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Editors' Picks National Opinion

Prestige, Power, and Junot Díaz

Few events have knocked the wind out of me like that May morning when I lay in bed scrolling through my notifications on my phone and saw the dreaded headline: “Junot Díaz Faces Accusations of Sexual Misconduct.”

I felt a sense of betrayal that was all too familiar; I felt similarly when allegations were leveled at former Senator Al Franken. Both were heroes of mine. Both were people I had looked to for hope in these chaotic times, as well as writers who used their particular skill sets to advance causes that I believed in. I’ve wrestled with this loss of innocence in the months since, but let me be clear: I would always rather know about the abuses that my heroes have committed than continue to live in a world where women are afraid or unable to name their pain. We must be willing to sacrifice our idealized visions of a few in order to make the world a more honest and understanding place. But reading about these abuses felt different, and I’ve been trying to articulate why.

Sexual assault is a silencing of both voice and choice, two of the cornerstones of democracy. We have endowed both of these people with prestige and power because of the way that they have used their voices to amplify others’. Both of them were tied to ideas of resistance and liberation in different but very meaningful ways. Franken drew headlines when he grilled Trump’s cabinet nominees. Diaz gave interview after interview preaching hope and resilience in the Trump era. To verbally abuse and make unwanted advances towards women silences the very voices that Franken and Diaz claimed to champion. Our patriarchal society dares these women to come forward, knowing good and well that any accuser will face criticism from all sides. For Diaz in particular, the bulk of the accusations were leveled by women of color writers, many of them emerging writers or students. These women saw Diaz as a voice of their people. To then have that very person take away your own voice, to say that your agency is not only unwanted but also useless, cuts deep.

Granted, I find it hard to talk about Diaz’s actions without contextualizing them with his New Yorker piece where he himself came forward as a victim of childhood sexual assault. I remember reading the piece during lunch and immediately texting everyone I knew to read it so they could cry along with me. I’m no cynic, but it’s easy now to read the article now as a PR move to get in front of any potential allegations that could be leveled at him.

Yes, the cycle of abuse is a sadly real part of life. Children who grow up exposed to domestic violence may grow conditioned to believe that violence is acceptable in intimate relationships and may grow up to become abused further or become the abuser. But with proper help to process one’s childhood traumas, the cycle of abuse is very much in our power to stop. And perhaps if Diaz’s Latino machismo (machismo that he had professed to despise) had not gotten in the way, he would have sought out help sooner before his actions had these devastating consequences.  

When I talk to my parents about the news, the conversation always ends up turning to the philosopher Heidegger. My mom is a fan of his work on phenomenology, but he was a Nazi, and she always trots him out as an example of a person whose work can be distinguished from their personality. I maintain that the conversation would be very different if he were alive today. Perhaps after time passes and no more women are in harm’s way, we will be able to have that conversation about Diaz.

The longer I am alive, the more skeptical I am of male genius and the harms we are willing to place at its altar. We live in a society that calls Picasso’s many wives and lovers his muses, not his victims. We have been conditioned to view genius as a vengeful god, worthy of worship no matter the consequence. No matter how many women lie in its path. I refuse to do that anymore.  

I want to love Diaz’s work. I have a signed collector’s edition of This is How You Lose Her, a gift I received for my 17th birthday, that used to number among my favorite possessions. I want his words to mean what they have always meant and comfort me the way they always have. I want Islandborn, his most recent release, to be the picture book that young girls of color have always deserved.

In an interview with Krista Tippett, Diaz talked about the way he writes about love and sex in his work. About afro-latinx subjects, Diaz noted “…that… our oppression was ineluctably linked to our bodies — that we had for centuries no right to our bodies and that all of the traditional freedoms of human agency are forbidden to those of us of African descent in the New World.” He went on: “for people like us… simply to fall in love, when you have historically been denied love, the right to just connect to the body which you have chosen and that has chosen you, means that an act of love is… the deific” (emphasis mine).

So much for choice.

Right now is not the time to wax theoretical about these events. It is the time to listen to women. The loss of a hero or two is a small price to pay to make the world an easier and kinder place to live in. In the meantime, I will find new heroes. Preferably incredible women of color like Carmen Maria Machado (whose book, Her Body and Other Parties was a finalist for the National Book Award) and Zinzi Clemmons who risked their reputations to tell their stories. I may be tired, but I owe it to women like her to keep on with this necessary, exhausting work of radically and empathically telling the truth.