PALS Note: We welcome a guest post from Tiffany Austin. Austin is an Assistant Professor at the University of The Bahamas where she teaches academic and creative writing. This post looks at Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her in light of initial reactions that students often have about the text. At PALS, we have also written about Diaz here and here.
I remember two conversations about Junot Diaz as I started to teach his works some years ago. A fellow poet argued if Diaz was him, a singular black man (read not “exotic”)—meaning non-Dominican, non-Caribbean, not-from the U.S.—he would not receive the same acclaim or be allowed the same license to write what he wrote, but would merely be considered a “hip hop” writer not writing anything out of the ordinary. This came after Diaz used profanity while interviewing Toni Morrison in 2013. The other conversation happened over a dinner talk about feminism, one woman arguing to her sympathetic boyfriend that Diaz “just got it” concerning machismo and we should be grateful for his comments on race and gender.
This night concluded with me, sitting on the floor, paraphrasing James Baldwin, commenting that racism would not cease to exist until “white” people stopped considering themselves as white. Perhaps I stated this because I had similar thoughts about gender; sexism wouldn’t discontinue until men stopped believing they were men. And I have found that these polar opposite responses to Diaz were paralleled in my students’ reactions to reading and discussing his novels and short stories during literature courses I taught. He either was too profane to be any good and his character Yunior disguised a misogynist writer, similar to a hip hop artist “keeping it real,” or he gave them freedom to be similarly profane and sensitive to the gender and ethnic/cultural/neo-colonial issues plaguing them as well.
Now I’m teaching This Is How You Lose Her to creative writing students to explore what could be done with character—the short stories perhaps revealing the opportunity to unfetter judgments and enter a character’s head and allow him or her to speak through mouth and movement—honestly. After reading the collection and beginning our class discussion, one student, astounded by the language and sexuality pervading, expresses, “I hate this.” Another student, just as astounded by the honesty in that same discourse on language and sexuality, relates, “This is possible.”
And so beyond the themes of sex, love, identity, and naming, all colored by machismo and vulnerability, there is the ambiguity—the contradictory struggle of the voice and characters speaking of cultural tradition and residue, of present expectations regarding gender—and the language and tone at once vulgar and tender with the same or different hands, fingers, tetas, vaginas. The scene in “Nilda” shows it best. Rafa, after coupling with Nilda on the bus, tells his brother, Yunior, “Smell this…This is what’s wrong with women” (34). We experience the disdain and the struggle for Yunior to understand his brother’s actions and his thoughts, both brothers victims of “male privilege.” After Rafa is dead from cancer, and Nilda shows up at the funeral, Mami could only remember “she was the one who smelled good” (41). Here it is again, the empathetic side of Yunior, recognizing the feminine through Mami. This ambiguity shows up in my students’ views on how to write fiction, also. How autobiographical can it be? Am I exploiting myself, the people around me, culture, language, even?
One classroom exercise I employ has the students free write about a “real” person they have disdain for or simply “hate.” Then they must become that character and write a short story from his/her perspective. They start from the autobiographical experience, but they then must use empathy to see the world through that person’s experiences—experiences they must imagine and understand. I find this exercise to be a difficult one for students. They must throw “political correctness” out of the window, then usher in motivations for their own idiosyncrasies and impatience with others’ idiosyncrasies. One student ends up writing about a philanderer, the other about her mother. The ambiguity arises when they are forced to be that philanderer or mother—somehow ugliness becomes beauty in its awe-inspiring sense.
In my own personal practice, a friend and I pass the time by orally creating fiction at the airport whenever we travel together. We sit and observe the people passing by, choose one person, then create an imaginative narrative about the person: “He is returning to his family from a business trip (filled with golfing with colleagues), but he doesn’t want to return—he moves quickly because it has to be done and he would rather move quickly than think about it.” We know we are doing something eschew and being simply voyeuristic. But our “gaze” comes forth from a desire to know their stories, consciously knowing we are not “right” about their personal narratives. We wouldn’t mind the same being done to us as long as we wouldn’t come to know about it and it didn’t become the “truth” of who we are. The truth is in the desire to know some “being” about them. I confess this to my students to show them not only that all imaginative work is some form of exploitation (if we’re relating the idea of taking advantage of, but not, if it’s being done unfairly) but also that there are many ways to know a character–the way she walks to her terminal, the way he laughs. In studying Diaz, for them, the most highlighted form to know the character comes down to the way he speaks.
Rather than paraphrase, I quote James Baldwin now: “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.” Accordingly, I teach my students to tell lives as near to contradictory honesty—eating peppermint and onion at the same time, I paraphrase Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, this time—as they can. Diaz, in his works, is the cheeky kid who confesses before a priest. We can either become the priest or the hidden listener there with him in the world he has recreated and created. When teaching Diaz, I invite my students to be both. Is the language necessary or partly meant to shock? Has Yunior been complicated enough so we can empathize with his dysfunction, his half-hearted attempt to start again? Not only do they learn empathy in terms of entering their characters’ minds and hearts, but they also become more astute observers of the anguish we all experience as beings.
And maybe to teach Diaz is to teach the struggle of expressing that masculinity simultaneously framed by cultural and familial mores and its vulnerability. In terms of Diaz’s work, maybe its profound importance is to focus on that—he smells.
Bio: Tiffany Austin currently teaches rhetorical and creative writing at the University of The Bahamas while researching African Diaspora studies, including African American, Caribbean, Afro-Latino(a) and African literature. She has published poetry in African American Review, Callaloo, Obsidian, pluck!, Valley Voices, and Sycorax’s Daughters, a speculative literature anthology, along with a photo essay “A South in Sound” in TriQuarterly.