Don't be fooled by his protagonist's misogyny. Díaz might identify most strongly with his female characters
A lot has been written on Junot Díaz lately. For several weeks starting in September, he appeared in at least twelve publications that showed up at my house. He was in everything from the unsolicited Time Magazine, apparently intended for my fifteen-year-old son, to Vogue, where Díaz appeared in costume, dressed as a member of Edith Wharton’s circle. Díaz’s face smiled out from Entertainment Weekly, and he appealed for understanding from the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Online, the Guardian Blog stated that the term “genius” was inadequate praise. Seemingly everywhere, his big glasses, smooth head, trim beard, and tentative smile greeted me. If Andy Warhol still lived, he would use Junot Diaz as a subject.
Of course the publicity arises because of the publication of Díaz’s most recent book, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories. Many of us had already encountered some of these stories in the New Yorker, since that’s where five of the collection’s nine stories appeared, prior to the publication of the book. And many of us probably anticipated the reaction that the book would garner once unleashed upon the public: “The women in This Is How You Lose Her are objectified and the men are excused from their objectifying behavior because they’re Dominican.” Therefore, I was not surprised when articles started to appear in places like Elle Magazine, in this case the ironically titled, “Junot Díaz’s Pro-Woman Agenda,” where Virginia Vitzthum stated that “the constant dismissal of women as sets of culo-and-titties slams a door in my face,” and in The Rumpus, where Gina Frangello defended Díaz’s work, stating that This is How You Lose Her’s “frenetic and desperate struggle for love and connection” was not at odds with a feminist agenda. And of course this leads into a larger discussion of how feminism is engaged in the context of Díaz’s writing: Is committed monogamy in accord with a feminist agenda? Would the women characters’ cheating on their partners constitute a move for feminism? If a writer is depicting a sexist world, how can he do it without reinforcing the status quo?
My own reading of This Is How You Lose Her was unimpeded by my feminism because none of the women were held out as examples of success: these characters were actors in their own tragedies. Also, this is the baldly juvenile, wannabe macho Yunior’s story to tell, and the inner lives of these women are not depicted, with the exception of the narrator of “Otra vida, Otra vez,” who is certainly more than a culo-and-titties construct. In addition, the women depicted are complicated and involved in power struggles of their own. Is Pura, the woman in the “Pura Principle,” a powerless victim of Rafa—who, given his attitudes to other women, probably hasn’t entered the relationship with a view to a great partnership—or is she an arch manipulator, successfully achieving her own agenda? Is feminism reduced to positive depictions of women, or is it more concerned with the balance of power? So, this book did not set off my feminist alarm—which goes off with some frequency—and I read line by line, page by page, and was ultimately more interested in how a writer so committed to depicting the struggles of Dominican-Americans in the U.S. had come to this prominent position. I had decided, with satisfaction, that the reading public was not involved in some sort of mass cultural study, but had finally come to accept the experience of these recent, Hispanic immigrants as intrinsic to their own. But I was interested to hear, in an unfiltered way, what Díaz had to say about women.
This November, Junot Díaz was at UMass Amherst—where I am Professor of English and teach in the MFA program—as the distinguished Troy Lecturer. I could hardly call the casual conversations that we had over this time as an interview, although we did cover subjects as diverse as Toibin’s The Empty Family and Díaz’s recent back surgery, Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of Obama and the Asian American Writers Workshop. While getting coffee at the Campus Center, I pointed out a mural that was painted by the Northern Irish mural artists Danny Devenney, a former member of the I.R.A., and Mark Ervine, son of David Ervine who once headed the U.V.F. The mural exists as the physical manifestation of an ongoing experiment in peace. Díaz told me that he had long had an interest in Northern Ireland: He called it a “hobby,” though I sensed something more serious. But the conservation was swept away in the need to get Díaz to the podium on time.
As I sat in the front row of UMass’s Bowker Auditorium, my introduction in my hands, my thoughts wandered back to Danny Devenney, and his wife Deborah, who have become friends of mine and who I visited in Belfast not too long ago. Danny had told me of a visit from Boston I.R.A. supporters during the Troubles. Originally, the visitors were intended to stay as guests in his house, but, over the course of the evening, one or both of these people had started a racist rant about African Americans. Danny had stood at this point and told them that they were no longer welcome in house. He said, “We are the blacks of Northern Ireland. Can you not see that?”
Sitting in the audience, listening to Junot Díaz speak about the publishing world, about what it is to be a writer of color who garners a lot of attention for having struggled onto the final rung of the best seller list, I was reminded of Danny Devenney’s words. Junot said, “I’m on the best-seller list for literary fiction, but I’m the only writer of color. Count! Go on! People may wonder why I’m there, but I say, where are the other writers of color? Why is it just me?” And then he added, “And while you’re at it, count how many women are there. And then count how many women get reviewed in the major venues.” Junot Díaz knew the Vida figures cold. Of course, struggling to get review space and recognition is hardly the same thing as the insidious infringement on human rights that makes Danny Devenney identify with African Americans. Still, Díaz saw a commonality between his recognition as a Dominican American writer—the plight of writers of color— and the respect that was lacking in the treatment of writers who are women.
One of the excerpts that Junot Díaz read in the course of the lecture was from the story “Nilda.” Nilda—the title character—is doomed from the start of that story. First, she’s in a group home, and after that, she’s handed around by men, and all the while Yunior watches, chronicling, incapable of affecting change for her, and not all that surprised at her downward spiral. It’s a sad story, sadder still because from the start, you know there will be no happy ending. What the story yearns for is a better world. Even Yunior thinks of another universe where he would have “mad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim,” but what happens to Yunior, as readers of Díaz’s fiction know from the story’s start, is that he goes to college. He’s on his way up and out. Nilda, however, disappears. This is a likely fate for girls in Nilda’s circumstances. The boys, according to Díaz, have an edge. And ultimately, the story does have a feminist ring to it, because the sense of the piece is that there is something unjust about the inequity.
So is Junot Díaz a feminist? Yes. His vision of an ideal publishing world has not only writers of color on an equal footing in a Caucasian-normative, male-dominated industry, but also women. He supports women. Díaz—unlike his fictional voice Yunior—even identifies with women.
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