I’ve taught Junot Díaz’ short stories and his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for years. His short story collection, Drown, has been a consistent favorite among my students. In class, we examine the short stories through the lens of various critical theories, chief among them: Feminist Criticism and Marxist Criticism. Drown readily exemplifies misogyny, double standards, predatory sexual behaviors, and patriarchal authority. When viewed through a Marxist lens the fact that Drown is a reflectionist text, a product of the culture and society that produced it, cannot be denied. Díaz is a product of this very same culture; we now have confirmation that he could not escape its pitfalls. Junot Díaz has been accused of forcibly kissing the novelist Zinzi Clemmons, and of being verbally abusive to writers Carmen Maria Machado and Monica Byrne. The novelist Alysa Valdes wrote that she was punished by Díaz and his literary machine for speaking out about the way Díaz mistreated her. If social media scuttlebutt is to be believed, these accusations are just the tip of the iceberg.
I’m a Dominican-American poet and writer. Before Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao there weren’t too many writers of Dominican descent blowing up the New York Times bestseller list (even though Julia Alvarez’ amazing work was in the world, no one in my educational institutions was teaching her work. I came to Alvarez’ work after reading Díaz. Gotdamn patriarchy). In America, Dominicans and Dominican Republic meant a handful of things: baseball, timeshares and beach resorts, and to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, nothing good. Then here comes this smartass platano from Jersey writing dialogue from Dominican diaspora that is so accurate, when you read it you feel like you’re in your abuela’s living room on a Sunday afternoon. And what’s crazy is that the shit gives you all the ugly you remember from your childhood. And to top it off, the writer responsible for putting Dominican writers on the literary map, wins the Pulitzer Prize for his crazy ass novel. “Maybe now,” you think, “I’ll be thought of as something other than a baseball player, a jodedor (drug dealer from Uptown), or a serial cheater. Maybe now, someone might think I’m a writer.” Here was my very own platano Picasso, painting masterpieces of Dominican diaspora. Or so I thought at the time. I was caught up in the excitement of seeing a part of myself on that “stage.” The dude was woke too. Knew about Dominican anti-blackness, anti-Haitianism, and was against all of it. He taught at fucking MIT, yo! I’m like I can get into academia for sure now. I admit it I got caught in the lights.
My training as a poet demands that I never assume the speaker in the poem is the poet. I encouraged my students not to assume that Yunior is Díaz’ doppelganger. However, as a product of Dominican culture, some part of me always suspected that if Yunior is Díaz’ avatar, then the apple doesn’t fall far from the fictional tree. The truth is I know a Papi, a Rafa, a Yunior. So do you. It doesn’t matter if you’re Dominican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, or Cuban, whatever. Papi, Rafa, and Yunior are your cousins, brothers, uncles, fathers, and grandfathers. That reality is what makes people identify with his characters and laugh at, albeit uncomfortably, their life choices and predicaments. Halfway through This Is How You Lose Her I grew bored with the trope. I always felt that Díaz walks a fine line between caricaturizing Dominican / Latinx culture and presenting us as fully realized people. Wider success with white audiences can sometimes come from the white audience being able find confirmation of certain stereotypes in POC’s writing. This Is How You Lose Her, except for “Otravida, Otravez,” for me, comes dangerously close to being confirmation. Several women writers have pointed this out over the years, but because of Díaz Pulitzer Prize, his status as Latinx hero, his “one of us-ness,” nobody listened to these women. We don’t listen to women enough. Listen here, here, and here, for starters.
We would be foolish to take down yet another famous artist for being a misogynist and sexual trespasser, and not also take down the institutions that enable them. Sexism, sexual harassment and assault, and misogyny have long been a staple of the Literati: that nebulous entity that perpetuates literary elitism, tokenism, and functions as a microcosm of society’s ills. Every industry has a version of it. The Literati have expanded their reach beyond parties. It has evolved to include writer’s conferences, retreats, and residencies. The MFA as an institution is also peculiar in this formula because of the level of intimacy it promises and delivers. Creative writing students are pushed to be vulnerable, and some writing teachers even demand it. A predator can see that vulnerability, they capitalize on it. Many creative writing students have horror stories to tell. For some mysterious reason, not enough mentors, program directors and deans think about these dangers beforehand. Not enough of them advise students to be wary, or demand that visiting writers, professors, and paid speakers not harass or assault women.
I’ve read at poetry festivals and have been invited to give workshops and speak at universities. Yet, no institution has made me sign a sexual harassment code of conduct acknowledgment form. Nor has any institution made it mandatory that I sit through thirty minutes (at the very least) of sexual harassment and misconduct training before engaging with their student population. I can’t speak for everyone everywhere but this lack of basic prevention is pretty common practice.
Imagine receiving that submission, reading the admission “I hurt women,” getting all those heart-wrenching details, publishing it anyway, and then paying a handsome fee for it. Me? I’m waiting for the New Yorker essay that will give voice to the women speaking out about their experiences with Díaz. Along with that, their ideas for restorative justice must be listened to and put into practical action. I’m waiting to see what Díaz will do to facilitate healing. No healing can take place if we don’t look much harder into our mirrors. Teachers, mentors, and advisors in writing organizations must also facilitate this introspection. We cannot continue to pursue the entrance to, nor acceptance of the literary establishment that perpetuates “isms” and “phobias” that hurt us. We cannot allow ourselves to become Token because we want that fame, that stage, that money, or that influence, plain and simple. The Queer Latina author Carolina De Robertis posted an important and revelatory thread on Twitter:
My own experiences in publishing have taught me many things. Unless someone has their own press, or they are a literary agent, they can’t guarantee me a contract for my book. Many of the poets whose work I admire are not going to automatically like me. In fact, I’ve met quite a few and enough have been rude, dismissive, and sometimes even acted offended that I liked their work. Writers can be fake as fuck. Some pretend to be woke, to be social justice warriors, and on and on. Some writers create a brand for public consumption. As professional writers, we must consider the vulnerability of being a new writer, our connection to a text that then creates a wide-eyed adoration for the author, our hopes and dreams at publication, the complexities of social disorders, and the capitalistic bent of today’s writing world. These factors make it difficult to acknowledge that published authors are not always “good” people. We cannot expect this. It’s not normal. But no lie, I’m still low-key heartbroken.
I met Junot Díaz in person after a talk he gave at Drew University. I took a picture with him. He autographed a paperback of This Is How You Lose Her I bought on the spot just so I’d have something for him to sign. That night he insisted on only fielding questions from women of color in the audience. Díaz spoke to a teacher and her class. The class was from Union City, New Jersey, Díaz’ old stomping grounds. They travelled all the way to Drew so he gave them his undivided attention. They adored him. I’m reconciling that person with the balloon-headed misogynist aggressor who hurt so many women. I’m reconciling how those high school kids confessed that because of Díaz they like to read now, and their teacher’s disappointment. Like me, she assigned his books.
As I look back at that evening what I’m left wondering is how many of Díaz victims could have been spared if we listened to women. And what if we paired that with protections for women and woman-identifying members of our writing institutions and communities. And what if we stopped propping up tokenism. And what if we agreed that talent is not a free pass to transgress.