It’s hard not to be drawn in by Pulitzer Prize winning, MacArthur Foundation Genius Junot Diaz. Last week at the Applied Research Center’s 2012 Facing Race Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, the Dominican-American author didn’t just show up on stage and read a speech. He excused himself for being a nervous wreck and invited the audience to ask him questions as a warm up. The self-deprecation worked well in the packed Hilton ballroom.
“Are you single?” an audience member asked. This elicited laughs and eye rolls from the audience but most were curious to hear the response. Diaz’s latest novel, This is How You Lose Her, the one before it, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and his debut short story collection Drown are known for their realistic portrayals of Dominican-American men struggling with Latino masculinity, it’s expectations and demands. This means that his characters, specifically one named Yunior, wants to be el más macho and do it by chasing and hurting many women, mostly through infidelity. In a book market that is generally short on Latino character complexity, Diaz can feel like a savior. Some have gone as far as to label Diaz a feminist. But his portrayals have also helped feed rumors about how much of himself is written as Yunior.
“Are you that guy?” another audience member asked before Diaz delved into reading from his laptop making references to The Lord of the Rings and the zombie apocalypse peppered with curses. Diaz never directly answers the question, instead asking, “Do you mean to ask if I’m a misogynist?” Diaz explained that he, like many many Latinos in general grew up with hypermasculinity being rewarded and he wanted to reflect that in his characters. But then Diaz gets personal, explaining how growing up he “deformed” his sister’s childhood with race and masculinity issues.
These are the type of revelations that point to the hunger within the Latino community for discussions on colorism and machismo and their impact on our relationships with one another. Diaz injecting the literary and cultural world with these topics is necessary as is another concept Diaz raised in his keynote, the idea of simultaneity.
“We are fundamentally comprised of the oppressions we resist,” Diaz said in Baltimore.
This is not a new idea, in the 1960s the radical Puerto Rican organization, The Young Lords, had as point 10 of their 13 point party platform that “Machismo must be revolutionary.” Is this an example of confronting an issue within the community or excusing it? Women within the Young Lords felt this idea allowed for some men within the organization to pay lip service to gender equality politically but treat their “sisters” differently in their personal lives. The tenet was challenged and eventually changed to: “We want equality for women. Down with machismo and male chauvinism.”
In Baltimore, Diaz called on the audience, especially men, to rehumanize women, especially women of color. He invoked women of color warrior thinkers like Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua as guides. While this was applauded, Diaz’s strong resistance to the predesigned conversation between himself and President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center, Rinku Sen, was noted as contradictory.
Should fans and consumers simultaneously laud creatives like Diaz while challenging his the machismo in his portrayals, challenging in essence parts of himself? Junot Diaz said that the one place men are allowed to show vulnerability is in a woman’s bed. But Diaz clearly has also found the page to be such a place as well. Diaz’s most revelatory moment during his Facing Race keynote was when he said that a lot compulsive womanizing in our communities is rooted in sexual violence against men and that his character, Yunior, is getting closer and closer to revealing he was raped.
How much machismo, if any is excusable in the name of trauma, in the name of art? Or maybe the idea of simultaneity is about forgiving while transforming accountability to and within our communities.