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

"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."

On the last page This Is How You Lose Her, the finale of "The Cheater's Guide to Love," we finally see a change in Yunior. He flips through The Doomsday Book, his nickname for a folder sent to him by his ex-fiancée. He's kept it "hidden under [his] bed," away from the reader, and from himself; it's the first time we learn about it. The folder contains "copies of all the e-mails and photos from the cheating days, the ones the ex-found and compiled and mailed to you a month after she ended it."

He goes through the whole archive, twice. And he admits that he is cowardly and scared and small. He admits he has lied and hurt. He admits—for the first time in the book, even though "it kills" him—that his ex was right to go.

This is the starting point, this is the baseline. Yunior begins then, as he has tried and failed for months, to write. He scrawls out a terse confession:

The half-life of love is forever.

The women he has loved and lost are in him eternally, like radiation; their cast shadows will only grow, like cancer. And he is sorry.

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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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