Put differently, many of the conversations about Díaz’s misbehavior—especially those on social media, and among women in the literary world — have gone beyond discussions of misogyny and sexual misconduct. They have also revolved around what kind of Latinx literature is celebrated, who writes it, and who likes it.
These questions are important to me as a professor of Latinx and Caribbean literature who also grew up in the Dominican communities Díaz describes. My first reading of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in graduate school was a revelation. I had never read a book written by a male Latinx author that spoke the language of my circumstances so accurately. There was something about the novel’s irreverence, humor, and violence that seduced me. In reckoning with my relationship to Díaz’s writing, I realize that the unabated male gaze of Díaz’s characters — the gaze we now are wondering how to connect to the author’s own gaze, and to his behavior — has been part and parcel of why I loved his work from the outset.
Surprisingly, Díaz’s prose seduced me in the same way that my favorite women writers had for years. My academic focus has almost exclusively been on women-authored literature about women who in some way or another behave very badly (and deliciously) for their own sake. Sucias, as Deborah Vargas might put it. Tales by writers such as Kanai Mieko, Kōno Taeko, Anna Lidia Vega Serova, Rita Indiana Hernánez, Achy Obejas, and Erika López (I majored in Japanese and Caribbean literatures) described the drama, challenges, and pleasures of life but offered no easy resolution. Abuse, especially at the hands of men, features prominently in their writing. I rarely saw absolution in their work or personal growth for anyone. Instead, they offered the messiness of women’s bodies and desires. Then and now, I read some women’s expressions of irreverence— especially by women of color, and especially in the face of sexual and gender abuse and violence — as being deeply radical.
But, as so many have written about, desire, fear, and repulsion are often intertwined. My disinterest in narratives of growth at the level of art (not to be confused with a real-life search for reckoning and redemption) can be traced to the unsettling cohabitation between my hyper-masculinist training and my innate feminist impulses (i.e., an innate childlike desire for equality and justice). What is appealing in Díaz’s writing, which is possibly connected to his own experiences and behaviors, is that space between his characters’ striving towards absolution and its persistent failure.
It is possible to both enjoy Díaz’s writing and critique its perspective. But, as fellow academic Lorgia García Peña recently noted, in “many syllabi Díaz is the representative of Latinx, if not minority, literature.” If the only person of color, Latinx, or black author in your syllabus or book shelf is Junot Díaz, it is not a wonder you have placed so much weight on him. If you are now scrambling for the names of other Latinx authors—authors as well known as Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez—I behoove you to ask yourself why that is the case. Because I have never started from the literary norm—the white male voice—I will continue to teach varied writings by Latina and black women, and not just the ones I personally love.
And yet. On a recent family vacation in the Dominican Republic, I asked my brother to bring me Carmen Maria Machado’s book Her Body and Other Parties, since I had the nerdy fear that I would run out of books to read at the beach. My brother obliged, recounting that his (white female) coworker teased him about having such a book with such a title on his desk. I doubt, as does he, that his officemate would have found it equally amusing had it been one of Díaz’s books on his desk. For years, I had helped harbor in my brother a love of Junot Díaz’s work. I once asked Díaz to personally dedicate my brother’s copy of of This Is How You Lose Her. Why didn’t I ask friend and fellow Dominican author, Aurora Arias, to do the same? Why didn’t I also spend years recommending to him the work of Latina writers, the way I had with my students? On some level, I must have felt that Machado’s and Arias’s work—like the work of all the irreverent women writers I loved—was for me, whereas Díaz’s was for everyone. I, like my brother’s colleague and like my brother himself who admits to feeling a bit self-conscious about the book, demonstrated just how successful my gendered training had been.
This bifurcated view — both not seeing him as the only important Latinx writer, while also participating in behavior that elevated his writing above others — meant that I both recoiled from and found comfort in the implacable male gaze of Díaz’s characters. I had been trained from my earliest years that my body was supposed to be pleasing to both a gendered and raced gaze. Even as a young child of four or five conversations about my body were relentless, from family members and strangers. Her hair color is almost blond! How lucky. Too bad it has a hideous texture. Your voice is too high, talk like a grown woman (at twelve). Go ahead, dance with him! I would be pushed into a crowd at twelve or thirteen to dance with one of my father’s many lascivious adult male friends. (It is no wonder I have only recently learned to enjoy merengue and salsa; for years I associated it with either being seen as a young teen bitch or enduring clammy hands on my back.)
I remember being in a Dominican hair salon getting my hair did for junior high school prom when a man I had never seen before found it within his purview to enter the salon just to tell me that I was pretty but I had to smile. I was characteristically infuriated, but, more to the point, I was also horrifically embarrassed because he had seen me in rollers. My mind mechanically shifted its attention to the indispensable task of moving the muscles of my mouth to a favorable position. Whatever intelligent or idiotic activity had been happening in my brain would be replaced by a familiar (to many women) song and dance of self-hatred.
“Catcalling” was something my female family members taught me to manage not with my go-to-reaction of getting into a loud argument with the catcaller but, instead, to smile and continue walking, knowing that I was being looked at and assessed from behind. To not smile or to pretend you had not heard the man was to incur a terrifying wrath. Family members passed some tough love “wisdom” down through the generations: “Enjoy it now because you’ll be sad when you’re too old for anyone to look at you.” Well, great, now I had two things to worry about.
And so I was trained to be a girl. What, then, could be more familiar to me than the voices of these hyper-masculinist messages? I could hardly discern my own desires from the (more important) desires of others around me. I mention all of these examples, and there are countless others, because I want to emphasize how many girls, Latina and otherwise, are taught that their bodies and thoughts do not belong to them. For their part, boys are often taught explicitly and through watching the behavior of their family members that to be a man is to absorb the women around you—even twelve-year-old girls in beauty salons—into the drama of your self-making. How does this training shape our sense, even our sense as trained literary critics, of what literature matters? Even beyond which writers the biased literary and academic world celebrates, how does it shape what we enjoy?
I met Junot Díaz as a 26-year-old graduate student who wanted to interview him for my dissertation. Since then, Díaz has been extraordinarily supportive of my work. He blurbed my book even though it concludes very clearly that those who most suffer under hyper-masculinist violence are women and queer subjects, in spite of the kinds of abuse the men of color in his narratives endure. This in no way negates the accusations against him—to which he has ostensibly admitted through his response to Zinzi Clemmons—but I offer it simply because it is true.
In a public Facebook post, fellow academic Lorgia García Peña urges us to not forgo nuance in our attempts to “have a productive conversation about the structural violence in academia and the art world that allows on the one hand for assholian/bullying behavior to be, not only acceptable, but expected, and on the other for a dialogue about sexual violence that has dangerously begun to conflate micro-aggression and machismo with rape in the same breath.” I recognize that some have seen Díaz’s recent New Yorker essay about being raped as a child to be preemptive of the accusations to come. To me, the essay shows how deeply collapsed the causes and effects of masculinist violence are. In our struggle to do the difficult work of subverting that violence, it doesn’t help us to forgo asking how that kind of violence led to the rape of an eight-year-old child.
Though I disagree with some of her claims, especially in relation to race, Virgine Despentes’s King Kong Theory gets at something thorny but vital when she writes: “We insist on behaving as if rape were extraordinary and isolated, outside of sexuality, avoidable. [. . .] Whereas it’s quite the opposite—it’s at the center, the heart, the foundation of our sexualities.” As Aya de León so aptly put it: “My goal isn’t to drag Junot Díaz, nor is it to excuse him. My goal is to end sexual violence against women and girls [and everyone else]. And in order for that to happen, we need to end male domination.” To do this is not only to hold people accountable for their actions—the way they have taken part in the generational cycles of sexual and gender abuse—but also to get at the very roots of our cognitive and psychic wiring. And in this task, as in the literature — including Díaz’s — that continues to resonate most forcibly with my life, there is no easy resolution.
Dixa Ramírez is the author of Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present.