Junot Díaz and the abusive men in his books

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?

Private masculinity

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 counts.”

Yunior’s 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.

Yet, 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.

In ‘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 trauma

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?

Moving 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 Yunior.

The Chennai-based writer and copy editor is the winner of the Likho Award for Excellence in Media, 2017.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 6:45:17 PM |

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