On Friday May 5th, I woke up to Junot Diaz trending on Twitter. My first thought was that he had been honored with a new award or finally, there was some news about his next book, or perhaps he had maybe given an interview following his heart-wrenching piece on in the New Yorker about being raped as a child.
Instead the first tweet I read that morning about Junot Diaz actually came from acclaimed author, Zinzi Clemmons:
As a grad student, I invited Junot Diaz to speak to a workshop on issues of representation in literature. I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 yo, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me. I'm far from the only one he's done this 2, I refuse to be silent anymore.
— zinziclemmons (@zinziclemmons) May 4, 2018
Every sector of society has been rocked by the powerful and brave voices of women coming forth via the #metoo movement. It should not surprise me at all that world of writing is also full of problematic treatment of women and for so long these voices were not heard. But this time, Diaz felt different from some of the other prominent men whose true selves have been revealed to us, from Charlie Rose, Louis CK, and Kevin Spacey.
Diaz felt different because not only had I been touched by his work and writing but I had made a concerted effort to introduce my former students to his work.
For several years, I taught my 12th grade students his first published work, a collection of short stories called Drown. I was proud to introduce my students to a contemporary, male, Latino author who wrestled with ideas of identity, masculinity, vulnerability, and fragility of life and human relationships in his work. It was the first time many of my students saw their home languages on the pages of a book assigned for a school course. Junot Diaz’s rising fame and recognition by numerous awards from the Pulitzer to the MacArthur Genius grant further affirmed my belief that his work was belonged on my syllabus.
Moreover, I was even more proud of my students. Because even then, we as a class grappled with issues of representation and treatment of women in his work. We wrestled with the idea of being a tour guide for a culture via one’s writing and whether Diaz doing that or not.
Nonetheless, it was my choice and not one made by my students to spend time with his work. I can’t help but feel that I have subjected my students to an awful experience in the name of great writing and including voices of diverse authors in our classroom. Much like this professor who shared in this tweet, I too feel like I’ve made my students especially female students, “spend time in the head space of awful men — to listen to them confess/justify mistreatment that surely they’ve experienced.”
For this I am deeply sorry, my former students may not ever read this post but it was important for me to pause and reflect on what these revelations about Junot Diaz are forcing me to consider. If you’re looking for alternative to Junot Diaz on your own syllabus, consider these Latina authors:
And many others. Let me know in comments how you’re dealing with the Junot Diaz story.