On Junot Diaz

In the last two days a lot has happened: the cancellation of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the sexual misconduct allegations against Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz.

I never expected that when I wrote this tweet, it would cause heated discussions about the nature of Diaz’s New Yorker essay, and whether revelations of his own sexual abuse and trauma could in some way explain what he then did to other women, including, now famously, Zinzi Clemmons, Carmen Maria Machado, and Monica Byrne.  I also didn’t expect Clemmons to quote the tweet in her answer.

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A lot of people tweeted to me either agreeing with what I’d wondered aloud, or contesting it, which is fine. Some people were of the opinion that what Diaz did to these women and others as a way of working out the trauma he had been through.

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Some people got angry at me for suggesting that Spacey’s predatory actions were equivalent to Diaz’s, or that coming out as gay was a diversion, or that declaring one had been a victim of sexual assault as a child was a diversion or a tactic.  Some people tweeted at me about Diaz’s pain, his trauma, his inner child, his tragedy.

I remember reading This is How You Lose Her (ironically I wrote the title of his book and auto-correct changed it to THIS IS HOW YOU LOSER on Twitter. I liked how it sounded). I just did not like the book. I didn’t like the stories, I didn’t like the characters. They all seemed like bastards. I didn’t like how they treated the women in the stories. I didn’t become a fan of Junot Diaz.

Last month, I read Diaz’s essay in the New Yorker. I read it with respect, because of its content matter, but when I finished it, I was left with one overwhelming question: Why did he write this?

A few years ago I watched and wrote about a documentary called Pakistan’s Hidden Shame, which was banned in Pakistan because it exposed the constant and ongoing sexual abuse of boys in Pakistan. Set in Peshawar, it showed how boys who had been abused as children grew up to abuse other boys. It was truly heart-breaking and difficult to watch. The cycle of abuse was self-perpetuating, because the abusers could not sense they were doing anything wrong when visiting abuse on younger boys. The camera made no judgments. People told their tale, and the tragedy was plain to see.

Diaz’s essay, on the other hand, felt emotionally manipulative. Was this a confession, or a narrative? Was it a story, or an explanation? As a writer, I’m always looking for the motivation behind the writing, as well as the purpose. What purpose did this serve? Catharsis, therapy, absolution? I’m deeply suspicious of anything that turns the reader into the therapist, or the priest. It just didn’t sit well with me.

I remember Kevin Spacey’s sudden pronouncement that he was gay when his sexual crimes came to light, but I also remember Louis CK – a comedian I truly loved – and his constant insistence in his stand-up comedy that “men” were “horrible” to “women”. Similarly in this essay, Diaz said he “hurt” women, wasn’t able to maintain relationships, wasn’t able to trust.

Since the controversy broke, I’ve read a lot of essays and tweets from Latina women, angry at how Diaz has been revered by the literary establishment, but that his stories are built around the trauma he enacted on women. In other words, these are not stories about a fictional character, they are autobiographical, and the establishment has rewarded him with money, prizes, acclaim and respect, while those women are expected to just disappear. 

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In the end, Diaz released a statement: “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continue,” he said.

“I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”

So is that why he wrote the New Yorker piece: because the past was going to catch up with him and he wanted to offer this as some sort of conversation starter? As a lesson for how men and boys can behave better, or learn about consent and boundaries?

And what about women? Do they have any choice in whether their bodies are the lesson plan? Must their feelings and emotions be way-stations for men on the way to maturity and good behavior? Does a man get to unload his trauma and tragedy on a woman for her to deal with the aftermath, while he goes on to healing and bigger things, like Pulitzer prizes? And when a brave woman speaks up and says “no more,” should the conversation still be about how she must forgive him, centering him in the middle of her trauma and pain?

Zinzi Clemmons wrote to the AP with her own statement: “Junot Diaz has made his behaviour the burden of young women particularly women of colour for far too long, enabled by his team and the institutions that employ him. It is time for the burden of his bad behavior to be laid squarely at his feet, and for him to deal with the consequences of his actions.”

I leave you with a quote from Ayi Bozimo, a Latina writer, which I remember above all:

“Women are not rehab centres for badly-behaved men.”