Teacher's dilemma: Should author's bad behavior ban the book?
The news that author Junot Diaz has been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct filled me with dismay for two reasons. One is the cumulative effect of so many badly behaving males in our patriarchal culture. In Diaz's case, I felt added disappointment, because he is a contemporary writer whose multicultural experiences have inspired my students at Three Rivers Community College.
The story is familiar: Several women say Diaz made unwelcome sexual advances or lashed out at them in anger. The news comes just months after Native American writer Sherman Alexie, who also is popular among high school and college students, was accused of sexual harassment. The drumbeat is endless: Bill Cosby is now a convicted felon, a spate of media men have lost their jobs, and the Nobel Prize in literature will not be awarded this year because of a harassment scandal within that organization.
The case of Diaz affects more than the publishing world or his own personal fortunes. A native of the Dominican Republic, he came to this country when he was 7, living the poor immigrant experience that is reality for so many of my students. Through education — he has degrees from Rutgers and Cornell — Diaz rose above the challenges of his home life. His novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and he holds a professorship at MIT.
In short, he has served as a shining example of education's importance and literacy's power. In vivid, realistic prose, he takes on the personas of struggling immigrant boys trying to fit into American culture while negotiating the hazards of their own. The stories he tells are ones my students, in one degree or another, have lived.
In "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie," Diaz takes us into the world of Yunior, a scrappy adolescent boy dodging the neighborhood bully Howie and trying to seduce girls. Speaking with the narrative distance of second person — a sign of his disconnection — Yunior advises the reader on what techniques to use depending on a girl's ethnicity. In any case, if he can get her back to his apartment, he must hide the "government cheese," that universal signifier of poverty.
Yunior warns the reader that you — that is, he — will not always be successful, and if the phone rings after the girl leaves, "you will be tempted to pick it up. Don't." Despite his bravado, Yunior is a lonely adolescent boy marooned between his Dominican background and American culture.
In "Fiesta, 1980," Yunior is a younger, anxious boy who keeps getting car sick in his father's van. His visceral reaction is not related to motion sickness so much as his sensitivity to the violence and sexuality all around him, which he does not yet completely understand.
Great stories, flawed author
These stories hum with electric feelings — shame, confusion, yearning, desire — and are written in language both lyrical and street-wise.
In 2016 Diaz appeared at Expressiones in New London, which cosponsored the event with Three Rivers Community College as part of the InFusion literary art series. When I arrived with my husband that April evening, the narrow venue was already packed, and I was delighted to see some of my students in attendance. Feisty and profane, Diaz held the audience rapt.
As more and more male writers stand accused of inappropriate behavior, the teacher in me feels conflicted. Should I keep a storyteller off my syllabus if his behavior is misogynistic or predatory? Is it fair to deprive students of writing that might engage them, because the author is not a good person?
These are questions I never ask about dead writers. Each semester I teach stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe, who married his 13-year-old cousin and by most accounts was a drunken lout. Ernest Hemingway also had a checkered track record with women, fueled by both his alcohol intake and his egotism. Robert Frost's marriage was fraught, and in his later years the charm of his grumpy persona began to wear thin.
I tell my students not to worry about a writer's life, but to look at their work. Instead of rehashing biographical detail, they should examine and critique the texts themselves.
Yet in the classroom, I violate this principle all the time. Before they can understand that slim lyric poem "The Red Wheelbarrow," they must know that William Carlos Williams was a doctor on a house call in a poor African American neighborhood when he spotted the titular farm conveyance upon which "so much depends." To appreciate Poe's story "The Cask of Amontillado," it helps to understand the rage the author felt toward a literary rival.
In April, The New Yorker printed "The Silence," Diaz's memoir about being raped when he was 8 years old. It is raw and visceral, but one of his accusers called it an attempt at damage control.
The truth about anyone, especially writers, is rarely simple. Diaz writes, "The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything." He also says it led to "both depression and uncontrollable rage."
In light of this, the voice of Yunior takes on even more weight. His semi-comical tone is no longer funny, and the suggestion of a child's initiation into the world of adult sex is chilling indeed.
At least three women have come forward to say they have been treated brutally by Diaz, victims of his unwanted advances or sudden tongue-lashings. They, too, are victims, and they deserve to be heard.
Where does this leave those of us who search for relevant stories to teach our students? Is Junot Diaz, who already has withdrawn from one writing festival, out of the canon? Or should we teach his stories in the context of victims and victimizers, showing students that sometimes the two co-exist in one person?
I'm not ready to put Junot Diaz or Sherman Alexie back on my syllabus. But that does not mean I have given up on finding relevant texts for my students. Next fall, I will start with the Mexican American writer Sandra Cisneros, whose novel "The House on Mango Street" speaks of a poor girl's shame and determination. I will turn to Xu Xi, the Hong Kong writer of "Famine," and Nijala Sun, whose play "No Child ..." explores an inner-city school.
For now, a syllabus full of women feels like the appropriate response to another #metoo revelation.
Betty J. Cotter is a former newspaper editor who teaches English at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and journalism and writing at the University of Rhode Island.
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