.