BY ASHIA AJANI
CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault, transphobia
When I first heard news of Junot Diaz’s sexual misconduct, I wasn’t surprised. Diaz had a reputation of creating shallow, tragic female characters who rely on male attention to feel validated, who put up with so much abuse and manipulation just to feel loved. Some of that, I thought was explained by his childhood, when he released this article. And as a victim of abuse, I can empathize with his pain; childhood abuse festers under the skin and affects so much of your life going forward. The stain is never fully removed. But somehow, the release of this article seemed well timed, as if he was preparing for the wave of survivors of his own misconduct coming forward weeks later. Multiple women, all Black and/or Latinx and younger than him, accused Diaz of inappropriate sexual behavior; many of these women regarded him as a colleague, mentor or someone to look up to. Even before this wave of confessions, article after article, particularly by women of color, expressed sympathy for Diaz’s childhood abuse, but recognized his inherent misogyny and emotional abuse of women, particularly of women of color. As expressed by Briana L. Urena-Ravelo, author of a Medium article that responded to Diaz’s article: “In the darkness men leave behind the women and emerge in the light clean and free.”
Diaz has since apologized. He has withdrawn from the Sydney Writers Festival. So his response is a modicum better than deny, deny, deny. And in this wave of survivors feeling free enough to tell their truths, he’s not the only world-renowned author who has faced a similar, well-deserved shame. Sherman Alexie, a famous Native playwright and author has also been accused by three women of sexual assault. Shake a tree and watch the fruit drop.
Diaz represents one of the first major Afro-Latinx voices in modern literature. His stories are raw, painful and well crafted. There is no questioning his inherent talent and command of language. And Alexie represents a much needed Native voice in a patronizing and indingenous-erasing white narrative. These two authors have been seen and continue to be seen by youth of color. They are inspirations. So what happens when they overstep the boundaries of confidence? What do we do? What do we owe them? What do they owe us?
Backtracking a couple years to when Chimamanda Adiche, author of We Can All Be Feminists, among other works, we can recognize the hypocrisy of a TED talk entitled “The Danger of Single Story” and refusing to acknowledge trans women as “real” women. Furthermore, when Adiche refused to admit fault in her statement, we saw a chance for redemption that was never acted upon. And of course, sorry doesn’t fix everything, but it’s a good start. So the (unofficial) boycott started. We hurt her sales for a little bit. But to this date, as far as I know (and as far as Google tells me), she has not recanted her statement.
I remember first encountering Adiche in 7th grade. My predominately white school assigned books by predominately white authors, and maybe in an act of quiet defiance, my white, but favorite, teacher gave me a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun. I was enthralled to see that someone was looking out for me, for people who looked like me, telling honest stories about a community so similar to mine. When she released “We Can All Be Feminists” my heart leapt for joy. Yes! Black women becoming the face of mainstream feminism (which probably should’ve been my first clue that something was amiss, white America isn’t that progressive). So when authors praise liberation and mutual respect in their literature but cannot find space to do it in their daily lives, I get a little disenchanted.
Even authors like bell hooks and Zadie Smith and Amy Tan have disappointed me in some way. Whether it is slut-shaming or admonishing women for wearing makeup or adhering to a strict gender binary in their works, to essentializing the Asian American experience and constantly crafting men of color as violent and incapable of love, something is always wrong. Writers write what they know and what they wonder. What happens when language fails us?
We have suffered a great injustice in school that does not really teach us the purpose of value systems. What do we value? Why do we value these things? What are we denying ourselves and others by valuing these things? More than that, our schools, which tout great American literature, do nothing to aid us in the arduous task of dissecting language. The history of language, particularly how it is used to oppress and overshadow narratives, has no space to breathe in an already constricted curriculum. So we are then left with a giant blank in our repertoire of knowledge.
I’m not here to air out a bunch of dirty laundry or drag authors for being….human. But many authors, are in way, a form of celebrity. They have the ability to shape the consciousness of our society, particularly the youth, and provide examples of what is right and what is wrong conduct in our world. They provide insight to what it means to be an intellectual of color in a white dominated field that seeks to appropriate our craft but never respect it.
As humans, idolatry is in our blood. We are creates of inspiration and aspiration. Especially as dreamers of color, we look to grasp at any person who reflects our desires because we know that this world is not kind to art produced by people of color. In this way, we can convince ourselves to excuse so much. But in our time of reckoning, the era of our most sacred truths, we can no longer afford to do so. Idolatry is dangerous in the way that it allows us to look so far beyond fault and worship people. When we put people up on a pedestal, our hopes are either dashed or we don’t see fault when there is more than ample fault to be seen. We set ourselves up for disappointment and failure. It’s not fair to the authors, and it’s not fair to us.
Sidney Poitier refused to date Black women. Malcolm X, despite his famous quote “the most unprotected woman in America is the Black woman,” was a pretty overt misogynist. Yuri Kochiyama praised Osama Bin Laden as a radical separatist. Despite all the evidence of the horrible human rights violations he committed during his lifetime, leftists of color continue to applaud the work of Fidel Castro. All of our idols are, to some degree, splattered in paint. Everyone has their baggage and their burdens. It is wrong to speak ill of the dead yes, but truth can never be buried. Does this then, completely discount all of the work they have done to aid our communities?
It is hard and somewhat unfair to compare injustices. Oppression Olympics should be a thing of 2016. But as long as we recognize injustices and hold our heroes responsible, the healing can begin. Perhaps even denying them to position of idol or hero is necessary. They, like us, are complex creatures capable of mistakes and transgressions (I mean, calling grabbing someone’s breast without permission a “mistake” is a major understatement). So then maybe it’s the author’s response to the mistake or transgression that should be given more weight than what we allow. Maybe we can exist in a fine medium of respect and calculated admiration. But it shouldn’t have to always be this way. Is it possible to separate art from the person who creates the art? I don’t know. I am still trying to figure out when to “cancel” problematic figures. The answer is different for every person, and I think it boils down to each and every one of us asking ourselves this question: what are we willing to accept?
A final thought: at the end of the day, there are hundreds of Diazes and Adiches and Alexies, hidden within our communities who have not had the opportunity to be recognized as game-changing writers. If anything, we can thank these authors for at the very least, opening the door.