Essays

Breaking the Barrier: On Race, Gender, and Junot Díaz

By posted at 12:00 pm on October 25, 2012 24

coverA few weeks ago, in the The New York Observer, Nina Burleigh threw down the notion that the enormous success of Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her is undeserved. Díaz is beloved not because he is a great writer, Burleigh argues, but because Díaz is a man, and a man who delights us with tales about dashing players and their hapless women victims.

Is it the wars, the terrorism, the recession, driving the longing for a regenerated machismo that Mr. Díaz’s multi-culti cred makes acceptable again? Is it a feminist backlash?…Mr. Díaz’s wondrous bewitching of prize committees comes at a time when women writers remain wildly underrepresented in publishing, on both the reviewing and the reviewed side.

And on Twitter, multiple women writers I respect and admire, like Roxane Gay and Elliot Holt gave Díaz his due, but went on to say that Díaz’s style of confessional writings about love would not fly, if written by a woman.

Normally, I’d be all over this kind of thing. I love talking about the lack of gender equity in publishing (in fact, I did for Bitch Magazine this summer). But I can’t agree that Díaz’s success is gender-based; because yes Díaz is a man, but he’s also a man of color. Critics who say that Díaz would not receive the same warmth, if he was a woman, are overlooking the factor of race.

The VIDA statistics that count the number of women’s bylines versus men’s in prestigious magazines are undeniable: in the last two years, in the publications surveyed, only one-quarter to one-third of bylines went to women. There is no parallel count for writers of color, (anybody want to start one?) though we can count prizes. Since 1917, a total of four men of color have won the Pulitzer: N. Scott Momaday, Oscar Hijuelos, Edward P. Jones, and Junot Díaz. Thirty women have won the Pulitzer, almost half of them condensed in the last 30 years, and three of those women were women of color. Since 1950 two men of color have won a National Book Award in Fiction (Ralph Ellison and Ha Jin), and 16 women have won an NBA, one of them a woman of color. And these numbers are reflected in MFA programs and at writing conferences. For example, I had the great fortune of attending an MFA program with close numbers of men and women, though gender parity did vary from year to year. But over the three years that I attended the program, I can count only seven men of color, and 12 women of color, probably out of about 150 students.* While no stats on gender and race exist for MFA programs, I don’t think that my program was out of the norm. Even at VONA, the annual Bay Area writing conference for writers of color — where, I should disclose, I took a workshop with Junot Díaz in 2007 — the number of women attendees outstrips the number of men. I’m not trying to say that publishing isn’t difficult for women; I’m simply trying to say that it ain’t easy for men of color either.

However. I don’t need to dazzle you with depressing numbers to make my case. I could just point out the fact that in our culture, the stereotypes associated with men of color don’t exactly make room for the kind of insight, expressiveness, and artsyness we associate with writers. Instead, these stereotypes expect men of color, particularly African American men and Latino men, to be hypermasculine and violent, and little else. They expect East Asian men, South Asian men and Arab men to be computer nerds, cab drivers, or terrorists, and not poets; Native American men are expected to be drunk.

It surprises me that only a few months after we were all wearing hoodies for Trayvon Martin, we can overlook the fact that race is a terrifyingly high obstacle for men of color. Of course, some of the greatest wordsmiths, storytellers and social historians of our time have to come to us through hip hop — like Big L, Biggie, Jay-Z or your preferred MC of choice — but thanks to the racialized wariness that often meets hip hop in the mainstream, you will rarely hear these men of color described adoringly by the arbiters of literary culture.

While I emphatically agree that gender is a barrier in publishing, taking out our sense of injustice on men of color is barking up the wrong tree. It would make more sense for us to think about how the barriers we face are parallel, and to try working on the unfairness in publishing together.

coverBut Nina Burleigh aside, what really struck in the craw of my Twitter feed is not the fact that Junot Díaz is a man, period, but rather that he is a man who is being rewarded for writing love stories about characters who are mysteriously close to himself. The argument runs that women aren’t allowed to write about love, especially not in a confessional way — unless they want to get shelved under “Chick Lit” instead of “Prize Winners.” This holds more water for me. Still, I can think of multiple women writers who write about love and their own lives — and who gracefully demonstrate the impact of gender on their love and their lives — just as Díaz does. Like Mary Gaitskill, for example. Or Alice Munro. (There is even a biography of Alice Munro that charts how much her stories overlap with her own life.) It is no coincidence that Gaitskill, Munro, and Díaz all write stories that are so innovative, heart-breaking, and thrilling that they dwarf those of their contemporaries. While it is hard for anyone to write a good story, and harder still to get that good story published, more often than not people who are marginalized have to perform at a higher level than the norm in any field, to overcome the bias that might otherwise count them out.

And to call Junot Díaz’s stories “love stories” seems a little tongue in cheek. They are more like unlove stories: they chronicle one Dominican American man’s inability to overcome the patriarchal expectations on himself, which he then turns on the women in his life, leading to eventual bleak and total emotional isolation. (Could Díaz be addressing those expectations of hypermasculinity; the ones that also make it hard for men of color to be seen as artists?)

Going on what Díaz admits about his personal life, the stories may be confessional, but they aren’t masturbatory or without purpose; instead they manage to maintain that almost impossible balance between beautiful writing, and politics. A quick read of stories like “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” “Alma,” or “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” might yield the belief that Díaz’s character, and Díaz himself, are pigs and misogynists. For sure, some readers I know can’t even get past Yunior’s addiction to ethnic and sexist slurs. While I don’t share the sentiment, I can sympathize with the desire to carve out a space in one’s life that is free from such language, as loaded, painful and constant as it is in our everyday lives.

But I have trouble understanding how a willing and careful reader could miss the fact that almost all of Díaz’s stories are cautionary tales about what happens to men who refuse to lay down their male power, in order to see women as human. When Nina Burleigh says, “Díaz’s alter ego is utterly beholden to his wandering penis, yet never examines his compulsion to bone everyone in sight,” I wonder if we were reading the same book. This is How You Lose Her’s biggest joke, and biggest tragedy is this: Yunior’s thesis is that he’s “not a bad guy,” and yet the tales he tells about himself are merciless in proving the opposite. Yunior may not “examine his compulsion[s]” but the stories do; unflinchingly. Yunior is a bad guy, and his refusal to take responsibility leads him to the worst ending of all by the book’s close: the inability to connect.

Because Díaz’s work is so concerned with masculinity, it is hard for me to imagine “the female Junot Díaz” — that woman writer who writes just like he does, but doesn’t receive the accolades he does. The fact that Díaz is so uniquely himself as a writer compounds this issue. Does the question work in reverse? Who is the male Mary Gaitskill? The male Alice Munro? (Chekhov, Cynthia Ozick says.) Zadie Smith and ZZ Packer seem like possible counterparts for Díaz — though their accolades are intact — for their blend of humor and tragedy and high and low culture, and their investigation of the impact that race, gender and class have on love and family.

For me, the magic of Junot Díaz is that his stories work on more levels than I can keep track of. The way he writes race and gender is radical, but what he does with words is so enchanting that a reader who doesn’t care about race and gender can still be swept away. Among the great gifts of his work is the common space it opens up. Michael Bourne wrote in September that Díaz lets all readers share in his space, whatever their background: “…no matter what racial madness was happening on the page, I as a white reader always felt included among his boys, the ‘you’ in his stories always seemed to include me.” While this is not the point Bourne is trying to make (and you should read his review because his point is more insightful and complex), Díaz’s writing does indeed put the bros at ease, because Díaz is simultaneously critical of machismo, while still being macho. And so conversations about race and gender with white writers or male writers that I would otherwise find stressful, risky, because I am a woman writer of color — especially if we’re talking about less bro-friendly writers like (God forbid) Alice Walker — miraculously become open and relaxed, if we’re talking about Yunior. Here Díaz gets to have his cake and eat it too, and that could be what annoys feminist writers. A woman would never get high fives for criticizing the patriarchy; that I can definitely agree with. But. Could I be irritated that we can’t have the same kind of relaxed conversations in the context of Louise Erdrich, Edwidge Danticat, or even Edward P. Jones, because they don’t make the bros feels as safe as Díaz? Sure. But I’m still wildly grateful for that space that fits both me and the literary bros. Seriously, that’s a magic trick and a half.

And yet, this common space can be dangerous, because it’s too easy. If I were to entertain the notion that something other than Díaz’s colossal talent is behind his success, I would guess that prize committees bequeath their approval on Díaz, because a bonus comes from association with him, outside of his cred as a writer.

Loving Díaz can be like slipping Kanye lyrics into conversation or cushioning racist comments with references to your black best friend: it allows white readers a reprieve from white guilt. A fantasy world opens up, where racial difference is elided, and you can be absolved of the crimes associated with white privilege by raving about Junot Díaz, or by giving him a big prize.

Sure, the cynicism behind this sentiment is as ugly as Burleigh’s crass dismissal of Díaz’s worth. But the fact of the matter is that neither my cynicism nor Burleigh’s misplaced anger is going to go away any time soon; not until the landscape of publishing shares more of the power, and lets in the people that it has shut out.

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*The total number of students in my program at any time was 80. The number 150 is a rough guess that includes any students who overlapped with me, and graduated before me, after me or with me.





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24 Responses to “Breaking the Barrier: On Race, Gender, and Junot Díaz”

  1. BERT HIRSCH
    at 12:13 pm on October 25, 2012

    female Junot Diaz: Erica Jong’s Fear Of Flying ?

  2. MJ
    at 12:26 pm on October 25, 2012

    Brilliant–great piece, and so well articulated. Diaz’s stories are grappling with the issue being critiqued by Burleigh (of the way one man treats women, how that is harmful not only to the women but also to the man, people’s inability to but attempt at trying to empathize with others and failing). I don’t think Diaz is celebrating the simultaneous vulnerability and machismo (though that makes Yunior as a character very charismatic and seductive); he is, however, capturing what that experience is like, how it’s harmful to the self, to others. Just because someone’s a dick (and Yunior is, so many times) doesn’t mean they aren’t human. It’s pretty incredible that a writer can with subtlety and with such elegance capture a character as both an asshole and a human being; and for being so willing to reveal those flaws. It reminds me of Coetzee’s Disgrace, another book about an asshole the writer helps us understand (though the asshole in this case is not nearly as charming).

  3. JB
    at 2:08 pm on October 25, 2012

    Great article. I have a quibble that puzzles me slightly:

    “Since 1917, a total of four men of color have won the Pulitzer: N. Scott Momaday, Oscar Hijuelos, Edward P. Jones, and Junot Díaz. Thirty women have won the Pulitzer, almost half of them condensed in the last 30 years, and three of those women were women of color.”

    WHO?

    “Since 1950 two men of color have won a National Book Award in Fiction (Ralph Ellison and Ha Jin), and 16 women have won an NBA, one of them a woman of color.”

    WHO?

    Yes, I know I can Google. (And I will.) But why not name the women of color, the same way the men are named, in the course of the text?

  4. Thea Lim
    at 2:16 pm on October 25, 2012

    Thanks JB, glad you liked the article!

    Women of color who have won a Pulitzer: Alice Walker (The Color Purple, ’83), Toni Morrison (Beloved, ’88) and Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, (2000).

    And the woman of color who won an NBA: Alice Walker (Color Purple, ’83)

  5. Jack M
    at 2:39 pm on October 25, 2012

    Fantastic article and well-presented! I would like to point out that, in my opinion, anybody who writes as good as Diaz, no matter their race or gender, would get high accolades from me.

  6. David
    at 2:49 pm on October 25, 2012

    This article is fantastic. And I agree with Thea that Junot’s new collection is a cautionary tale of where the type of masculinity Yunior exhibits can lead, and I’d add that embedded in it, quite subtly, is the growth of Yunior towards seeing women as more than objects of his desire.

    If people are interested in what Junot Diaz has to say about these accusations of misogyny in his work, and about the objectification of women in general, we talked a lot about this in my recent radio interview of him:

    http://kboo.fm/node/50210

  7. Ash.
    at 3:51 pm on October 25, 2012

    This was an amazingly thorough article. I absolutely loved it.

  8. Lorraine Adams
    at 4:09 pm on October 25, 2012

    Erica Jong is not a writer I take seriously. Why? Because her work is purely confessional. And it fails to pay attention to the things literary novels do that make me read them: the sacred, the mysterious, ambiguity, moral perplexity, to name just a few. Diaz’s work takes on these parts of the human experience. I think he’s a master prose stylist, but I think his moral universe is less well-developed than it might get to be when he’s older.

  9. Johnnie
    at 7:58 pm on October 25, 2012

    meh … all this scorekeeping is really tiresome, and your engagement with it is even more tedious. yes, race and class and gender are notable, but if those are the central elements of one biography, well, good luck with that. when you step away from the – what, identity politics of all this, and talk about why you like his writing, I became engaged in your essay. but only a little bit. being a man of “color” I’m so bored with this need to essentialize every f’ing person because of what they “are.” always, every writer who “tackles” this topic loses – you like a writer, or you don’t, and I think you do more to maintain the status quo by continuing this Roxanne Gay et all line of attack. it’s identity politics plus watered down semiotics & it ends up making the essayist sound not so much utopian, but an adult yearning for kindergarten. fair? in what world do you live that the world has ever been “fair”? grow up. some people make it, some people don’t, and approaching this from that place – oh never mind.

  10. Anna
    at 11:38 pm on October 25, 2012

    One word: Intersectionality.

  11. Sebastian S.
    at 3:27 am on October 26, 2012

    You say loving Diaz (or Kanye) permits white readers to escape white guilt because “a fantasy world opens up…where racial difference is elided.”

    I’m no fan of Diaz, so I can’t speak to the experience of reading him. But I am a fan of Kanye, and I can say that in some of his highly particular message there is something universal and not at all escapist. When he raps about his aspirations as a rapper, having nervous breakdowns about failure, doubting his ability early in his career (Touch the Sky), this isn’t enjoyable because I can pretend racial differences are elided, or because I want to be a rapper or producer or even be in the music industry. I enjoy it because I understand the universality of aspirations and doubt, regardless of race of profession.

    I’m not sure if the same applies to Diaz, so this could be wildly off topic, but I suspect that some of his masculinity writing does convey universal stuff, albeit in a highly specific way. (And as I wrote that, I thought about the lyrics of Drake…)

  12. TY
    at 4:53 am on October 26, 2012

    Great article! Not that it changes the essential argument, but last year’s NBA winner was Jesmyn Ward, a wonderful writer and woman of color.

  13. Thea Lim
    at 8:59 am on October 26, 2012

    @ Sebastian

    I see what you’re saying, and my intention wasn’t to suggest that white listeners like Kanye solely because they believe it will make them less racist. Nor was I suggesting that either Diaz or Kanye don’t have actual talent or an ability to synthesize experience in a way that appeals to many different readers/listeners (I myself am partial to “Spaceship” from College Dropout). Or that friendships between black people and non-black people are never based in true affection.

    I was more referring to a kind of fandom (not all Diaz or Kanye fandom), where people are fans just to be fans – it’s about advertising that you like the writer/rapper because you desire the associations that come with that fandom. It becomes less about connecting or appreciating the art, and more about advertising yourself as the kind of person who is into that kind of thing. It’s about self-aggrandizement, and when you mix in race, then it becomes about trying to be “unracist,” by association.

    @ TY

    A terrible oversight! Thank you very much for the correction.

  14. Bao Phi
    at 12:55 pm on October 26, 2012

    This is a very well-written, provocative essay, Thank you for writing it!

  15. Sebastian S.
    at 1:22 pm on October 26, 2012

    @ Thea

    I see what you’re saying. Maybe the kind of fandom you describe is more common among critics than among the laypeople? Kanye and Diaz certainly are feted a bunch…

  16. Thea Lim
    at 2:27 pm on October 27, 2012

    @ Sebastian

    I do think there is the potential for individuals to tokenize, as well as critics, especially with social media and everything; everyone has a bullhorn now. But I also think that it’s a phenomenon that predates that technology, that even within the dynamic of a small circle of friends such a thing can happen. Which is to say, that it’s something for both large organizations and individuals to think about and question.

  17. Lacey W. Poe
    at 9:22 am on October 28, 2012

    Diaz knows how to be both inside and outside of his own world. I can’t think of any writer (or mere acquaintance, for that matter) I actually like who doesn’t have this capacity.

    Methinks the white reading public has learned, somewhat, to cope with foreign ways half way around the world, but still — and hopefully not forever — has yet to adjust to the foreigner next door.

  18. b clerks
    at 6:30 pm on November 1, 2012

    Diaz hardly qualifies as a “foreigner”– but perhaps you are proving your own point.

  19. “The art of discovery exists beyond applause” | Life as Improvisation
    at 5:24 am on November 2, 2012

    [...] Breaking the Barrier: On Race, Gender, and Junot Díaz Share this: This entry was posted in Let's think this through and tagged activism, colby college, dominican republic, junot diaz, politics, shout, writer, writing. Bookmark the permalink. ← improvising the genesis. Dystopian panem et circenses → [...]

  20. Mark Sangerman
    at 10:54 am on November 5, 2012

    Kathy Acker would say “get on with the writing and the reading”.

  21. Gabriel
    at 8:21 pm on November 9, 2012

    Thank you, Thea. Interesting article.

    Besides the above-mentioned writers of color, James Alan McPherson, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1978.

  22. Mirangela
    at 8:44 am on November 18, 2012

    Righteous. Right on. Thanks for the clarity. I just heard Junot Diaz speak, and I built a pedestal for him because the force of his pro-feminist (overt) politics were so deeply moving and matched what I picked up (implicitly) in this new book. You are right, he gets to have his cake and eat it too. And we women of color feminists should be annoyed by that.

  23. Sara
    at 12:26 pm on June 20, 2013

    As a woman of color, I frankly agree with Nina Burleigh’s assessment of Junot Diaz. He may, at times, write well but style does not overcome content for me (although in a beauty obsessed society which degrades women if they aren’t picture perfect, this may be a reason why Diaz is so appreciated).

    Junot Diaz is a crass writer who writes as literature his fantasies about boning and beating and destroying women. I’m surprised that Megan Fox hasn’t made an appearance.

    Shame on the writer of this articles for not dealing with the misogyny in the text, where there is so much that academics could write several books, but rather on generalities and how some colored man needs to be awarded so might as well be Junot Diaz, the perpetuator of stereotypes and gender inequality.

  24. Johanna van Zanten
    at 3:18 pm on June 20, 2013

    Well said. I mostly agreed with it. I have one comment. The “man of color” thing seems to be an expression that is misused, overused or misplaced to me as a person born and raised in the Netherlands. I understand that Junot Diaz is Latin, an expression for an ethnic group that we do not really have in Europe. Closest comaprisonin that side of the world would be is we were calling ethnic Italians and Spanish “people of color”, or non white, as that is inferred by “color” , I take it. They would be outraged and as a matter of fact, I am stunned as well by the north American need to classify people by an indication of their shade of skin, or hair, or what have you. If Diaz is an immigrant, like I am, call him an immigrant, or a former Dominican citizen, or whatever. It is crazy to keep referring to people by their shade of skin. In any case, his skin looks pretty white to me, so I would not ever call him a person of color regardless.

    The bottom line is, racism is a life and kicking, and it affects men and women. Good for Diaz for writing a book that tells his, to many readers, shocking truth.

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