The Junot Diaz Situation

I’ve always considered Junot Diaz a sort of literary god, ever since I picked up and finished The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao not long after it was released. I’ve read all of his adult books, gone to one of his readings, and have read many of the various articles he’s written over the years. He’s always struck me as a remarkable writer, but admittedly with a sharp edge. After recently reading his New Yorker article in which he detailed the horrific sexual abuse he endured as a child, I appreciated his honesty and applauded his bravery.  He has alluded to it in various ways in his work, so I wasn’t really surprised, but nonetheless I was still deeply moved by his candor. I was fully and completely Team Junot- I probably would have bought a shirt that said as much.

Fast forward. Not long after his widely-read article was published a handful of women came out of the woodwork accusing him of various offensive infractions, one woman claiming he forcefully kissed her, another maintaining she felt violated by his demand their relationship be kept a secret, and others saying that he engaged in intense, insulting public discussion that was blatantly misogynistic. The media instantly attacked, social media blew up, and readers, like myself, were left at a loss. Diaz almost instantly claimed responsibility for his unsavory behavior and left the door open for further discussion (albeit the statement read generically and felt a bit sterile).  Just as quickly were also swift and intense blows to his academic and professional reputations, with statements from MIT and the Pulitzer committee stating their intentions to investigate the writer. Some of his peers have come to this defense, though, a group of respected academics recently issuing an open letter urging a reevaluation of how things had been handled. At the end of the day, though, this is a major blow that he may never fully recover from. And if does maintain his contracts, how will this event cloud  the reading of his future texts?

I’ve personally spent a lot of time thinking about the situation and have tried to approach the whole thing from all perspectives. 

As a fan? I’m sad and worried there may never again be a great Junot Diaz novel or collection to enjoy.

As a feminist? I’m angry that he has clearly taken advantage of women, using his clout as an author and professor to do so. 

As someone who fully supports racial equality? I am heartbroken that women of color seem to have been particularly victimized. Indian poet Shreerekha, whom he was once involved with, wrote in her post on The Rumpus that, “…the problematics of how black and brown women function as collateral damage in his journey to recovery… but the hidden costs of his cleansing are borne by women of color…” 

As a devil’s advocate? Does this constitute sexual assault? As a woman I don't want my body to ever be taken advantage of, but there's  a huge difference between a forced kiss and something like rape. We also haven't heard the detailed sides of both stories.

More than anything, this whole situations has just provoked so many questions for me as a consumer of art and literature. At what point do we separate a person and what they produce? Where are the lines drawn?

You just forced a kiss? Okay, I’ll read your books still.

You sexually assaulted young girls? Nope, not watching your movies.

You support a candidate who actively stands against my values? Sorry, can’t follow your show.

You have multiple criminal charges but can run a ball like no other? Okay, I’ll wear your jersey.

The grey area is the hardest part to navigate. There are certain instances where I will firmly cut ties with someone and quit supporting them in anyway, but Junot Diaz falls into this middle that I’m having trouble making sense of.  I’d never want my sister to date him, but I’d still probably want to take his class if I was a student. I don’t approve of how he’s treated women, but I can still be empathetic to his past and enjoy what he’s writing. Is it because his transgressions were limited to, mostly, outside of the body and not within? Yet if he was widely known as a cruel bully could I support his work? I also can’t help pondering the women’s side of this. At what point do you come forth publicly and call attention to someone’s actions? What should stay private? Who decides?

The only way I can make peace with situations like these is the fact that they elicit so much. Dialogue. Soul-searching. Reflection. Remorse. Empathy. 

1 comment:

  1. I understand your indecisiveness. In a country where we should be innocent until proven guilty, it certainly seems the other way around lately. At least he owned up to his poor behavior. One's actions, however, don't negate the talent. Will I read one of his books now? Probably not. Will it stay that way forever? I don't know.