Junot Díaz and the abusive men in his books

Shankar, The Hindu, May 12, 2018

The same
impulses that power the writer’s art appear to have powered his misogyny as

A few
years ago, when I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was
simultaneously transfixed and alienated by Pulitzer-prize winning author Junot
Díaz’s language. Part of what makes Díaz’s prose so unique and enticing is the
rhythmic structure of his sentences — literary flourishes liberally mixed with
Spanish slang and crass sexual innuendo.
Yet, it
wasn’t the frequency of Spanish phrases that kept me at a distance, it was the
protagonist Yunior’s worldview and how it was employed to uphold dominant ideas
of masculine behaviour. The women were mostly cuero (promiscuous) and their tetas
(breasts) are referred to frequently. Men who reject this toxic form of
masculinity are referred to as pata (a homophobic slur). Díaz seems to have an
intimate understanding of just how stifling and inescapable this performance of
masculinity can be in his work but he simultaneously seems to revel in it and
celebrate it.
Since the
recent revelations about Junot Díaz’s sexually abusive and misogynistic
behaviour from a host of woman writers, Alisa Valdes, Zinzi Clemmons, Monica
Byrne and Carmen Maria Machado, the overwhelming masculinity of Díaz’s work has
come under the scanner again. On one hand, the idea of contextualising an
author’s worldview through their work seems contrived since our conclusions
depend on supposedly understanding the motive of the author. If Díaz had a
reputation for crafting nuanced female characters would we have accused him of
obfuscating his real nature through his art?
Yet, it’s
hard to separate Díaz’s fiction from his real-life persona. Men who behave
badly are Díaz’s forte. Many of Díaz’s stories centre on male protagonists who
use a mask of masculinity to distance themselves emotionally from romantic
relationships and male friendships. Yunior, the protagonist who recurs in all
of Díaz’s work and is in many ways a stand-in for the author, is central to
this. He is a hardcore nerd who outwardly sandpapers his intellectual curiosity
in favour of projecting hegemonic Dominican masculinity. It’s an interesting
inversion to think of Díaz himself, publicly renowned for his literary
erudition yet behaving in physically and emotionally abusive ways behind closed
doors. Men rarely ever just perform masculinity for the public, it bleeds into
their private lives and harms women.
In Díaz’s
stories, Yunior’s machismo and toxic masculinity is clearly viewed as tragic, a
deeply intelligent character who nonetheless can’t help being steeped in
Dominican male rituals, heirlooms from an abusive and philandering father. In
‘Aurora’, a story from Díaz’s debut collection Drown, Yunior recounts his
romance with Aurora, a heroin addict, a relationship that is described as love
but has strong tones of abuse. “She once tried to jam a pen into my thigh, but
that was the night I punched her chest black-and-blue, so I don’t think it
abhorrent behaviour is normalised only by positioning it against Aurora’s
inconsistent moods. Of course, Yunior’s strident masculinity doesn’t just harm
his relationships with women. In the titular story in Drown, Yunior distances
himself from Beto, his former best friend after a sexual encounter with him.
His internalised homophobia is yet another way his externalised masculinity has
percolated his psyche.
Yunior hardly seems to have emotionally progressed over the decades. Díaz’s
last work This is How You Lose Her (2012) is a collection of short stories that
primarily focuses on Yunior’s infidelitous romantic relationships. The author
also makes the concerted choice of using second person for most of the stories
which implicates the readers in Yunior’s despicable behaviour.
‘Alma’, when the titular character discovers that Yunior has been cheating on
her, he says, “You are overwhelmed by a pelagic sadness. Sadness at being
caught, at the incontrovertible knowledge that she will never forgive you.”
Alma’s distress doesn’t exist except in relation to us (the male reader). Even
the voluptuous women in Díaz’s pages are convinced of their beauty and
desirability only through the male gaze.
Cycle of
A few
weeks earlier, Díaz wrote a poignant essay in The New Yorker called ‘The Legacy
of Childhood Trauma’, where he spoke of how he was raped at age eight and how
that had rearranged his entire life and led to a pattern of bad behaviour. Is
Díaz truly reckoning with his role in a cycle of abuse or implicitly stating
that he needs to be let off the hook for his behaviour? The essay, like the
best of his work, also features its shortcomings. The women in it function as
spiritual redemption. They fuel Díaz’s understanding of himself, but occupy the
margins of his account. Their pain, their trauma and their words are
insidiously erased out of the page. What is more frightening about men like
Junot Díaz is that they resist easy categorisation. Their art can display
remarkable empathy even as they behave in cruel and callous ways with the women
in their lives. In fact, the same impulses that power Junot Díaz, the abuser
and misogynist, seem to have powered the clarity in his art as well. How then
can we look at Yunior as simply a fictional creation?
forward, the question isn’t whether Díaz can be redeemed. Moral reclamation in
the public eyes is simply a matter of crafting sympathetic media narratives
while private redemption is for the women who bravely came forward with their
accounts to decide. The trickier puzzle is how to move the literary spotlight
on Díaz towards writers like Valdes, Clemmons and Byrne, women whose art isn’t
built on others’ trauma, but who were boxed in by the literary establishment
because of their gender and race.
The truth
is that literature and the literary establishment have humanised abusive men
for too long now. As readers, our idea of diverse American literature has also
been influenced by white literary establishments, which have anointed men like
Díaz as gatekeepers to a particular culture. Maybe it’s time to part ways with
Chennai-based writer and copy editor is the winner of the Likho Award for
Excellence in Media, 2017.