Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Junot Díaz

A season of disenchantment

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A few days ago, Matt Groening announced that his new animated series, Disenchantment, will premiere in August on Netflix. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased by the prospect of another show from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama—not to mention producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein—and I expect that I’ll probably watch it. At the moment, however, it’s hard for me to think about Groening at all without recalling his recent reaction to the long overdue conversation around the character of Apu. When Bill Keveny of USA Today asked earlier this month if he had any thoughts on the subject, Groening replied: “Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” It was a profoundly disappointing statement, particularly after Hank Azaria himself had expressed his willingness to step aside from the role, and it was all the more disillusioning coming from a man whose work has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I noted in my earlier post, the show’s unfeeling response to this issue is painful because it contradicts everything that The Simpsons was once supposed to represent. It was the smartest show on television; it was simply right about everything; it offered its fans an entire metaphorical language. And as the passage of time reveals that it suffered from its own set of blinders, it doesn’t just cast doubt on the series and its creators, but on the viewers, like me, who used it for so long as an intellectual benchmark.

And it’s still an inescapable part of my personal lexicon. Last year, for instance, when Elon Musk defended his decision to serve on Trump’s economic advisory council, I thought immediately of what Homer says to Marge in “Whacking Day”: “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.” Yet it turns out that I might have been too quick to give Musk—who, revealingly, was the subject of an adulatory episode of The Simpsons—the benefit of the doubt. A few months later, in response to reports of discrimination at Tesla, he wrote an email to employees that included this remarkable paragraph:

If someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a lesser represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla were someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

The last two lines, which were a clear reference to the case of A.J. Vandermeyden, tell us more about Musk’s idea of a “sincere apology” than he probably intended. And when Musk responded this week to criticism of Tesla’s safety and labor practices by accusing the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting of bias and proposing a site where users could provide a “credibility score” for individual journalists, he sounded a lot like the president whose circle of advisers he only reluctantly left.

Musk, who benefited from years of uncritical coverage from people who will forgive anything as long as you talk about space travel, seems genuinely wounded by any form of criticism or scrutiny, and he lashes out just as Trump does—by questioning the motives of ordinary reporters or sources, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of unions or oil companies. Yet he’s also right to be worried. We’re living in a time when public figures and institutions are going to be judged by their responses to questions that they would rather avoid, which isn’t likely to change. And the media itself is hardly exempt. For the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting for The New Yorker to respond to stories about the actions of two of its most prominent contributors, Junot Díaz and the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not even sure what I want the magazine to do, exactly, except make an honest effort to grapple with the situation, and maybe even offer a valuable perspective, which is why I read it in the first place. (In all honesty, it fills much the same role in my life these days as The Simpsons did in my teens. As Norman Mailer wrote back in the sixties: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.”) As the days passed without any comment, I assumed that it was figuring out how to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable topic, and I didn’t expect it to rush. Now that we’ve reached the end of the month without any public engagement at all, however, I can only conclude that it’s deliberately ignoring the matter in hopes that it will go away. I hope that I’m wrong. But so far, it’s a discouraging omission from a magazine whose stories on Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman implicitly put it at the head of an entire movement.

The New Yorker has evidently discovered that it’s harder to take such stands when they affect people whom we know or care about— which only means that it can get in line. Our historical moment has forced some of our smartest individuals and organizations to learn how to take criticism as well as to give it, and it’s often those whose observations about others have been the sharpest who turn out to be singularly incapable, as Clarice Starling once put it, when it comes to pointing that high-powered perception on themselves. (In this list, which is constantly being updated, I include Groening, Musk, The New Yorker, and about half the cast of Arrested Development.) But I can sympathize with their predicament, because I feel it nearly every day. My opinion of Musk has always been rather mixed, but nothing can dislodge the affection and gratitude that I feel toward the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, and I expect to approvingly link to an article in The New Yorker this time next week. But if our disenchantment forces us to question the icons whose influence is fundamental to our conception of ourselves, then perhaps it will have been worth the pain. Separating our affection for the product from those who produced it is a problem that we all have to confront, and it isn’t going to get any easier. As I was thinking about this post yesterday, the news broke that Morgan Freeman had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In response, he issued a statement that read in part: “I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.” It reminded me a little of another man who once grudgingly said of some remarks that were caught on tape: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” But it sounds a lot better when you imagine it in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am

This is how they lose us

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“If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule,” Junot Díaz once said. “You’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst woman writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum.” Díaz was speaking at an event at the Word Up Community Bookshop in New York on June 7, 2012, and his remarks, which he delivered in response to a question from the audience, have been widely quoted, passed around, and admired. He continued:

Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”

And it’s hard to read this now without thinking of the recent essay by the writer Alisa Valdes, who says—along with so much else—of her painful relationship with Díaz: “Once, Díaz even asked me to clean his disgusting kitchen before I left back to Boston, telling me his severe depression made it hard for him to pick up after himself…When I asked him about this, he laughed and called out from his futon on the floor in his bedroom: ‘Sweetie, you can take the man out of the D.R., but you can’t take the Dominican out of the man.’”

But in light of the allegations against Díaz, it’s important to revisit his words from six years ago, because they speak to a difficult point that is only going to get harder. I wish I could quote the entire thing—which starts here around the 36:15 mark—but I’ll content myself with one more excerpt:

Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliché lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited. Their sexist shorthand—they think that is observation. And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity. And without an enormous amount of assistance, you’re not even going to get a D. I think with male writers the most that you can hope for is a D with an occasional C thrown in. Where the average women writer, when she writes men, she gets a B right off the bat, because they spent their whole life being taught that men have a subjectivity. In fact, part of the whole feminism revolution was saying, “Me too, motherfuckers.”

When I read this, the first thing that hits me, apart from the intensity, is how beautifully Díaz manages to say all the right things. It reminds me now of what the librarian Allie Jane Bruce said of an interview with Daniel Handler and Sherman Alexie, who are currently being scrutinized themselves. These are men who “speak the language of liberalism, progressivism, and feminism perfectly and are capitalizing on it. Using it to promote themselves and their books.”

I haven’t read much of Díaz, so I’m not qualified to discuss his work in detail, but I can testify to what he meant to many different groups of writers and readers, including science fiction fans. And his case speaks to the next stage of the reckoning that confronts us, which will involve talking about the behavior of men who we thought were different, and who amount to native speakers of the language of third-wave feminism. I often think of a quote that is widely attributed to Joss Whedon, allegedly in response to an interviewer who asked why he wrote strong female characters: “Because you’re still asking me that question.” In fact, this wasn’t an interview, but an acceptance speech for the Equality Now award, in which he asked himself that question six times and came up with appropriately cutting responses. I don’t doubt that he was asked about it a lot—but it’s also noteworthy that his most quotable response came in reply to a straw man that he had set up expressly to knock down. And these days, his remarks have a more sinister ring. Whedon opened with the words: “I’m surrounded tonight by people of extraordinary courage.” According to his former wife Kai Cole, however, Whedon once felt that he was surrounded by something rather different:

He wrote me: “When I was running Buffy, I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.” But he did touch it.

And the hardest realization of all might be that these two sides of Whedon weren’t mutually exclusive. They existed at the same time.

In fact, we’re reaching the point where a man’s overly insistent assertion of his feminism might even come off as a warning sign. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote a few months ago on The Ringer: “There’s also something vaguely unsettling right now about male producers who make a point of their good relationships working with creative women…Quietly existing as a male ally is one thing; building a public brand off Not Being That Creep is another.” And there’s nothing easy about the conversations that still have yet to come. (I can’t help comparing Díaz’s situation to that of Eric T. Schneiderman, another prominent public advocate of women who resigned just hours after the publication of an article in The New Yorker about his abusive behavior in his private life. The New Yorker also has a long history with Díaz, including a recent personal essay that was widely seen as an attempt to get ahead of the allegations. But the magazine hasn’t said anything about him yet. And this isn’t a matter of indifference, but a reflection of how hard it can be to acknowledge the behavior of those we know and admire.) But perhaps the first step is to listen to our doubts, even if they seem unlikely to be heeded. As Virginia Vitzthum writes in Elle:

Díaz is an outspoken leftist, decrying economic and other inequalities from his position as fiction editor of the Boston Review. He calls sexism, along with racism and genocide, one of his major concerns as an activist and a writer…He refers to his writing as a “feminist-aligned project” achieved by “mapping male subjectivities.” I do not doubt that he is sensitive to the ways women are marginalized; it seems appropriate to ask him about the sexism in [This is How You Lose Her].

When she raises her concerns about his “constant dismissal of women as sets of culo-and-titties,” Díaz gets “all professorial” on her, but Vitzthum is having none of it. She writes in her conclusion: “About my failure to engage productively with your maps of male subjectivity? It’s not me, it’s you.” She’s right. And she was right when she wrote it six years ago.

Written by nevalalee

May 8, 2018 at 8:41 am

“A dream about going to Shaolin Temple…”

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Wired: Speaking of writers of color, I saw you say that one of your ambitions was to be a Dominican Samuel R. Delany or Octavia E. Butler.

Díaz: Did I actually say that? That’s so deranged! I think that was one of my younger ambitions. Sort of like when you used to have a dream about going to Shaolin Temple. Me trying to be Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany really is like the 40-year-old guy wistfully thinking about how if only he had run away when he was 14 and gone on a tramp steamer off to Hong Kong, and from there slipped across the border into the new territories and gone up to Shaolin Temple and practiced his wushu, my god, if only I’d done that I’d be already the absolute master killer. Let me tell you something, that tramp steamer has sailed and gone, my friend. I’ll be lucky if I can write another two books before I’m in the grave.

Junot Díaz, to Wired

Written by nevalalee

October 7, 2012 at 9:50 am

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