By Andrea Plaid
If we had to pick a Racialicious poster boy–that aphrodisiac of sapiosexuality–Junot Diaz would be it.
The R’s Owner/Editor Latoya Peterson says this about his book, The Brief Wonderous Life Of Oscar Wao:
My eyes drank in every word of “Wildwood,” the second chapter in Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. On the plane from Baltimore to Austin, the narrative gripped me solidly by the throat, turning a casual curiosity about Oscar into a desperate longing to hear more from his sister Lola.
When the plane touched down, my sweatshirt was crunchy with the salt from shed tears and I had run through six napkins while the story unfolded. I grabbed my bags, and called my boyfriend who had been badgering me about reading the novel for some months now.
“Why didn’t you mention Lola?” I asked.
“Who? Oscar’s sister? Why is that…oh.” His voice suddenly bloomed with recognition and we sat in silence for a few seconds.
In all the reviews I have read about the novel since I finished the final page, the character of Lola is generally a footnote. Described as a beautiful girl, or a troubled girl, or Oscar’s sister, the strength of her narrative and her story seem overshadowed by the book’s focus – obviously, Oscar – or by the story of her mother, Belicia, the beautiful prieta who seemed forged partially from the steel intended to break her into submission. And yet, to me, Lola’s story was the most compelling, reflecting back in stark focus so many emotions, trials and ideas that were intimately familiar to me and the other girls I knew growing up.
Because in the book I read – as in life – the men in each of these women’s lives were not central figures. There are men, yes, and Oscar is the unifying force in the narrative, but the people Belicia and Lola were involved with were not the point unto themselves. The men stood for the method of escape. With the exception of The Gangster and Yunior, all the men in the book that Lola and Belicia were involved with were ways to get the hell out.
Lola’s boyfriend Aldo is the method to escape her mother. Sure, she loved him. Kind of. But reading through the lines, the catalyst for her leaving with Aldo was that he asked to her to come live with him. Sex was part of the travel cost. As I have written before, a guy is the easiest way to escape a fucked up family life.
But this easily overlooked difference belies the true genius in Oscar Wao. It isn’t just a documenting a fictionalized account of the things that happen in our real life communities. The book shines in how Diaz fills in what would normally be an outline, and shows us the after. Or more appropriately, how Diaz demonstrates how there ain’t no happily ever after. There are just choices and consequences.
And Diaz stays choice around here not only because of his award-winning bibliography, but also because of his growing body of anti-racist ideas. Racialicious alum Thea Lim introduced Racializens to Diaz’s 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.
And he says this about race, racism, masculinity, and ‘decolonial love’ as pertaining to his work in a 2012 interview with Boston Review, where he serves as fiction editor (**TRIGGER WARNING–Sexual violence**):
Well, at its most simplistic in, say, Drown, we have a book where racist shit happens—but it’s not like at a thematic level the book is saying: Right on, racist shit! I was hoping that the book would expose my characters’ race craziness and that this craziness would strike readers, at the very minimum, as authentic. But exposing our racisms, etc., accurately has never seemed to be enough; the problem with faithful representations is that they run the risk of being mere titillation or sensationalism. In my books, I try to show how these oppressive paradigms work together with the social reality of the characters to undermine the very dreams the characters have for themselves. So, Yunior thinks X and Y about people and that logic is, in part, what fucks him up. Now if the redounding is too blunt and obvious, then what you get is a moralistic parable and not literature. But, if it’s done well, then you get both the ugliness that comes out of showing how people really are around issues like race and gender, but also a hidden underlying counter-current that puts in front of you the very real, very personal, consequences of these orientations.
Yunior, for example, uses the “n word” all the time and yet he is haunted by anti-black racism within and without his community. Haunted and wounded. In “How to Date,” for instance, we see explicitly how he is victimized by a powerful anti-Black self-hate of the Fanon variety. That for me would be a concrete example of how the deeper narrative of Drown offers a complicated counterpoint to Yunior’s often-toxic racial utterances, the kind of call-response I’m trying to achieve in the work.
In Drown as a whole, the million-dollar question is this: are Yunior’s gender politics, his generalizations and misogyny, rewarded in the book’s ‘reality’? Do they get him anything in the end? Well, if we chart the progress of the stories in Drown it appears to me that Yunior’s ideas about women, and the actions that arise out of these ideas, always leave him more alone, more thwarted, more disconnected from his community and from himself. Yunior cannot even hope to bear witness to what happened between his mother and his father—which is to say he can’t bear witness to what really happened to him—without first confronting the role he plays and continues to play in that kind of male behavior that made his family’s original separation and later dissolution inevitable. Yunior’s desire for communion with self and with other is finally undermined by his inability, his unwillingness, to see in the women in his life as fully human. (Which is kinda tragic, since without being able to recognize the women parts of his identity as human, he cannot in turn recognize himself as fully human.) The reason why the character of Yunior is at all interesting to me is because he senses this. He senses how he makes his own chains and he rages against the chains and against himself, and yet he continues to forge them, link by link by link.
In Oscar Wao we have a family that has fled, half-destroyed, from one of the rape incubators of the New World and they are trying to find love. But not just any love. How can there be “just any love” given the history of rape and sexual violence that created the Caribbean—that Trujillo uses in the novel? The kind of love that I was interested in, that my characters long for intuitively, is the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence. I am speaking about decolonial love.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.
In the same interview Diaz gives all sorts of love to women-of-color writers for paving his way, framing their intraracial–and internecine–conflicts in the crosshairs of race, gender, and colonialism:
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.
[A]ll these sisters were pretty clear that redemption was not going to be found in the typical masculine nostrums of nationalism or armed revolution or even that great favorite of a certain class of writerly brother: transracial intimacy. Por favor! If transracial intimacy was all we needed to be free, then a joint like the Dominican Republic would be the great cradle of freedom—which, I assure you, it is not. Why these sisters struck me as the most dangerous of artists was because in the work of, say, Morrison, or Octavia Butler, we are shown the awful radiant truth of how profoundly constituted we are of our oppressions. Or said differently: how indissolubly our identities are bound to the regimes that imprison us. These sisters not only describe the grim labyrinth of power that we are in as neocolonial subjects, but they also point out that we play both Theseus and the Minotaur in this nightmare drama. Most importantly these sisters offered strategies of hope, spinning the threads that will make escape from this labyrinth possible. It wasn’t an easy thread to seize—this movement towards liberation required the kind of internal bearing witness of our own role in the social hell of our world that most people would rather not engage in. It was a tough praxis, but a potentially earthshaking one too. Because rather than strike at this issue or that issue, this internal bearing of witness raised the possibility of denying our oppressive regimes the true source of their powers—which is, of course, our consent,our participation. This kind of praxis doesn’t attack the head of the beast, which will only grow back; it strikes directly at the beast’s heart, which we nurture and keep safe in our own.
Heady stuff for a young writer. Theirs was the project I wanted to be part of. And they gave me the map that I, a poor Dominican immigrant boy of African descent from New Jersey, could follow.
And to whom did he give a bouquet of thanks when he received the MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant? Those hardworking torch-carriers of knowledge, librarians and teachers. Colorlines reports that Diaz shouted them out on his Facebook page:
Thanks to everyone who wrote a letter to make this happen. Thanks to all the teachers and librarians and booksellers who kept me in circulation through the long silences. Thanks to the beautiful readers who did the same. This honor belongs to my community, whose sacrifices and courage and yes genius made me possible. Gratitude without end.
Like so many of our crushes, Diaz stays advocating with his communities: he’s involved in such New York City organizations like Pro-Libertad and the Dominican Workers’ Party as well as co-penning an op-ed criticizing US immigration policy on deporting Haitian and Haitian Dominicans with author Edwidge Danticot.
Unlike some of our crushes (unfortunately), we at the R will have the privilege of enjoying The Diaz Experience all the way live when we attend the Applied Research Center’s (ARC, who brings us the Colorlines crew) Facing Race conference next week. We live-blog, live-tweet, and Tumblr all about His Racialicious Sapiosexiness, whom ARC asked to be the keynote speaker. Suffice to say, we’re geeked about it. More precisely, we’re like this about it (**GIF WARNING**):
And we’re just waiting for his non-fiction book on anti-racist theory to hit the streets.