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A lot has been written on Junot Díaz lately.  For several weeks starting in September, he appeared in at least twelve publications that showed up at my house.  He was in everything from the unsolicited Time Magazine, apparently intended for my fifteen-year-old son, to Vogue, where Díaz appeared in costume, dressed as a member of Edith Wharton’s circle.  Díaz’s face smiled out from Entertainment Weekly, and he appealed for understanding from the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Online, the Guardian Blog stated that the term “genius” was inadequate praise.  Seemingly everywhere, his big glasses, smooth head, trim beard, and tentative smile greeted me. If Andy Warhol still lived, he would use Junot Diaz as a subject.

Of course the publicity arises because of the publication of Díaz’s most recent book, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories.  Many of us had already encountered some of these stories in the New Yorker, since that’s where five of the collection’s nine stories appeared, prior to the publication of the book.  And many of us probably anticipated the reaction that the book would garner once unleashed upon the public: “The women in This Is How You Lose Her are objectified and the men are excused from their objectifying behavior because they’re Dominican.”  Therefore, I was not surprised when articles started to appear in places like Elle Magazine, in this case the ironically titled, “Junot Díaz’s Pro-Woman Agenda,” where Virginia Vitzthum stated that “the constant dismissal of women as sets of culo-and-titties slams a door in my face,” and in The Rumpus, where Gina Frangello defended Díaz’s work, stating that This is How You Lose Her’s “frenetic and desperate struggle for love and connection” was not at odds with a feminist agenda.   And of course this leads into a larger discussion of how feminism is engaged in the context of Díaz’s writing: Is committed monogamy in accord with a feminist agenda?  Would the women characters’ cheating on their partners constitute a move for feminism? If a writer is depicting a sexist world, how can he do it without reinforcing the status quo?

My own reading of This Is How You Lose Her was unimpeded by my feminism because none of the women were held out as examples of success: these characters were actors in their own tragedies.  Also, this is the baldly juvenile, wannabe macho Yunior’s story to tell, and the inner lives of these women are not depicted, with the exception of the narrator of “Otravida, Otravez,” who is certainly more than a culo-and-titties construct. In addition, the women depicted are complicated and involved in power struggles of their own.  Is Pura, the woman in the “Pura Principle,” a powerless victim of Rafa—who, given his attitudes to other women, probably hasn’t entered the relationship with a view to a great partnership—or is she an arch manipulator, successfully achieving her own agenda?  Is feminism reduced to positive depictions of women, or is it more concerned with the balance of power? So, this book did not set off my feminist alarm—which goes off with some frequency—and I read line by line, page by page, and was ultimately more interested in how a writer so committed to depicting the struggles of Dominican-Americans in the U.S. had come to this prominent position.  I had decided, with satisfaction, that the reading public was not involved in some sort of mass cultural study, but had finally come to accept the experience of these recent, Hispanic immigrants as intrinsic to their own.  But I was interested to hear, in an unfiltered way, what Díaz had to say about women.

This November, Junot Díaz was at UMass Amherst—where I am Professor of English and teach in the MFA program—as the distinguished Troy Lecturer.  I could hardly call the casual conversations that we had over this time as an interview, although we did cover subjects as diverse as Toibin’s The Empty Family and Díaz’s recent back surgery, Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of Obama and the Asian American Writers Workshop.  While getting coffee at the Campus Center, I pointed out a mural that was painted by the Northern Irish mural artists Danny Devenney, a former member of the I.R.A., and Mark Ervine, son of David Ervine who once headed the U.V.F.  The mural exists as the physical manifestation of an ongoing experiment in peace.  Díaz told me that he had long had an interest in Northern Ireland: He called it a “hobby,” though I sensed something more serious.  But the conservation was swept away in the need to get Díaz to the podium on time.

As I sat in the front row of UMass’s Bowker Auditorium, my introduction in my hands, my thoughts wandered back to Danny Devenney, and his wife Deborah, who have become friends of mine and who I visited in Belfast not too long ago. Danny had told me of a visit from Boston I.R.A. supporters during the Troubles.  Originally, the visitors were intended to stay as guests in his house, but, over the course of the evening, one or both of these people had started a racist rant about African Americans.  Danny had stood at this point and told them that they were no longer welcome in house.  He said, “We are the blacks of Northern Ireland.  Can you not see that?”

Sitting in the audience, listening to Junot Díaz speak about the publishing world, about what it is to be a writer of color who garners a lot of attention for having struggled onto the final rung of the best seller list, I was reminded of Danny Devenney’s words.  Junot said, “I’m on the best-seller list for literary fiction, but I’m the only writer of color.  Count!  Go on!  People may wonder why I’m there, but I say, where are the other writers of color?  Why is it just me?”  And then he added, “And while you’re at it, count how many women are there.  And then count how many women get reviewed in the major venues.”  Junot Díaz knew the Vida figures cold.  Of course, struggling to get review space and recognition is hardly the same thing as the insidious infringement on human rights that makes Danny Devenney identify with African Americans.  Still, Díaz saw a commonality between his recognition as a Dominican American writer—the plight of writers of color— and the respect that was lacking in the treatment of writers who are women.

One of the excerpts that Junot Díaz read in the course of the lecture was from the story “Nilda.”  Nilda—the title character—is doomed from the start of that story.  First, she’s in a group home, and after that, she’s handed around by men, and all the while Yunior watches, chronicling, incapable of affecting change for her, and not all that surprised at her downward spiral.  It’s a sad story, sadder still because from the start, you know there will be no happy ending.  What the story yearns for is a better world.  Even Yunior thinks of another universe where he would have “mad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim,” but what happens to Yunior, as readers of Díaz’s fiction know from the story’s start, is that he goes to college.  He’s on his way up and out.  Nilda, however, disappears.  This is a likely fate for girls in Nilda’s circumstances.  The boys, according to Díaz, have an edge.  And ultimately, the story does have a feminist ring to it, because the sense of the piece is that there is something unjust about the inequity.

So is Junot Díaz a feminist?  Yes. His vision of an ideal publishing world has not only writers of color on an equal footing in a Caucasian-normative, male-dominated industry, but also women. He supports women.  Díaz—unlike his fictional voice Yunior—even identifies with women.

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Sabina Murray SABINA MURRAY is the author of three novels and two short story collections, including the PEN/Faulkner Award winning The Caprices and the contemporary gothic A Carnivore's Inquiry. Her work is included in The Norton Anthology. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation and Radcliffe Institute and is on the fiction faculty of the MFA program at UMass Amherst. She wrote the script for Beautiful Country, a Golden Bear contender, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Her latest, Tales of the New World, was recently published by Grove/Black Cat.

7 Responses to “Junot Díaz, Feminist?”

  1. Mistinguette says:

    Well said. I very much enjoy Diaz’s deft feminist analysis without creating unrealistic characters or inauthentic voices. Feminism is about telling the truth about our lives, and being conscious of the impact of gender on those stories. Diaz is a master storyteller whose gender analysis is as intimate as a whisper, forcing us to listen closely.

  2. KMunoz says:

    Mistinguette: Amen.

  3. Monstro Hernandez says:

    Junot Diaz writes well about women and his own misogyny. But often he comes across as transparently dishonest in his praise of women, seemingly done with an agenda towards being viewed as some sort of male feminist hero. And knowing his history, which he writes about at length, it also helps him get laid. But whatever pro-feminist stances he has taken and whatever his motivations (selling more books)? Diaz has muted and nullified the positivity of that stance with his open race-baiting and racist comments online. Limiting those who can comment on his social media posts almost exclusively to people with Hispanic surnames, accusing anyone who questions his stances of being “white supremacists,” and subsequently blocking all but the most obvious sycophants and fawning admirers. It’s a very disturbing take from a contemporary writer who hangs his hat on race relations.

  4. paula says:

    I think Diaz is a great writer. I have a cabin in the Dominican Republic – eight years now- and spend a lot of time there. I love that country and I think he accurately captures certain aspects of the culture. But I disagree with Murray’s idea that the men get out more easily of the poverty and so forth. My experience, frankly, is that women there are incredibly resourceful and responsible – usually because they have children so they have to be. Just spend an hour at the electric company in Las Terrenas- you’ll get what I mean.

  5. Julia Hones says:

    Sabina: I enjoyed reading your post about Junot Diaz’s latest book. I think his writing is funny and witty. When he writes his stories he sheds light on cultural issues that affect women, and that seems to bother some people. Again, thanks for this analysis. I enjoyed it.

  6. gina says:

    I got to this site because I read an interview with Diaz in the New York Times about his writing process, and no where in his interview did he refer to any women writers. He goes on about male writers in length. “It’s like The Ice Storm, by Rick Moody…There’s the given, the monumental Jesus’ Son [by Denis Johnson]…Jesus’ Son was a book that should have been like Pulitzer-everything. There’s a book called Family Installments, by Edward Rivera. It’s a memoir in 13 stories. Michael Martone wrote a series of short-story collections, and no one reads them any more. Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List is one of the great all-time American short-story collections. Hilarious…Matt Klam is a great short-story writer, and he had a wonderful story about a couple going on vacation. In my mind, “Sam the Cat” by Matt Klam was always connected to this. I gotta tell you, the person who does working people the best, working Latinos, is Dagoberto Gilb. His collection, The Magic of Blood, had all these amazing stories about recent immigrants, Mexicans, trying to keep it together with these crazy jobs…Michael Chabon who write so well and seem to write so fast. Edwidge Danticat writes really well and really fast.” Where are references to any women writers or even Latina writers who have helped pave the way for Diaz? Sandra Cisneros? Judith Ortiz? Julia Alvarez? Sandra Benitez? Ana Castillo? I could go on. His female characters seem to perpetuate where we should be escaping from as Latinas, but where he fiercely want us to stay. And this is dangerous for the continuation of the stereotyping of Latinas. Is Diaz a feminist? I’m not so sure.

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