Junot Díaz and The Rockets: Race, Class, and How You Lose Her

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Washington Heights-In November the United Palace of Cultural Arts hosted the deluxe release of Junot Díaz’s third book titled This is How You Lose Her. Junot Díaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and current editor of The Boston Review. Joining the conversation was Calvin Reed, the graphic novels editor at Publishers Weekly. Some of the topics covered were race; class, how to survive as an artist of color, the craft of writing about those who are not at the center of history, and the influence of graphic novel series Love and Rockets on both Díaz and Reed’s lives.

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The new version of This is How You Lose Her comes illustrated by artist Jaime Hernandez, the co-creator of independent comic book Love and Rockets. This graphic series with protagonist Latino characters influenced Diaz when he was growing up with his Dominican family in New Jersey, in the eighties. What enthralled Díaz bout this comic, is that the characters where not at the center of history, they resembled the people he grew up with, “there is something to be said about what is produced when nobody thinks they will ever do a film on them, when the camera is off” Díaz said. Both Díaz and Reed expressed how, before Love and Rockets appeared, there was a shortage in the visual domain of any non-white characters, “the representations of Latinos I saw; they were unanimous, presented in distorted, fucked up ways” Díaz shared.

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In Junot Díaz’s portrait of an artist as a young man, there seems to be a before and an after Love and Rockets, as we see the author making a perceptual breakthrough after reading about characters whom he could actually identify with. Díaz, whose access to books was limited as a kid, shared how his main literary influences growing up where Malcom X and Love and Rockets. The Rockets, Maggie and Hope, those two locas, where human, and trying to define their identity in the United States. They played in a band, had anarchist tendencies, and were not reducible to the common negative stereotypes. Díaz acknowledged the humanity in these characters and how the passing of time was portrayed so realistically: “these are artists that completely denied this trend in our culture that everything has to be fast, that everything has to be spectacular, and they moved at a human rhythm.”

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Both Díaz and Reed discovered Love and Rockets in 1985, reading the Village voice comic strips, and were attracted to its diverse characters such as bisexual, Chicana, punk-rocker, Maggie, and half-Colombian, half-Scottish, and a bass-guitarist in a punk band, Hope. Diaz shared how the Rockets where “just normal” to him. They went beyond all those mainstream representations of Latinos, and portrayed new, more realistic models for people of color, and he had no models at the time.

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Junot Díaz has a unique style. He is gifted with the ability to use all the academic jargon so well, and yet he combines it with rhythm and slang from el barrio, his university of the streets that also schooled himAs a writer and speaker, words such as colonization, economy of privilege, and reducibility get embodied in the intelligibility of his Spanglish and the experience of someone who lived through this way before he learned how to label each form of oppression. In his story we hear the search for his Latino identity in America, and his use of Spanglish as a way to write the truth, and to use language for dialogue and resistance. Instead of opting for assimilation or choosing one persona over the other in the creation of character identities, Díaz uses the amalgamation between English and Spanish spoken in immigrant communities to deny racial and linguistic purity. In this sense, the appearance of Spanglish in his books serves as a blow against the tyranny of outward appearances and as evidence that, indeed, the public sphere is not as monolingual as the mainstream makes it to be.

His talk was inside an old Cathedral, the famous United Palace, which now hosts and organizes art events and performances, along with silver screen film screenings on a weekly basis. Díaz looked confortable, at home in The Heights, as he was talking to many of us in the audience who had Latino or immigrant backgrounds, “it’s Friday night, what the fuck are you all doing here,” he said, as the audience laughed. Running a privilege check, as soon as he entered the room, he asked his audience: “Raise your hand, let’s see, any Dominicans in the audience? Any people of African decent? Any Immigrants?” After almost everyone had their hand raised for one or another reason, Díaz, who knows how to juggle the discourse of marginalization, clarified: “I’m making sure I name anybody who’s gotta claim me.”

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The conversation between Díaz and audience focused on writing, but most importantly, on writing from one’s own experience, social class, and race. Questions by audience members, some who where high school students, included topics such as “My Dominican mother read your book and thought your language was too vulgar, what do you say to that, do you consider your language vulgar?” to this, Díaz responded “yeah.” And added:

It depends on what you think the role of the artist is, and how, where we are on what we would call the ‘culture of respectability’ and the structures of self repression. I grew up in a culture both inside, with my Dominican family, and outside, where you could not use certain words. Now these words where not only curses, you also couldn’t bring up rape…The culture of what you can say and not say, is also a culture that brings up vast silences, it creates people who go through their whole life not being able to bare witness. Language and the topics we can or can’t bring up are only a part of this culture of respectability… I grew up in a culture where people didn’t care what you said; they cared how you said it. You could completely lie and send everybody’s children to war as long as you spoke really proficiently. But, God forbid you had an accent, and told the truth, or cursed and told the truth. Suddenly this would devalue everything you said.

The lack of protagonism in one’s own life, the inability to bare witness of one’s own experiences are highly studied subjects by those who have to endure states of double-consciousness as they juggle the private life of their immigrant households, and the public arena where they remain marginalized in language, in writing, in speech. A student asked Díaz “what do you suggest I do with my MFA teacher who doesn’t want me to use flashbacks in my writing?” alluding to a writing strategy used to bring up memories, and precisely to bare witness. Here, Díaz’s response tackled the issues related to being an artist of color who has to survive predominately white academic environments. He responded,

MFA programs can be fucking traumatizing. Their message is fuck you. As marginal, as people of color, if you are a sub-alter artist, if you are a woman, if you are queer, you are hearing the message of the mainstream community. Most of us carry that voice inside of us(…)We know that voice, so my question is, how do we heal ourselves when people attack us? And my answer is that we need to bear witness to our suffering, and we need community. As artists of color, we need to form safe spaces.  

Finally, Díaz added, “and tell your teacher to fuck off.” Coming from a Pulitzer Price winner, and editor of The Boston Review. I would consider his advice, word up.

Regarding identity claims, I don’t know where I stand when trying to link my Latina identity with Diaz’s female characters. Having grown up in Argentina, where hyper sexualized images are the norm, and sexual harassment laws don’t seem to be understood by the general male population, I cannot help but read Díaz as working in the domains of fiction yet perpetuating the male gaze of a hyper-sexualized, hyper-cheated on, hyper-ventilating female stereotype. It is precisely this stereotype, which Latina feminists are trying to go against. Yet, a reason why I find it difficult to focus solely on his portrayal of women, is because he is himself a representative of the working class Latino man who grew up as a kid in a ghetto suburban area in Jersey, and made it to the front rows of a predominately white, English speaking editorial world. In other words, Díaz speaks race and class, but he is yet to address feminism.

The question remains, in the imaginary of his fictional account, is Díaz portraying sexist stereotypes, or is he portraying a grotesque image of a sexist, machista guy who, in his male subjectivity, fails to consider the women he relates to as subjects? At the end of the day, this might be precisely why he loses her.

The sexism regarding descriptions of his female characters was not brought up by audience members, and the word feminism never came out of his mouth, although Diaz stated through the evening that he has many female friends of color, and queer friends, who helped him “be himself.” One audience member asked if he would ever write from the perspective of a female protagonist and Díaz clarified that half of Life of Oscar Wao is written from the voice of a female character. He also added, “I tend to conceptualize my works at a community level, and I never grew up in a community that was only just women, or only just men, so it would take a lot of doing for me to imagine it,” and later “who needs a women voice from me?” Maybe he will present a different portrayal of women in his next book, or maybe this should motivate the next woman, immigrant, of color, woman of color, latina, queer, or trans person who also loved comic strips like Love and Rockets and identified with Maggie and Hopey. I would like to think the next writer was probably sitting in the audience tonight, knowing her unfinished manuscript is somewhere in a drawer, unsure if she should keep typing words or not, unsure anyone will listen. Maybe this will inspire her to tell her story, in protest, in fellowship, regardless if others think it’s important or not. Díaz’s stories certainly inspired me to tell my own.

I am a NYC based writer, teacher, and immigrant from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I like to think critically about culture, poetically about Latin America, and interectionally about feminism. You can follow my tweets here: https://twitter.com/CarolinaADrake

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