9 JANUARY 2019 | KAREN KAO
When I hear the name Junot Díaz, I think of #MeToo. In May 2018, the author Zinzi Clemmons accused Díaz of forcibly kissing her. The writers Monica Byrne and Carmen Maria Machado soon followed with claims of abusive, misogynist behavior.
When I hear the name Junot Díaz, I think of his extraordinary essay “The Silence”. In it, Díaz reveals that he was raped. It happened soon after his family emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States. It marked the end of his childhood.
More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. […] The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.Junot Díaz, “The Silence”, The New Yorker, April 16, 2018
Was the timing of this essay planned? Maybe Díaz knew about the #MeToo accusations and wanted to get his story out first. All this is a long-winded explanation of why it’s taken me so long to read Díaz’s short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her.
Spanish and Dominican slang give these stories their street cred. The viejas with their rosaries, ay mi hijito, ay mi tesoro, the knucklehead boys. This is the language for which Díaz is justifiably famous
a sort of streetwise brand of Spanglish that even the most monolingual reader can easily inhale: lots of flash words and razzle-dazzle talk, lots of body language on the sentencesMichiko Kakutani, “Travails of an Outcast”, review of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The New York Times, 4 Sept. 2007
Díaz is fluent in the language of bravado, the one punch you get to throw before you have the shit kicked out of you. It’s the only language that Yunior, Díaz’s literary alter ego and the star of most of his stories, understands. To him, it’s the language of love.
You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.“Alma”
That tone – irreverent, bawdy, and funny as hell – dominates this short story collection. The narrative arc, too, repeats in one way or another across the nine stories that make up this collection. Yunior meets the love of his life then proceeds to cheat on her. Sometimes she figures it out by snooping through his emails, another time she reads the journal he carelessly leaves lying around. Yunior’s reaction varies but the outcome is always the same.
Instead of lowering your head and copping to it like a man, you pick up the journal as one might hold a baby’s beshatted diaper, as one might pinch a recently benutted condom. You glance at the offending passages. Then you look at her and smile a smile your dissembling face will remember until the day you die. Baby, you say, baby, this is part of my novel.
This is how you lose her.“Alma”
Life, Meet Art
Yunior is a serial cheater and so is Díaz. According to his New Yorker essay, there were myriad girlfriends, all of whom he would eventually drive away or abandon. Díaz sees this as
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.“The Silence”
You could read This Is How You Lose You through the lens of Díaz’s childhood rape. In “Miss Loro,” an older woman seduces the teenage Yunior. He’s ashamed and confused. He can’t stop going back. No one knows.
It takes a long time to get over it. To get used to a life without a Secret. Even after it’s behind you and you’ve blocked her completely, you’re still afraid you’ll slip back to it. At Rutgers, where you’ve finally landed, you date like crazy and every time it doesn’t work out you’re convinced that you have trouble with girls your own age. Because of her.“Miss Loro”
The Other Side
In “Otravida, Otravez” we meet an entirely different kind of narrator. Yasmin comes from the Dominican Republic but she has none of Yunior’s bravura. She’s too tired. By day, she washes sheets in the basement of a hospital. At night, she ministers to a married man whose wife keeps writing him letters. Yasmin imagines the wife to be “a woman warmer than the air around her.”
Yasmin sees “the other sleepwalkers” like her: the bread bakers and the street sweepers and the laundrywomen bleaching blood out of sheets. She shows us what a man takes to the US when he leaves his family behind.
His books and some of his clothes, an old pair of glasses in a cardboard case, and two beaten chancletas. Hundreds of dead lottery tickets, crimped together in thick wads that fall apart at the touch. Dozens of baseball cards, Dominican players, Guzmán, Fernández, the Alous, swatting balls, winding up and fielding hard line drives just beyond the baseline.“Otravida, Otravez”
Yasmin spreads these relics across her bed and tries to read the future.
The Sins of Our Fathers
At the time of the #MeToo allegations made by Clemmons and others, Díaz taught creative writing at MIT, was the fiction editor of the Boston Review and had just been named chair of the Pulitzer board. All three institutions launched investigations. In all three cases, Díaz was cleared.
The outcome did not please everyone. His accusers stood by their allegations. All three poetry editors of the Boston Review resigned in protest. Díaz may never entirely get out from under this cloud.
Is it fair? That depends, I suppose, on whose truth you believe. I don’t think that Clemmons, Byrne and Machado are lying. I believe their pain. The anger is understandable, too. There are plenty of Latinx writers out there. Why do we have to prop up this guy?
Díaz is not the only writer with a #MeToo problem: Sherman Alexie, David Foster Wallace, the list goes on. Should a reader of conscience avoid them all on principle? What principle do I then apply to choose the “right” books?
I started reading This Is How You Lose Her wanting to know what I think of Díaz. Already, I was on the wrong foot. Determined to conflate Díaz with Yunior, I wanted to find both to be brash and brittle and shallow. “Otravida, Otravez” changed my mind. And as I shifted my focus from judging the man to assessing his writing, I heard the anguish beneath all that street sass.
The man can write. Go read his work.