I Was Wrong About Junot Díaz, But That Doesn’t Change How He Inspired Me
“This Is How You Lose Her” isn’t the love letter to women and girls I thought it was, but maybe my work can be
Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book you misunderstood?
Two months before the #MeToo movement circled in on Junot Díaz’s mistreatment of women writers, I met him at a book store in Porter Square in Somerville. I told him, through my own stuttering, that I’m a graduate student, and a writer, and that his books encouraged me to imagine myself and my family in fiction. That because of his books, I have pursued a more ambitious and risky artistic career. Maybe because I was with my boyfriend, or perhaps because the store was crowded, or even because he had grown after all, he was nothing but kind and encouraging. After his talk, during which he was promoting his new children’s book, I sat on the train with my boyfriend and read aloud to him from the collection, trying to inject all of the flavor of the rich language of the text. On the train, several people put their phones down and listened too, so I wasn’t too careful to hide the verse, to cover up the swears, to be unapologetically loud.
Now, in the wake of the allegations against Diaz, I’ve felt compelled to revisit the words of the works I loved so much.
Perhaps if my favorite college English professor hadn’t suggested I read Junot Díaz’s work years prior, when I argued the canon was too white, I would have fallen in love with Edwidge Danticat or Isabel Allende first. But I read Drown in one day of busy travel, starting on the floor of Boston Logan airport by a tired outlet, then on the plane next to a snoring man, then in a taxi, and I finished it in my hotel room when I stayed up much later than I had intended before a conference. After my panel was over, I bought The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and read it at the expense of my spring semester GPA. It wasn’t long before I picked up This is How You Lose Her and fell in love with Junot Díaz’s writing.
Upon hearing the allegations, I picked up my freshly signed copy of This is How You Lose Her (he kept it simple, For Brittany Paz) and flipped through its worn pages. Had I truly misunderstood its message? When I first read it, I thought it was a meditation on Black and Caribbean women, on Afro-Latinas, and on the difficulties they faced because of the men in and around their lives. Tracing over the lines of graphite I had carefully marked under my favorite passages, I realized the book was never for women. Take for example the very first story, “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.” In it, Yunior, Junot Díaz’s protagonist, takes his girlfriend to the Dominican Republic on vacation in the hopes of delaying their breakup after their years of cheating. Reading it now, years later, and with more experience with both men and literature, all I see is red flags. After doing something nice for Magda, Yunior explains to the reader, “For this I deserve something nice. Something physical,” as if his kindness itself deserved a sexual reward. In the same story, he also writes about how beautiful Magda is, how red lipstick was made for Latina women, and how her being comfortable in her bathing suit made him insecure. He says that men wanted to marry Magda, and that people hid their wallets from him. The anti-blackness coupled with misogyny is palpable throughout this description; his insecurity is tied to his black manhood in contrast to Magda, the fetishized beauty.
However, at the same time, I remember the passages I loved and that informed my writing. At one moment in this story, Magda is feeling conflicted about her relationship with Yunior, but she is on vacation with him already, so I imagine her feeling trapped, and she looks out the window in silence. Yunior explains, “She seemed tired and watched the world outside like maybe she was expecting it to speak to her.”
If I got a dollar for every time I sat in disappointed silence around men who I wished would do better, I could afford my rent in Boston. Truthfully, Black women, Caribbean women, and Latina women are often left to deal with racism like the men in their lives in addition to the sexism directed at them from the men in their lives. When you don’t know if the love you have is enough to overcome real obstacles and struggles, when it seems like the guy will never change no matter how happy you know you can be, and you’re trapped in a situation where you can’t have reprieve for a definite amount of time, that’s exactly what you’re forced to do. She waited it out. I’ve done this, I’ve sat waiting for anything, a sign, a message from beyond, for a man to finally cross the line to physical violence, for the courage to end it. I used to want a sign to tell me that it would be okay if I ended it, that my life would go on and it would go on and I’d still be happy. That sentence, more than any other in literature, has stuck with me through the years as being simple and true.
At the end of that story, Yunior explains that he is trying to tell you the story of the fool he was. He sets the collection of stories up for you to feel sympathy for him for his inability to treat the women he loves the way they deserve. Now, after Díaz’s essay for The New Yorker, we are to understand that sexual abuse prevents Yunior from processing his feelings in healthy ways. However, that wasn’t the understanding I had when I read these books, and I still loved them.
Despite what has happened, and how it has complicated my hero worship of Díaz as an author, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is still my favorite short story. In it, Yunior explains, over the course of years, how he managed to overcome the loss of his love. He explains the long, arduous, and twisted road to healing, through the use of second person. It opens with “Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually, she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.” Through the use of second person, you are forced into Yunior’s feelings, to sympathize with his point of view, and to feel the pain he feels (physically, emotionally) while trying to move on from what he wants you to understand was his worst mistake.
Now, reading it, I realize it is a long rumination on the perspective of the abuser. That even within this story, Yunior is found out by his writing, not through clear communication with his fiancée. You as the reader are being asked to read and empathize with the abuser throughout the collection’s last story, with little thought to the women he hurt.
I recognize that my feelings towards the story are warped by my own projections onto it. I spent years regretting my own relationship with a man, one who left me damaged, broken, and unsure of myself. That healing process was also tedious, and now I find it darkly funny that this is where I found solace: in the ruminations of an abusive character’s pain. That last story, in which you would expect to leave the collection without a doubt that Yunior’s macho perspective is wrong, also features a subplot in which his best friend discovers a woman in his life lied about the paternity of her son. Because, the implicit message is, women are the ones who can’t be trusted.
The story, and the collection, ends with Yunior acknowledging his ex was right to leave, before deciding that he should write a book about the experience. That it would make a good story. That the pain of the women in his life could benefit his career. It’s beyond metafiction. In the story and in life, the writer profits off of the damage he has done.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: This is How You Lose Her was the most formative book to my own writing career. I am trying to say that the worlds Díaz created allowed me to see myself in the predominately white literary landscape, that the characters on the pages looked like people in my own life, that the stories are deeply misogynist, and that they still deeply matter to me. The book that I thought was a love letter to women and girls like me is more of a rumination on male loss of women. Ultimately, Yunior is sorrier that he misses Magda than that he hurt her. But still, the book matters to me. Regardless of how I feel about it now, it encouraged me to seriously pursue writing, and to value the ways my family tells the story of our migration to the United States. Poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s collection Peluda features a poem, “Lip Stain Must Ache,” that explores her relationship to This is How You Lose Her. In it, she says, “It doesn’t matter if I can remember the passage correctly, because I remember the way it made me feel, which is seen, which is defined, which is loved.” While the poem was lovely before, it means so much to me now, in that it reminds me that even if book was written for me, it did a lot for my writing. Eventually, because of those works in part, maybe my own books will be loved by women and girls like me.
Despite the stories not being for me, I still hope one day Junot Díaz reads my stories or poems and loves them. In the weeks since the allegations, many have been quick to discard his work, or to rush to his defense (“But it was because he was abused”). I’m not offering any easy answers or quick solutions. I’m angry and hurt too. It’s just also not true that I can pretend this book didn’t change my life. I’m just here, sifting through the pages of my favorite stories, hoping that he really has changed and grown, that he’s really sorry. That the women he has hurt, and that Yunior has hurt, have found some kind of healing.