How Junot Diaz Wrote a Sexist Character, but Not a Sexist Book

The problem and paradox is that Diaz must allow for accusations of sexism in order for his work to read like art. If it's too clear what his feelings are, if an agenda or platform asserts itself, then the story's worth as literature is diminished.

"If it's too brute and too obvious," Diaz said, "then it becomes allegorical, becomes a parable, becomes kind of a moral tale. You want to make it subtle enough so that there are arguments like this." The value of literature, then, comes from presenting readers with morally ambiguous situations and letting them react. "For kind of sophisticated art I'm interested in," he said, "the larger structural rebuke has to be so subtle that it has to be distributed at an almost sub-atomic level. Otherwise, you fall into the kind of preachy, moralistic fable that I don't think makes for good literature."

Still, there are clues about the author's alignment. In This Is How You Lose Her, Diaz cites the fact that Yunior's behavior results in persistent unhappiness. "All of Yunior's fucked-up visions of women never get him anything," Diaz told me. "They end up with him more alone, more frustrated, more aware of his dehumanization and farther away from the thing that he deeply longs for—a human connection." The narratives in no way reward Yunior's perspective; in fact, they serve to undermine and subvert it (just not in obvious ways).

Perhaps the author's stance is clearest in "Otravida, Otravez," one of the collection's most affecting and successful stories. The story achieves an abrupt shift in perspective: It's narrated by a Dominican-American woman named Yasmin whose boyfriend's wife stayed behind in Santo Domingo. When Yasmin discovers the wife's pleading letters, she must question her role in a family's dissolution: Please, please, mi querido husband, tell me what it is. How long did it take before your wife stopped mattering?

The language becomes more brooding and gentle in this story. By displaying his stylistic range, Diaz reminds us just how subjective Yunior's brutishness is. Furthermore, Yasmin's portrayal veers drastically from the butt-waist-bust women who populate Yunior's stories. She's sensitive, capable of stunning insight and self-reflection, but she isn't perfect or romanticized. Her crime, betrayal, is Yunior's, and her participation is similarly complex. Ultimately, she is able to do what Yunior can't—achieve empathy for someone else. Another woman leaps from a stack of letters, full-blown, into her mind, and it causes her to change her life.

Still, Diaz admits that writing in a woman's voice comes with certain risks. "The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck," he told me. "The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women's representations of men are. For me, I always want to do better. I wish I had another 10 years to work those muscles so that I can write better women characters. I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am."

For one of the most lauded writers of his generation to say he needs another decade of practice to write better women is no small thing. But Diaz told me that he's often appalled by the portrayals of women in celebrated novels.

"I know from my long experience of reading," he said, "that the women characters that dudes [write] make no fucking sense for the most part. Not only do they make no sense, they're introduced just for sexual function."

He gave a high-profile example, though he wouldn't name names.

"There's a book that came out recently from a writer I admire enormously. A woman character gets introduced. I said, 'I promise you, this girl is just here to throw herself at the dude, even though the dude has done nothing, nothing, to merit or warrant a woman throwing herself at him.' And lo and behold. This brilliant young American writer, that everybody sort of considers the god of American writing, turns around and does exactly that. When I asked my female friends, we all had a little gathering, and I was chatting. I was like, 'Have you heard of a woman doing this?' They're like, 'Are you fucking nuts?'"

On the other hand, Diaz said, "I think the average woman writes men just exceptionally well." He cited Anne Enright, Maile Meloy, and Jesmyn Ward as examples of younger writers who write great male characters—and pointed to two of his idols, Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison, as timeless masters. But he also detects an across-the-board improvement even in woman-penned books that are less than high-brow, especially in Young Adult fiction. "Look how well the boys are rendered in The Hunger Games," he said.

Do women agree with this analysis—that it's easier for women to write male characters than vice-versa? For insight, I turned to Yiyun Li, author of The Vagrants, who I felt could provide a perfect counterview. Like Diaz, she's a foreign-born American (she's from China) who writes about immigrant experience; she's also written two celebrated story collections and one prize-winning novel; and she's also been a "20 under 40" author for The New Yorker. Most importantly, Li is a writer whose male characters have often struck me as eerily lifelike.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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