Breaking The Barrier: On Race, Gender, And Junot Díaz

By Thea Lim, cross-posted from The Millions

Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

A few weeks ago, in the The New York Observer, Nina Burleigh threw down the notion that the enormous success of Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her is undeserved. Díaz is beloved not because he is a great writer, Burleigh argues, but because Díaz is a man, and a man who delights us with tales about dashing players and their hapless women victims:

Is it the wars, the terrorism, the recession, driving the longing for a regenerated machismo that Mr. Díaz’s multi-culti cred makes acceptable again? Is it a feminist backlash?…Mr. Díaz’s wondrous bewitching of prize committees comes at a time when women writers remain wildly underrepresented in publishing, on both the reviewing and the reviewed side.

And on Twitter, multiple women writers I respect and admire, like Roxane Gay and Elliot Holt gave Díaz his due, but went on to say that Díaz’s style of confessional writings about love would not fly if written by a woman.

Normally, I’d be all over this kind of thing. I love talking about the lack of gender equity in publishing (in fact, I did for Bitch Magazine this summer). But I can’t agree that Díaz’s success is gender-based; because, yes, Díaz is a man, but he’s also a man of color. Critics who say that Díaz would not receive the same warmth if he was a woman are overlooking the factor of race.

The VIDA statistics that count the number of women’s bylines versus men’s in prestigious magazines are undeniable: in the last two years, in the publications surveyed, only one-quarter to one-third of bylines went to women. There is no parallel count for writers of color, (anybody want to start one?) though we can count prizes. Since 1917, a total of five men of color have won the Pulitzer: James Alan MacPherson, N. Scott Momaday, Oscar Hijuelos, Edward P. Jones, and Junot Díaz. Thirty women have won the Pulitzer, almost half of them condensed in the last 30 years, and three of those women were women of color. Since 1950 two men of color have won a National Book Award in Fiction–Ralph Ellison and Ha Jin–and 15 women have won an NBA in Fiction, two of them women of color. And these numbers are reflected in MFA programs and at writing conferences. For example, I had the great fortune of attending an MFA program with close numbers of men and women, though gender parity did vary from year to year. But over the three years that I attended the program, I can count only seven men of color and 12 women of color probably out of about 150 students.* While no stats on gender and race exist for MFA programs, I don’t think that my program was out of the norm. Even at VONA, the annual Bay Area writing conference for writers of color–where, I should disclose, I took a workshop with Junot Díaz in 2007–the number of women attendees outstrips the number of men. I’m not trying to say that publishing isn’t difficult for women; I’m simply trying to say that it ain’t easy for men of color, either.

However, I don’t need to dazzle you with depressing numbers to make my case. I could just point out the fact that in our culture, the stereotypes associated with men of color don’t exactly make room for the kind of insight, expressiveness, and artsiness we associate with writers. Instead, these stereotypes expect men of color, particularly African American men and Latino men, to be hypermasculine and violent–and little else. They expect East Asian men, South Asian men, and Arab men to be computer nerds, cab drivers, or terrorists, and not poets; Native American men are expected to be drunk.

It surprises me that only a few months after we were all wearing hoodies for Trayvon Martin, we can overlook the fact that race is a terrifyingly high obstacle for men of color. Of course, some of the greatest wordsmiths, storytellers, and social historians of our time have to come to us through hip-hop–like Big L, Biggie, Jay-Z or your preferred MC of choice–but thanks to the racialized wariness that often meets hip-hop in the mainstream, you will rarely hear these men of color described adoringly by the arbiters of literary culture.

While I emphatically agree that gender is a barrier in publishing, taking out our sense of injustice on men of color is barking up the wrong tree. It would make more sense for us to think about how the barriers we face are parallel and to try working on the unfairness in publishing together.

coverBut Nina Burleigh aside, what really struck in the craw of my Twitter feed is not the fact that Junot Díaz is a man, period, but rather that he is a man who is being rewarded for writing love stories about characters who are mysteriously close to himself. The argument runs that women aren’t allowed to write about love, especially not in a confessional way–unless they want to get shelved under “Chick Lit” instead of “Prize Winners.” This holds more water for me. Still, I can think of multiple women writers who write about love and their own lives–and who gracefully demonstrate the impact of gender on their love and their lives–just as Díaz does. Like Mary Gaitskill, for example. Or Alice Munro. (There is even a biography of Alice Munro that charts how much her stories overlap with her own life.) It is no coincidence that Gaitskill, Munro, and Díaz all write stories that are so innovative, heart-breaking, and thrilling that they dwarf those of their contemporaries. While it is hard for anyone to write a good story–and harder still to get that good story published–more often than not people who are marginalized have to perform at a higher level than the norm in any field, to overcome the bias that might otherwise count them out.

And to call Junot Díaz’s stories “love stories” seems a little tongue-in-cheek. They are more like unlove stories: they chronicle one Dominican American man’s inability to overcome the patriarchal expectations on himself, which he then turns on the women in his life, leading to eventual bleak and total emotional isolation. (Could Díaz be addressing those expectations of hypermasculinity, the ones that also make it hard for men of color to be seen as artists?)

Going on what Díaz admits about his personal life, the stories may be confessional, but they aren’t masturbatory or without purpose; instead they manage to maintain that almost impossible balance between beautiful writing and politics. A quick read of stories like “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” “Alma,” or “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” might yield the belief that Díaz’s character–and Díaz himself–are pigs and misogynists. For sure, some readers I know can’t even get past Yunior’s addiction to ethnic and sexist slurs. While I don’t share the sentiment, I can sympathize with the desire to carve out a space in one’s life that is free from such language, as loaded, painful, and constant as it is in our everyday lives.

But I have trouble understanding how a willing and careful reader could miss the fact that almost all of Díaz’s stories are cautionary tales about what happens to men who refuse to lay down their male power in order to see women as human. When Nina Burleigh says, “Díaz’s alter ego is utterly beholden to his wandering penis, yet never examines his compulsion to bone everyone in sight,” I wonder if we were reading the same book. This is How You Lose Her’s biggest joke–and biggest tragedy–is this: Yunior’s thesis is that he’s “not a bad guy,” and yet the tales he tells about himself are merciless in proving the opposite. Yunior may not “examine his compulsion[s],” but the stories do, unflinchingly. Yunior is a bad guy, and his refusal to take responsibility leads him to the worst ending of all by the book’s close: the inability to connect.

Because Díaz’s work is so concerned with masculinity, it is hard for me to imagine “the female Junot Díaz”–that woman writer who writes just like he does but doesn’t receive the accolades he does. The fact that Díaz is so uniquely himself as a writer compounds this issue. Does the question work in reverse? Who is the male Mary Gaitskill? The male Alice Munro? (Chekhov, Cynthia Ozick says.) Zadie Smith and ZZ Packer seem like possible counterparts for Díaz–though their accolades are intact–for their blend of humor and tragedy and high and low culture, and their investigation of the impact that race, gender, and class have on love and family.

For me, the magic of Junot Díaz is that his stories work on more levels than I can keep track of. The way he writes race and gender is radical, but what he does with words is so enchanting that a reader who doesn’t care about race and gender can still be swept away. Among the great gifts of his work is the common space it opens up. Michael Bourne wrote in September that Díaz lets all readers share in his space, whatever their background: “…no matter what racial madness was happening on the page, I as a white reader always felt included among his boys, the ‘you’ in his stories always seemed to include me.” While this is not the point Bourne is trying to make (and you should read his review because his point is more insightful and complex), Díaz’s writing does indeed put the bros at ease, because Díaz is simultaneously critical of machismo, while still being macho.

And so conversations about race and gender with white writers or male writers that I would otherwise find stressful, risky, because I am a woman writer of color–especially if we’re talking about less bro-friendly writers like (God forbid) Alice Walker–miraculously become open and relaxed if we’re talking about Yunior. Here Díaz gets to have his cake and eat it, too, and that could be what annoys feminist writers. A woman would never get high fives for criticizing the patriarchy; that I can definitely agree with. But, could I be irritated that we can’t have the same kind of relaxed conversations in the context of Louise Erdrich, Edwidge Danticat, or even Edward P. Jones because they don’t make the bros feels as safe as Díaz? Sure. But I’m still wildly grateful for that space that fits both me and the literary bros. Seriously, that’s a magic trick and a half.

And yet, this common space can be dangerous, because it’s too easy. If I were to entertain the notion that something other than Díaz’s colossal talent is behind his success, I would guess that prize committees bequeath their approval on Díaz because a bonus comes from association with him outside of his cred as a writer.

Loving Díaz can be like slipping Kanye lyrics into conversation or cushioning racist comments with references to your black best friend: it allows white readers a reprieve from white guilt. A fantasy world opens up, where racial difference is elided, and you can be absolved of the crimes associated with white privilege by raving about Junot Díaz or by giving him a big prize.

Sure, the cynicism behind this sentiment is as ugly as Burleigh’s crass dismissal of Díaz’s worth. But the fact of the matter is that neither my cynicism nor Burleigh’s misplaced anger is going to go away any time soon–not until the landscape of publishing shares more of the power and lets in the people that it has shut out.

*The total number of students in my program at any time was 80. The number 150 is a rough guess that includes any students who overlapped with me, and graduated before me, after me or with me.

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This article in its original form contained two errors: it misreported the number of men of color who had won a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and the number of women of colour who had won a National  Book Award in Fiction. This has since been corrected.