Junot Diaz: This Is How You Lost Me

I’m done with you, Junot Diaz. I’ve been meaning to tell you this for some time now, but the time never felt right, and there was always the fear. The fear of repudiation for committing the blasphemous, heretical outrage of critiquing one of our own, especially the Poster Dude of Latino Literature. After much inner debate, I swore never to teach your work in any of my classes. Your stalking presence, however, recently confronted me in a collection of short stories I had already assigned to my creative writing class. The discussion of your story, “Miss Lora,” pushed my anger and disgust to surface in volcanic torrents. Again, I had to explain my criticism of this story, and how it fits into your work that I have concluded up to this point in your career is toxic and therefore not material I want to teach in any Latinx literature course or generally anywhere.

My main problem with your work is primarily centered on the continual, obsessive representation of what one of my creative writing students aptly termed “suciopaths.” What else can you call the Dominican men who inhabit your fictional world, and not just Yunior and Rafa, those two deviant brothers who suffer from arrested development across three critically acclaimed books. I have read your three books meticulously. I have taught them. And I cannot find one redeeming Latino in any page you have published. As a Latino, father of two young men who will go forth to confront a world already inhospitable to Latinos, and who have been taught to be proud of their Puerto Rican roots; as a husband married and faithful to the same Puerto Rican woman for 27 years; as an educator and scholar of this literature who tries to present his students the complexities of Latinx culture in the United States honestly in all of its historical and social contexts—these hyper-macho, sexually suped-up narrow-minded, insensitive, emotionally and apparently genetically engineered “sucios” are troubling to me in what they misrepresent in the texts that you continue to spawn. Troubling because even the most intelligent white feminists support these over-the-top representations as gospel truth. Their arguments that essentially claim this type of machismo is real and widespread—without critically questioning its generalization—only confirm their whiteness and their lack of knowledge of Latinos. Do they know any Latinos? Have they read any other Latinx literature where the depictions of men are more balanced and genuine?

Unfortunately, you have sold out your fellow Latino brothers—easy targets in our society—to sell your books. You have created in them straw men roaming in a world of violent and sexual exotica to titillate and satisfy the cravings for the Other of suburbanites and hipsters who will never have a clue what it is to live in a barrio. And through these hombres de paja you have expressed the most misogynist, sexist, gratuitous depictions of women I have read in contemporary fiction and ironically you have managed to remain relatively unscathed. Indeed, you are heralded for depicting the “reality” and misogyny of this machismo on steroids from individuals who have no clue what the majority of real Latino males are like, nor apparently care to know anything about their lived experiences . You have taken machismo, a complex historical, cultural form of patriarchy, and transformed it into a distorted, reductive, simplistic sexual version to suit white literary consumption.

To add insult to injury a jury of your “peers” has decided to reward you with honors for doing so, while deserving established, more prolific Latinx fiction writers have yet to reach the level of recognition that has been heaped on you. For example, Viramontes, Alire Saénz, Urrea, Castillo, Goldman, Mohr, and Alvarez, to just name a few. One has to raise the question: why are these other writers not acclaimed to the degree you are? I would submit that it is because the fictional worlds they represent do not fulfill the consumerist needs and expectations of the elite who decide and dictate what we should read and who gets anointed “Literary Worthy.” Some of their work is simply too politically edgy and true for even white liberal tastes. It is outrageous, for example, that the only two Pulitzer Prizes ever awarded to Latinx fiction writers have been a Dominican-American (you) and a Cuban-American (the late Oscar Hijuelos), when Mexican American and Chicano writers have a longer history of literary production than any other Latinx group. Why is that? In my opinion, the answer is two-fold: One, most white critics don’t know squat about the universe of Latinx writers. And, secondly, and most importantly: Mexican American and Chicano writers still sustain a social and activist dynamic to their writing that grates against the mainstream. Yours, sadly, does not.

In an article in La Respuesta, Xavi Burgos Peña writes how you responded testily to questions and comments laced with racist undertones thrown at you by the mostly white audience at the Chicago Humanities Festival a year ago. Your anger stemmed from the frustration of the audience laughing at some of the serious ideas on white supremacy and privilege that you were putting down. Anyone who has followed your career will not question your progressive politics as you have articulated them in these types of forums, and by the work you have pursued on behalf of projects like Freedom University.

Pero ‘mano, why would the laughter surprise you? Those folks came to the forum because of your work. How disconcerting it must have been for most of them to hear you talk about white privilege when such topics are not to be found anywhere in your work, or if they are, they are buried behind the sexual depravity and general dysfunctionality of the Latino men at the core of your narrative. How confused and offended they must have felt to hear you break it down when you yourself have been privileged by white privilege. If you hadn’t been, you would not be in possession of a Pulitzer and a MacArthur Prize and all those New Yorker publications. They love you because you make them laugh; you stroke them to literary orgasm; in true liberal fashion, they read you and feel exonerated for the guilt they possess for being privileged. You have been performing literary minstrelsy and then you expect to be taken seriously when you talk about serious issues? They came to be entertained and to hear you speak on what your writing has been granted the authority to speak on: machismo and the blight of the violent, sexually charged Latino male experience.

What your career so far demonstrates is the damage that the mainstream commercial publishing industry can enact on talented developing Latinx writers when the machinery extols and privileges them uncritically. I refuse to promote the hegemonically sanctioned negative representation of Latinos found in your books. I am jumping off the bandwagon. When I was teaching your work—compelled by the sense that I needed to expose my students to the leading figure of Latinx literature today—I had to find a way to justify it to myself. So, I often used your work to explore how the publishing industry insidiously promotes a racist agenda and white privilege through writers of color. But I found I could do that much more effectively by teaching Percival Everett’s Erasure. I have no reason to bring your noxious work into my classroom anymore. There is nothing in them that my students need to read to learn about Latinx literature or culture that I cannot find in other more balanced representations. I hope you find your way. I hope one day you can consciously align your worldview with your art and be a truly committed writer in the Raymond Williams sense of the word. Just be ready to lose all that love presently coming your way.

2 thoughts on “Junot Diaz: This Is How You Lost Me”

  1. Seems like a critique that lacks objectivity. I am a Latina woman and I could say that about many of our Latina/o writers. I think this way when I am frustrated and want these “representatives’ to be able to articulate, express everything that is wrong in the way our people are depicted. In retrospect, I realize that I burden these creative artists. We demand too much from them and in the process lose the accomplishment that the writing possess.

    1. Manuela, thank you for your remarks and feedback. Since this is a blog, it will obviously contain my opinions on culture, politics and arts, especially the literary arts. I hope, however, that these are opinions grounded in my knowledge of literature, literary criticism and how these play out in cultural contexts. I don’t think it’s asking much from our writers to represent our cultures honestly and not in a blind way to simply sell books. All artists are linked to their audience and they do, in my opinion, have the responsibility to listen and respond to their thoughts and feelings. That is not a burden. As for your remark about saying this about many of our writers, I don’t know what you’re specifically referring to in this critique of Diaz. I think he’s pretty much unique in the way he utilizes Latino masculinity in his work, especially coming from his own masculine perspective. By the way, given the new revelations to Diaz’s own past sexual abuse and more recently allegations of his inappropriate sexual behavior, his work takes on a more heightened focus that anyone interested in his work has to re-visit. Again, thanks for reading and sharing.

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