For me, the family fukú is rape. The rape culture of the European colonization of the New World—which becomes the rape culture of the Trujillato (Trujillo just took that very old record and remixed it)—is the rape culture that stops the family from achieving decolonial intimacy, from achieving decolonial love. – Junot Díaz
This two part article from the Boston Review was more bracing than a morning cup of coffee. Paula M.L. Moya guides us through an amazing conversation with Junot Díaz, digging deep into cultural theory to come up with a treasure trove of insight around the academy, Junot’s body of work, and missing pieces from our cultural conversations about race. While you should go read the whole thing, I particularly loved a few paragraphs.
Yunior’s a victim in a larger, second sense: I always wrote Yunior as being a survivor of sexual abuse. He has been raped, too. The hint of this sexual abuse is something that’s present in Drown and it is one of the great silences in Oscar Wao. This is what Yunior can’t admit, his very own página en blanco. So, when he has that line in the novel: “I’d finally try to say the words that could have saved us. / __________ __________ __________,” what he couldn’t say to Lola was that “I too have been molested.” He could bear witness to everyone else’s deep pains but, in the end, he couldn’t bear witness to his own sexual abuse. He couldn’t tell the story that would have tied him in a human way to Lola, that indeed could have saved him.
One has to understand that all the comments, all the things that Yunior does in Oscar Wao, move him inexorably away from the thing that he most needs: real intimacy which must have vulnerability, forgiveness, acceptance as its prerequisites. So that even though Yunior is sexist, even though he’s misogynist, even though he’s racist, even though he mischaracterizes Oscar’s life, even though he’s narcissistic—at the end he’s left with no true love, doesn’t find himself, doesn’t find that decolonial love that he needs to be an authentic self. In fact, he ends up—like the work that he assembles and stores in the refrigerator—incomplete. [...]
Thinking about Yunior as having been raped made (in my mind at least) his fucked-up utterances in the novel have a different resonance. And while he wasn’t yet ready to bear witness to his own rape, it gave him a certain point of view around sexual violence that I don’t think would have been possible otherwise. It helped me produce a novel with a feminist alignment. A novel whose central question is: is it possible to overcome the horrible legacy of slavery and find decolonial love? Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?
And Paula brings up something so major, we will have to revisit this dynamic in another post (emphasis mine):
Paula: I was so pleased when, during your lecture yesterday, you stated—clearly and unapologetically—that you write about race. I have always been struck by the fact that, in all the interviews you have given that I have read, no one ever asks you about race. If it does come up, it is because you bring it up. Yet it has long been apparent to me that race is one of your central concerns. This is why, for my contribution to the symposium, I decided to focus on your story, “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie).” And because the story is about the way race, class, and gender are mutually-constituted vectors of oppression, I decided to read it using the theoretical framework developed by the women of color who were writing in the 1980s and 90s. Honestly, though, I feel like I am swimming against the current—lately, I have seen a forgetting and dismissal, in academia, of their work; it is as if their insights are somehow passé. But it seems right to me to read your work through the lens of women of color theory. Does this make sense to you?
Junot: Absolutely. In this we are in sync, Paula. Much of the early genesis of my work arose from the 80s and specifically from the weird gender wars that flared up in that era between writers of color. I know you remember them: the very public fulminations of Stanley Crouch versus Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed versus Alice Walker, Frank Chin versus Maxine Hong Kingston. Talk about passé—my students know nothing about these exchanges, but for those of us present at the time they were both dismaying and formative. This was part of a whole backlash against the growing success and importance of women-of-color writers—but from men of color. Qué irony. The brothers criticizing the sisters for being inauthentic, for being anti-male, for airing the community’s dirty laundry, all from a dreary nationalist point of view. Every time I heard these Chin-Reed-Crouch attacks, even I as a male would feel the weight of oppression on me, on my physical body, increased. And for me, what was fascinating was that the maps these women were creating in their fictions—the social, critical, cognitive maps, these matrixes that they were plotting—were far more dangerous to the structures that had me pinioned than any of the criticisms that men of color were throwing down. What began to be clear to me as I read these women of color—Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Cisneros, Anjana Appachana, and throw in Octavia Butler and the great [Cherríe] Moraga of course—was that what these sisters were doing in their art was powerfully important for the community, for subaltern folks, for women writers of color, for male writers of color, for me. They were heeding [Audre] Lorde’s exhortation by forging the tools that could actually take down master’s house. To read these sisters in the 80s as a young college student was not only intoxicating, it was soul-changing. It was metanoia. [...]
Paula: This reminds me of a point you made in the question and answer session following your lecture yesterday. You said that people of color fuel white supremacy as much as white people do; that it is something we are all implicated in. You went on to suggest that only by first recognizing the social and material realities we live in—by naming and examining the effects of white supremacy—can we hope to transform our practices.
Junot: How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you downplay its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, or the Voldemort name which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet here’s the rub: if a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: the devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist. Well, white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us.
I’ve been working on a piece about these trends toward justifying the erasure of people of color in pop culture, and this exchange is right on the money. One, as Paula brought up, this idea that this type of analysis or critique is outdated is so jarring to me as a child of the multicultural 80s and 90s. If you listen carefully, you hear time and time again that the idea of diversity (mixed race friend groups, mixed race worlds) is incongruent with our current society. And it always has been, but back then a certain level of diversity was both assumed and aspirational. That idea has been thoroughly eroded. While I used to bemoan the tokenization that was rampant back then – like Jessi Ramsey, the one black kid in BSC, or Lisa Turtle, the one black girl who hung with the cool kids at Bayside High – it never occurred to me that things would get worse, and casting directors and audiences would stop thinking that all white environments were odd. And yet, here we are.
Along those same lines is the conversation around white supremacy. As Junot and Paula explore so many elements of his work, Junot points out that white supremacy flows through all the characters as a sort of “call and response” – we are imprisoned by this system but this system also informs our actions. Here’s one silly example from my own life – I’ve been a voracious reader of magazines since I could read independently. But for years, I frequented two types of magazines – I would check out white publications like Elle, Cosmo, and Marie Claire, and I would buy black publications like Essence and Heart and Soul.
It never occurred to me to check out anything else until I was at a salon and what was readily available was Latina. Not being Latina, it never occurred to me to pick it up – but thumbing through the issue I found I really enjoyed the articles, the hair care tips were way more relevant to me than what was ever in the white magazines, and some of the models even looked like me. So why did I throw cash every month at white publications, but not Latina? I had been following a script – white magazines are for “everyone” and minority focused mags are for those groups only. But if we flipped that paradigm, and started investing in the media of other groups, as well as our own, how would that change the landscape for women’s magazines?
Like I said, silly example, but one that shows how we start to privilege whiteness without even thinking about it. Part of me wants to create and crowdsource something like a “White Supremacy Detox” to see if we can pinpoint what harmful activities we participate in to our own detriment.
We could continue discussing this piece all day (and I hope you all will in the comments) but there is one more segment I want to highlight, even though we will have to discuss this particular point another day! At the end of part II of the interview, Paula M. L. Moya drops one hell of a framework, but then has to move on:
Paula: That’s so interesting because just a couple of days ago I went to a talk by the Stanford sociologist Corey Fields; he is doing some pilot studies about the impact of race on black women’s love lives. During his talk, Fields mentioned a book by Averil Clarke called Inequalities of Love. The thing about this book is that it talks about the fact that college-educated black women, in particular, date less, marry less, and have fewer romantic relationships than their college-educated white and Latina counterparts, and than non-college-educated black women. But the important intervention that Clarke makes is that she points out that everyone talks about this fact as a kind of difference. Well, sure it is a difference, but it is not just a difference—it’s an inequality. So she frames the situation in terms of an inequality and describes it as a “romantic deprivation” that black women suffer.
Well. I feel like before I even touch that, I’m going to need to grab my copies of A Love Noire, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, Good Hair, Black Feminist Thought, and a bottle of wine before I can wrap my head around that, so maybe next week. Until then, the floor is yours.
And In defense of russell peters: are racial stereotypes ever funny? because Thea introduces this:
Last year at VONA, a yearly creative writing workshop for writers of colour, I met the wondrous Junot Díaz who introduced my group to his theory on the Wheel of Tyranny.
Díaz argued that too many books by writers of colour represent only two ethnicities per book: people from the writer’s own community of colour, and white folks.
In these writers’ fictional worlds there are only brown people and white people (The Namesake); or only black folks and white folks in the world (The Colour Purple); or only Chinese people and white people in the world (The Woman Warrior)…In these books, the communities of colour have white folks as their sole interlocutors. What about conversations between different communities of colour? It’s pretty rare that you come across a book like, for eg, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which featured a white family, a brown family and a black family.
This lack of real diversity, Díaz argued, creates The Wheel of Tyranny (and if he was here to draw this for us he would), where communities of colour circle constantly around a hub that is white folks, while never communicating with each other. Díaz suggested that in reflecting the experience of other people of colour in our work, we create a home for each other in our art; we show each other that we exist.
(Image Credit: Revolution Books NYC)