Hole Hash Out: Should the library cancel Junot Diaz’s visit?

By on May 9, 2018

Upcoming Page to the Podium guest speaker Junot Diaz was recently accused of sexual misconduct. (Peterson via Wikimedia Commons )

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Introducing the Hole Hash Out—a space for community dialogue about contentious issues with local tendrils. This week, our gaze is on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz’s upcoming visit to the valley on the heels of accusations that he forcibly kissed author Zinzi Clemmons and verbally demeaned other women in public forums.

It has indeed been difficult for some to denounce Diaz. He has become a stalwart voice for people of color, a prominent literary figure who speaks out against racial injustice and advocates that readers look beyond the literary canon of white male authors when filling their bookshelves. He also happened to write a story about being raped as a child for The New Yorker, which some have used as ammo against him. Others, meanwhile, point to the article as partial explanation for his troubling behavior.

He is Teton County Library’s Page to the Podium guest speaker on August 6, but since allegations from Clemmons and others surfaced last week, some residents have taken to social media to question if the library should cancel his appearance.

According to two local women who initially held opposing views on the matter, the show must go on.

Questions that Must be Answered

By Anne Marie Wells

My initial reaction was to cancel Diaz’s visit to the library.

By allowing him to come to Jackson to speak, we are essentially welcoming him to our home, letting him know that we support him with our presence and with our money. Do predators need more people and organizations telling them that their behavior has little to no detriment on their lives?

Then after further reflection, I thought it might be interesting to allow individuals from the community to directly ask Diaz about the allegations and his actions.

I have read three of Diaz’s books and have found them to glorify toxically masculine behaviors such as objectification, possession and abuse of women.

In his short story collection, Drown, the narrator of How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)—yes, let us not ignore the title—refers to women as “females” and his attitudes towards women and dating perpetuate machismo stereotypes.

In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Oscar starts out living his life without the privilege that machismo allows in the toxically masculine society in which he lives. But by the end, Oscar displays those same characteristics when he stalks the woman in whom he is romantically interested. Unfortunately, Oscar’s behavior is written to be romantic and not psychotic. Diaz wrote of Oscar that Ybon told him to leave her alone and that he could tell that he was scaring her but Oscar “couldn’t help it.”

Finally, in This is How You Lose Her, the narrator, Yunior, who appears in Oscar Wao as well, constantly refers to women as “skanks.” I actually couldn’t finish the story and gave up after reading 90 percent of it because the main character, Yunior, has exactly zero redeemable qualities to make me care at all what happens to him.

So, I would love to be able to ask Diaz how these toxically masculine behaviors have been demonstrated to him in his own life and if he believes he perpetuates the cycle of oppression in his own behavior or through his writing.

I would love to ask him if the stalking, violence and the verbal abuse that his protagonists have demonstrated in his books are behaviors that he himself has demonstrated against women in his life.

In other words, how much of the abuse that his characters demonstrated actually transcends the page into reality?

I’d love to be able to ask.

The Value of Listening

By Meg Daly

As of this writing, Diaz has withdrawn from a literary conference in Australia, where he was called out for past combative, aggressive behavior toward young women writers.

Diaz said publicly: “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continueI am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”

I’m down with that.

And yet, on social media, the castigation of Diaz has been swift and unequivocal. Three women said he was a dick to them, and therefore he may as well be Harvey Weinstein.

I want to ask some of my fellow feminists: Are we to stop listening to people who have suffered childhood sexual exploitation when they speak about manifold forms of dysfunction this can cause later in life?

Diaz’s searing New Yorker essay about childhood rape and the damage it caused him and people around him displayed extraordinary courage and openness on his part. Yet one of Diaz’s verbal assault accusers dismissed his essay as a publicity stunt. Yikes! Would we ever level that accusation at a woman speaking about being raped or molested as a child?

Are we deaf to Diaz’s clear bid to talk about his bad behavior? Where Weinstein’s remorse felt hollow, Diaz’s contrition feels genuine.

At this #metoo moment in history, I’m one feminist who would like to note that women, including famous women artists and writers, are fully capable of shitty behavior, and our conversations about power must include this uncomfortable truth.

When I was 22 years old, I was sexually exploited by a famous feminist performance artist in one of her performance pieces. Other young women I knew in the 90s wrote about the uncomfortable power dynamics between second and third wave feminists, which included younger women being bossed around, treated dismissively, and discredited by feminist literary icons.

What I’m getting at is this: sometimes our heroes are unfortunately, messily human. This doesn’t excuse bad behavior.

But if we shrink our pool of people to whom we are willing to listen to a puddle in which messed-up literary fiction writers of color are on par with white-privileged Hollywood mogul rapists, our minds and hearts may shrink as well.

About Various Authors

Sometimes it takes a village.

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