Tuesday, November 20, 2012

This is How You Lose Her (and by her, I mean me)

A few years ago a colleague suggested that I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao during my summer break. Let me be clear. I have a hard time reading. fiction. I have finished few books since I finished grad school. Joan makes fun as she tears through book after book after book. I'm good at reading facebook pages and, of course, academic text. Anyhow, my colleague and everyone else on the planet looooooooved Oscar Wao and, since she and I had similar interests and, it had just won the Pulitzer Prize, I bought the book. And I read it, pretty voraciously. It really was one of the first pieces of fiction I made progress in in a long while. His prose was lovely, the narration of Yunior and story of Oscar Wao heartwrenching at times, vivid, vivid imagery of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo's rule but, I didn't finish the book. And, yes, in spite of the title, I didn't really realize that Oscar Wao died *spoiler.* Once I put it down I was done.

I can't really pinpoint when I was done. I think, as I flip through the pages, it was in his description of La Inca. But, really, it was his treatment and description of women that left me feeling kicked in the gut and pissed off. Like mad. I understand this may be a tired critique, but I don't get it. I don't understand where the love for and praise of Junot Díaz comes from.  And not I'm not just talking about love, like "He's great, I love his work!" I mean like, "I love, love, love Junot Díaz. He's the greatest living writer of color, or writer period. Ever and Forever (forever eva?)" It's over the top love and celebration by friends, people I love and admire and, perhaps most importantly for me, queer people of color that confuses me.

So, I gotta ask, and I ask this for reals, what is it about what reads as nothing but heteronormative, at times--if not in every breath/description of women--misogynist, and sometimes posing (like, really, you're gonna start This is How You Lose Her with a quote from Sandra Cisneros) that people celebrate? That sounds a little harsh, but I really am asking, because I don't understand it.  Like, I'm with folks on many fronts: He is a beautiful writer. And, on most things around race and particularly, as an Afro-Dominican writer, he writes from a perspective that the majority of US folks haven't experienced or read. I'm one of those folks. And, my reading may come entirely from a US based queer Black and feminist perspective and "bias." Right now, I'm reading This is How You Lose Her because I assigned it for a class on Sexual Cultures and Sexual Identities. And, I read the brief intro before the book came out in a summer edition of The New Yorker. And I gotta hand it to him, he writes what it's like, or what I assume it's like, to be an educated brown man teaching on an elite university campus--which he is and does--and getting stopped routinely by police, as if he is an intruder. As if he's out of place. I have no doubt that Yunior's experiences in this text are Díaz' and that's an experience that I've never had and leaves me humbled and. conflicted.


And, correct me if I'm wrong here but, every time I read Junot Díaz I feel like I'm reading the most misogynist take on heterosexual relationships and men's regard for women since Bukowski, Jones, or even Woody Allen. I walk away from the text feeling angry and not just angry, but furious. Am I wrong about this? Not about my reaction, but his take on women and relationships. If so, feel free to school--not attack--me, because I ask genuinely.  But, if I'm right, and he is completely sexist and privileging men of color's experiences at the expense of women--like every other writer, like many organizations, like the government, and like social movements, then how the fuck is that ok? How do we as feminists, as queer folks of color support this narration of heterosexual lives? I mean, what does he have to offer queer folk? Or, what is the queer read? I'll engage with it but, to date, I'm not feeling it. Especially when excuses are made by reviewers or the author himself, as in the recent article, How Junot Diaz Wrote a Sexist Character Not a Sexist Book in The Atlantic online. Joseph Fassler, who interviewed Díaz claims that,
Diaz said he wrote the book, in part, to acknowledge the deep sexism that pervades our culture but frequently remains unaddressed. He admits that, by tackling the topic head-on, he risks writing a book that is perceived as sexist (or is sexist). But he quoted a favorite line from James Baldwin: "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." In this light, Diaz feels he has a moral obligation to reckon with male privilege. "I think the average guy thinks they're pro-woman, just because they think they're a nice guy and someone has told them that they're awesome," he said. "But the truth is far from it. Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations."
Ok, I can get down with some of that: expose, Brother Díaz, how sexism pervades our culture by writing sexist male characters. I understand the nice guy critique, it surely doesn't evade sexism. Avoids yes, but doesn't address. But, neither does your work, from what I can tell. Like, where is the critique, in the text? Does just writing extremely sexist characters who fuck up their relationships with women over and over and over again and then hang out with friends who also fuck up their relationships with women, see women as p*ssy props and do whatever they want to do really a critique of the sexism that pervades our culture? You expose it, but is this something we don't know? Cause I'm pretty sure I'm familiar with the ways that sexism socializes men to treat women like shit [update: in talking with someone about this post I described his writing as p*ssy dripping sexism, which is what it feels like when I read it].

One of the comments to the Atlantic article, written by a woman of color, compared Díaz' work to hip-hop. Sexist, yes, but also informational--like telling her what to expect--perhaps an excellent comparison and reminiscent of Joan Morgan's argument in Chickenheads. Who states,

My decision to expose myself to the sexism of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, or the Notorious B.I.G is really my plea to my brothers to tell me who they are. I need to know why they are so angry at me. . . As a blackwoman and a feminist I listen to the music with a willingness to see past the machismo in order to be clear about what I’m really dealing with (Morgan 1999: 42)
That makes sense to me. And maybe it's time to go back and re-read Morgan in conversation with Díaz. Because, when I listen to hip-hop, it's often clear to me that it's a performance, I don't actually feel like Lil' Wayne, Jay-Z, or any of the other brothas hate me (ok, maybe Chris Brown). But, I don't feel that separation with Junot Díaz . It's too simple to say that he is Yunior, although he may be, but there is not one other character in his book(s) that interrupts the sexist homophobic spew of the narrator.  The women are slutty silent props with little to no agency, the other men are equally as condemning of women, and while I do think it is a bold stance to "deconstruct a cheater" and have him as your primary character, I don't see it as challenging sexism. And, as I have written before about hip-hop and in relationship to Morgan's words, men are not my primary partners--brothers, father, and friends, but not lovers. So what's the pull towards Diaz for a queer audience? What does Diaz offer in the movement against relentless heteronormative and increasingly homonormative ideals? Cause that's what I'm looking for and have yet to find in his text. And, if he treats women this way in his text, then what does that mean for queer bodies--in his mind, written word, and his consumption? I don't see the two as separate. The two battles of patriarchy, which he eschews above and heterosexism. p.s. I'm not really feelin' his use of James Baldwin in his quote.

Baldwin who was never confused about the intersections of sexism and heterosexism and, in particular, how that affected men of color. As he states,
"The American ideal of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This idea has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden -- as an unpatriotic act -- that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood."
I need a little more complexity, Brother Díaz. Because using Baldwin as a prop, coupled with your text, is really how you lose me.  I'm not entirely gone yet, I'm not throwing you out completely, but... And while my peoples will never lose me, I do want to know what I'm missing.

In conversation and love,


discoatemybaby said...

Great post. I've been feeling some kind of way about Díaz as well: I share your concerns. You've beautifully detailed how he fails to offer a really transformative picture.

Thank you for writing this.

Outlaw No. 451 said...

Personally, I am a fan of Junot Diaz. I usually can't stand to read books written in the first person, but his are an exception. I have to agree with Joan Morgan's interpretation of his writing; even if his experiences play into the story, his characters are putting on a performance. The women obviously made impressions on the lives to the men. But in what ways? Why are certain things about them memorable? Why do they act the way they do? Just because the men are disinterested or dismissive of the women does not mean that the reader has to accept it, or that the author intends for the reader to accept it.

Honestly, I don't expect much from men when they write about women; Diaz actually discusses that in his interview with Fassler. Men are not good at writing women; they never had to be. So he doesn't often write from women's PoV. There's no denying that his main characters are usually sexist, misogynistic dudes who are too wrapped up in their own needs and desires to see women as actual people. However, I think part of Diaz's talent lies in the fact that there is genuine sympathy for women in his writing, and some basic understanding of the way they suffer because of men. There is more to the book than the main characters' say.

As a critique, though, I would be more bothered by the fact that almost all of the women are written off as tragic and long-suffering than their depiction as sex objects. The women are the victims and products of sexist societies; they are doomed from the start. Although, Diaz isn't keen on fairy-tale-ending triumphs for any of the characters...

So, as a cis WoC, I was able to sympathize with the women in this book, see in them ways that women in my family may have put up with sexism. As a queer WoC... yeah, I didn't get that much out of it. I will concede that the books are pretty heteronormative.

I think the significance of Diaz's books is that they fill a niche in Dominican-American literature, which, at this point in time, is dominated by women. I hardly think that his aim is to mansplain for Dominican-American men; he seems more interested in depicting machismo and male privilege--not just the brutish, hypersexualized, racist depiction of men of color that we ALWAYS get in the U.S.--from an authentic American point of view. He is writing as a man who is aware of his male privilege, unlike most of his characters and many of his peers.

Anonymous said...

First time visitor. I love the Baldwin quote - he was a wise man. I admit that I have not read Diaz.