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

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.

"I always loved writing male characters," she said. "Often times I feel they come very naturally to me. Probably more naturally than female characters, though I'm trying to catch up."

Li said that making the characters different from herself gives her more latitude to invent and get to know them. She cited the character who's most different from herself—Teacher Fei from "A Man Like Him," a pedophile who once seduced his female students. In order to write him, she had to cultivate a deep empathy—to come, in a way, to love him, she said. The stark contrast opened a door for further exploration.

But she also said she feels that some of the differences between male and female characters are "superficial." "When I write about men, after a while I forget that they're men," she said. "At some point I think you cross a line, and it doesn't matter. They just become your characters." In fact, she thought that writers fail most painfully when they're too "conscientious" about accounting for author-character gender differences. "When people are too conscious about writing from an opposite gender, that's when the characters feel artificial," she said.

Li acknowledges that, like Diaz, she's encountered many flat female characters, but also thinks it's important to note failings on the other side. "You also see men being turned into monsters, or jokes," she said. "I get really upset when any character is turned into a two-dimensional character."

She did cite two men who write women beautifully, in her estimation. First, the Swiss writer, Peter Stamm—"You wonder how he understands women so well." And Li said the Irish short story master William Trevor seems to sometimes write women more cannily than some women can. She named "The Dancing Master's Music," a story in which Trevor channels a 17-year-old maid, as a shining example of cross-gender narration's possibilities.

Still, Li acknowledged that Diaz faces some challenges she herself does not. She noted that he writes mostly first-person narratives, and that readers are less likely to confuse character and author intent in the third-person stories she writes. Also that a certain amount of baggage comes along with being a male writer: "Mary Gaitskill can get away with things that Junot cannot," she said. "It's sort of the opposite of the injustice of gender." Finally, she agreed that controversy and criticism are not always signs of failure—in fact, they can suggest the opposite. "In a way, it speaks to [Diaz's] craft if readers do get upset about it," she said. "It's like if you're an actor, and you act a villain so well that people hate you forever."

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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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