I no longer remember when I first read Junot Diaz – that’s how long ago it was. But over the years I read all his books and in my early 20s, even gave a copy of The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to one of my closest friends. And as often happens with the work of people we admire, I began to read around his books, too – his essay about being a person of colour trying to do an MFA at Columbia University, his reading lists for his MIT writing class, even his favourite poem, Kingdom Animalia, by Aracelis Girmay. I read it all.
The character tying all his major works together is named Yunior – an embodiment of a form of Dominican machismo, a philanderer who breaks the hearts of the women he is supposed to love. I read him as a character who is supposed to make you uncomfortable because he is awful to women – to show you what women have to contend with. I read the character as a criticism of toxic masculinity, not an endorsement of it. Complex because he is aware that he is messed up, frustrating because he fails so badly at being better.
The long life of trauma
Then, last month, I read his article in The New Yorker, in which Diaz talks about having been sexually abused as a child, and the impact it had on the rest of his life. About Yunior, Diaz wrote:
“Somehow I was still writing – about a young Dominican man who, unlike me, had been only a little molested. Someone who couldn’t stay in any relationship because he was too much of a player. Crafting my perfect cover story, in effect. And since us Afro-Latinx brothers are viewed by society as always already sexual perils, very few people ever noticed what was written between the lines in my fiction – that Afro-Latinx brothers are often sexually imperilled.’
Here’s the thing, though. Most women, trans people, and non-binary people know the long life of trauma intimately. Violence, of a sexual and gendered kind, is visited upon us early. If we miraculously escape it in our individual lives at the hands of families and partners and figures of authority, we encounter it relentlessly in our cultural lives, watch it envelop everything we love and strive for, including but not limited to the films and music and books we consume to our very livelihoods. We know what it is to be sexually imperilled, and – without speaking for or over other people – we know that there is no straightforward trajectory between surviving abuse and turning into an abuser.
It is possible to be accountable for your behaviour while grappling with the afterlife of something that has upended your world. In many, many cases I have seen this turn people into more empathetic beings, people who are terrified of causing pain because they have known pain so closely themselves, felt its vice-like grip on their innards. At the very least, it is possible to not use one’s own pain as an excuse to cause more pain to others. Especially those who are more vulnerable than one because of structural reasons, reasons of power and privilege and access.
Closure and redemption?
As I see it, that’s why many women pointed out the fallacy in the parts of Diaz’s essay that detailed the way he said he treated his own partners. Diaz makes a connection between not being able to come to terms with his own past and not being able to be open and vulnerable to women, and therefore cheating on them, lying to them and disappearing on them in the process. And into that essay, Diaz was even able to build a redemption arc for himself. Now, he says, he’s come face to face with the horror of what happened to him as a child, so:
“I am not who I once was. I’m neither the brother who can’t touch a girl nor the asshole who sleeps around. I’m in therapy twice a week. I don’t drink (except in Japan, where I let myself have a beer). I don’t hurt people with my lies or my choices, and wherever I can I make amends; I take responsibility. I’ve come to learn that repair is never-ceasing. I’m even in a relationship, and she knows everything about my past. I told her about what happened to me.”
Diaz seems to want to bring a sense of closure here, even in the very act of writing such an essay. But it turns out Diaz didn’t cop to the full story. On Friday, at least three women came forward with stories about having being abused by Diaz.
Zinzi Clemmons, an American writer, has said that Diaz forcibly kissed her when she was a 26-year-old graduate student. Monica Byrne, playwright and author, has detailed a meeting with Diaz during which he shouted the word “rape” in her face in the middle of a disagreement. Carmen Maria Machado, writer and critic, has talked about being aggressively gaslighted by Diaz in public when she questioned him about the way his protagonist mistreats women characters. More stories have come out in response and as writer Roxane Gay points out, many more are likely to come.
The right focus
This is a reckoning, one that many are arguing Diaz wanted to avoid by writing his essay, and it is here. No doubt there will be anguished discussions about the greatness of Diaz’s talent and his brilliance as a writer, and how heartbreaking and upsetting it is for fans to find out he’s been abusive to women.
Honestly though, to hell with this hand-wringing, to wondering what to do with the “art of monstrous men”. The point isn’t Diaz’s art. The point is that he’s been violent to women. That he’s made them feel unsafe. His talent as a writer or the lack of it does not matter a whit, what matters right now is only that someone has spoken and that this act of speaking demands our utmost attention.
We know the price of speaking. Even in response to Zinzi Clemmons’ tweet there are people who are blaming her, for not coming forward sooner in a system that’s tilted against women who come out, particularly against powerful and beloved men. She is being told that she is “confusing” sexual assault with something benign, because the person telling her this believes that all Diaz was doing was trying to “steal a kiss”. As though pushing your mouth on another’s without their consent is romantic, is anything but assault.
There are people trying to shut down Byrne and Machado, arguing that shouting the word “rape” into a woman’s face isn’t an act of violence, that shutting her down virulently and with misogyny when she’s asking a question about misogyny isn’t a violation.
A culture of enabling
Other stories talk about Diaz hitting on a girl at a bookstore even after finding out she’s 16, telling a student she will never be a writer, telling a writer that she has no story to tell. In a powerful essay about the misogyny of the writing establishment and the part Diaz himself played in the derailing of her career, writer Alisa Valdes writes about how Diaz mistreated her. In a culture that prizes male art and pulls down women’s talent, the fact that a much awarded, influential male writer has acted this way again and again is simply unacceptable. That powerful men like him exist and thrive in a culture that lets them get away with this again and again, that they’re able to traumatise women for years and force women to deal with pain and hurt rather than nurture their own time and talents is simply unacceptable.
As Byrne has pointed out, the establishment has stood by Diaz – and as she has been repeatedly saying on Twitter, no one at the New Yorker seems to have bothered to ask him what he meant when he wrote in his essay that he had “hurt people”. Hurting, stepping over and derailing women’s work – from their conversations to their careers seems to be an acceptable way for these men to operate. It is why I have a problem with calling any of these men “monsters” – what’s monstrous is that they are regular men and that this is normalised behaviour, which is why they don’t seem to bat an eyelid before treating women terribly. But enough is enough; as Machado said in response to Diaz’s essay: “please meditate on how easily we accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery.”
As for me, I reject the part of me that loved Diaz’s work and held it close to my heart for all those years. I do not care about the girl that followed his reading lists or his Facebook posts with interest and admiration. I reject any heartbreak I felt when I heard what he had done, for the sake of his work. The only people for whom my heart is breaking is the women he’s hurt, their pain, and the drain on their resources, and the time that has been robbed away from them, and to me, that’s all that matters.