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For women of color, who can be our male heroes?

10 Aug 2018

When I was nineteen, home for the summer without much more to do than an online internship, I began reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. By the end of it, I was nearly a different person.

 

For young Latinx and Hispanic Americans, a favorite novelist in your childhood becomes a regal deity, one who speaks a familiar language, who can see you (whether light, brown, or black, as beautiful), who will put you on the page, and who you envision saying to you, you can write these stories, too. I had been writing stories inspired by my grandparents’ and father’s life in Cuba during the Revolution since I was fourteen, but the painful experience of being American yet also other was not only acknowledged, but celebrated in Junot Díaz’s novels.

 

He was able to write characters with depth and trauma and success and complexity. They experienced some of the same heartbreaks as non-immigrant Americans, while mediating that dysfunctional contradiction of American and other.

 

There is a caveat to this: for the most part, those characters have been male.

 

Yunior, Díaz’s most oft-used narrator, spends more time describing women’s bodies and fuckability than he does their own histories. He does not acknowledge the exoticism that Latina women fall prey to, nor other stereotypes of femme fatale, fiery/spicy/sassy mamita, or Catholic maid. (There are more, but who has time for that?)

 

Despite this, I have read every word of Junot Díaz’s books, and they changed me as a writer and as a Latina. I have grown into my identity as an Afro-Latina since seeing representation on the page; I have learned to incorporate Spanish into my writing in a natural, not-gonna-translate-for-you style like Junot’s.

 

He was not the same type of hero to me as Sandra Cisneros, Laura Esquivel, Julia Alvarez, or Isabel Allende — Latina writers who spoke to an experience much closer to mine — but I knew hardly any other Latino authors growing up. I took his work and made it mine.

 

When two women of color writers I admire, Zinzi Clemmons and Carmen Maria Machado, publicly called Junot Díaz out on harassing them and other women, my heart sank. It was not that I was surprised - since #MeToo began, I rarely have been — but I could not help but feeling, damn, we’ve lost another one.

 

Junot Díaz is Dominican American, so he can not just be an American writers - he is a Dominican writer, the Dominican writer. He is expected to represent all Dominican writers, and he is one of our few heroes.

 

I have removed Junot Díaz from my shelf of literary heroes. I am not the only one who eventually chose solidarity with women of color over a man’s legacy. But I can not say it did not break my heart, considering one of my prize possessions is a postcard I received from him once, though we have never met, because of a mutual acquaintance.

 

"Thanks for supporting the cause,” he wrote, in reference to my starting a Diversity & Inclusion Committee at my company. “In these troubled times, there’s no more important activity — solidarity.

 

As a woman of color, I can no longer feel this solidarity with Junot Díaz. I feel a separation: a realization that if we did ever meet and I said that was me, the little cubana you said was “strong and smart”, even if he did not try to kiss me, I no longer believe he would support me simply because I am also a marginalized writer. Because I am not a man.

 

When the Boston Review chose to keep Junot Díaz on staff, they justified it by claiming that Clemmons’s and Machado’s allegations “[do] not have the kind of severity that animated the #MeToo movement”. If ever there were evidence that when women of color speak out, their voices are silenced to keep space available for white women, this would be it.


While I know I will think twice about reading future work by Junot Díaz, and likely pick up a book by a woman of color instead, I can not say the years since I first picked up Oscar Wao have not involved him; I can nit say he has not contributed to some of the most formative moments in my work as a writer and activist. But I am still fighting for my voice to be heard. And I hope that eventually, all men will listen.

Celine Aenlle-Rocha is a writer and publishing professional from Miami and Los Angeles, currently residing in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. She has degrees in English, Spanish and creative writing from Kenyon College, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing at Columbia University. Follow her on Instagram.

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