In light of the recent Junot Díaz buzz, a friend asked me on Saturday if I would still teach him. My short answer was yes, and my long answer was if my students want to read him. This post is about why.
In college I knew I wanted to write and hadn’t made my mind up yet whether it would be fiction or academic scholarship, so I double majored in English and Creative Writing. When Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao came out, I devoured it. I had spent a summer in Panama teaching English as a second language and Díaz captured the machismo I witnessed there, and what I had absorbed as a child when I lived in Miami, Florida, with heart-wrenching perfection.
In Miami, I grew up believing Zorro would save me (that may sound ridiculous but it’s true) and it took years for me to realize that I could save myself without having to show any collarbone and shoulders, thankyouverymuch. Older and somewhat wiser, living in Panama, I witnessed the male leaders of local communities get drunk and dance under the fireworks on a hot summer’s evening at their “meeting” where “official business” was discussed, and I watched their wives gracefully, heroically put up with their groping and slurring. I listened to stories told by strong women, smart women who gave up their lives and careers for them.
Díaz put to words what I couldn’t. That said, so did Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and Isabel Allende. He gave me characters whose very plots depend on a milieu of machismo, and I had a thing to point to and say, “There. That’s what I mean by toxic.”
Teaching Díaz, Year One
I used to teach short stories in my composition class and my go-to was one from Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her. How could I teach writing without him? I distinctly remember the strong feelings my latinx students have about Díaz’s character Yunior. Díaz’s stories speak to these students’ experience and bring about conversations about race, class, and gender in the U.S. informed specifically by a latinx perspective that is largely underrepresented in literary studies. The room would bloom into a safe space for Spanglish and then it would slowly die away; quiet students who spoke out about Yunior (a very provocative character to begin with) were quiet for the rest of the semester. That’s my fault for not teaching more latinx lit in a syllabus otherwise crammed with intersectionality.
Teaching Díaz, Year Two
The reason I stopped teaching Díaz was that I grew tired of the toxic masculinity in his stories and I wanted to give my students more stories authored by women. I had changed since I read Díaz as a college student. I grew into a more radical feminist politics, started a women’s support group for adjuncts at CUNY, started going to protests and donating money to organizations, and I started taking responsibility for my role as an educator, trying to teach as many women authors, especially women of color, as possible. What I viewed as my crowning achievement was an all-women syllabus, teaching only women authors, theorists, music artists, and illustrators.
But in my crusade, I left something important behind.
Teaching Díaz, Year Three
As I grew more confident in my pedagogy, I started asking my students to choose the novel we would read in our composition class. Several novels were suggested, and one student was lobbying hard for Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and I lobbied hard with her, but the class majority leaned toward Díaz’s Oscar Wao instead. I was a bit gutted. This was a course I had carefully tailored with a women’s and gender studies theme and my students wanted to read a book steeped in machismo, toxic masculinity. They felt they had a firm grasp of women’s studies and wanted to learn more about masculinity in gender and race studies. That won me over and I brought my critical training to the text, pushing them to see how patriarchy oppresses both men and women. (If you want to read more about the course, you can read my post about it here.)
Reflections on Díaz and Patriarchy
Díaz has been asked repeatedly if he is Yunior or if he’s Oscar Wao, and given his aggressively defensive reactions to discussing misogyny in his writing, I think the answer might be that he is split between the two: at times a victim, like Oscar who doesn’t know how to be “masculine,” and at other times he is the problem, an aggressive, womanizing jerk like Yunior. Yunior got treated terribly as a kid (if you’ve read Drown), and has a soft spot that he hides with machismo. This doesn’t excuse Díaz’s misogyny or violence against women, or Yunior’s. But that soft spot–Yunior’s hard life, Díaz’s childhood trauma–not to mention racism, the xenophobia of our current administration, on top of patriarchal standards for what is and isn’t “masculine” and “macho,” all contribute to why we can’t help but love Yunior through his failures and disappointments. I’m not unlike the wives in rural Panama who gracefully accept some–not all–of the messiness of men acting out their masculinity. I feel somewhat unsurprised by the recent news with varying degrees of rage and compassion. I stand with women, support women, and I believe the claims against him. And I acknowledge that patriarchy tears guys apart, too.
Teaching Díaz Now
I tell my students that no author is ever “safe” from scrutiny. We might think they’re “great” but who we think is “great” constantly changes as we grow and change. We can always be better, do more, and none of us are perfect. It is our responsibility, whether we’re teaching Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Octavia Butler’s Kindred, to be as honest about the author’s and the text’s limitations as we are about their beauties and strengths.
There is no excuse for Díaz’s mistreatment of women. None. My heart is with the women who have suffered mistreatment, aggression, misogyny, and worse. I believe them and I will continue to stand up in solidarity with and for them. Teaching literature written by Díaz is one way to start conversations about what allowed the conditions for their mistreatment. I don’t want to close this particular door because students can learn from it still, and learn with compassion that builds toward solidarity.
I’m at a point in my pedagogy where I want my students to have a say in what they read, but I make choices about how we read. I’d rather teach Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits but if my students want to read Oscar Wao, or any Díaz for that matter, I will say yes because I gave them a choice.
I would do the same thing I did before and teach him alongside Anzaldúa. Now, I would add to that excerpts from Díaz’s New Yorker piece about his childhood trauma, articles about institutional and public responses to the claims against him, and op-eds that press on what his behavior means for writing/reading/academic culture in general, and the fact that he is both a #MeToo survivor and a perpetrator.
I will continue to critically examine how patriarchy slowly crushes the male characters in his stories, and challenge students to think about why [insert male character’s name here] is a misogynist in the first place? Who taught him to be that way? What institutions, figures, and social norms in our society support machismo, or male violence? Applauds it? Tacitly accepts it? And, finally, what can we do about it to make the world better for us all? These questions lead to critical self-reflection, which is what I hope my students will do after reading anything that I teach them.