Junot Díaz and the women writers of color we should have been reading instead

“Did you get to that one piece for Creative Writing yet?” my friend texted me. “I think I need to take a shower after reading that.”

In 2012, a close friend and I were assigned a short story for class by Junot Díaz called “Alma.” I soon understood why she was so uncomfortable with it. The piece focuses on a girl named Alma, whom the narrator cheats on and is the subject of numerous explicit sex scenes. It reads like erotica for bros.

“She’s more adventurous in bed than any girl you’ve had,” the narrator says. “[O]n your first date she asked you if you wanted to come on her tits or her face, and maybe during boy training you didn’t get one of the memos but you were, like, umm, neither.”

I can’t help but think about “Alma” a lot lately and how uncomfortable the story made my friend and I feel; on Friday, Díaz was accused of engaging in sexual harassment, assault, and verbal abuse toward multiple women writers. In particular, author Zinzi Clemmons said Díaz forcibly kissed her when she was a graduate student, and novelist Alisa Valdes called him “misogynistic, demeaning, and cruel.” National Book Award nominee Carmen Maria Machado said Díaz’s behavior has been an open secret for years, in part because Latinx writers are so underrepresented in literature, that people wanted him to succeed.

Over half a decade later, I feel haunted by “Alma.” Not just because it was clear from the short story that Díaz didn’t see women as fully realized human beings—but because his place on that syllabus mostly likely came at the expense of women writers of color. How many others have lived through Clemmons’ and Valdes’ stories, and how many more will suffer—in their careers, their bodies, their esteem—because of powerful, misogynistic men? How many syllabi and bookshelves have been filled with men’s names because women writers were never given the chance to be seen as more than objects, or were stifled in their careers by men who took advantage of them and put them down?

I suspect the answer is plenty. I suspect plenty more women will suffer because of men like Díaz.

When #MeToo began last year, women in literature began sharing their repressed anger, sorrow, and fear over years of abuse and harassment. Children’s author Anne Ursu highlighted anonymous stories from the lit field in a Medium post in February. In one case, an author said submitting work felt “like a minefield” because editors may comment on her body. Another author-illustrator said she “completely stopped socializing” in the industry after repeatedly suffering from misogynistic comments.

“These are the sort of events we’re told to brush off—they’re jokes, they’re flattering, no big deal,” Ursu warned. “But when you believe you are a professional and someone informs you they see you as a sex object, it can shatter your sense of self and your sense of safety.”

In an article in Publishers Weekly last year, a former editor for an independent publisher said she tried to leave her position as an editorial assistant after her boss said he fell in love with her. In another case, a group of women for a small publishing house went to HR with complaints against a man who expressed “highly inappropriate” actions in the workplace, but HR never addressed the issue. Each woman eventually left the publishing company while the man responsible remained.

“When I was growing up in publishing, [sexual harassment] was something I felt I had to be a good sport about—whether banter, innuendo, or something more serious,” O, the Oprah Magazine’s books editor Leigh Haber told Publishers Weekly. In one case, she claims a publicity manager at Avon pushed her onto a bed in his hotel room between interviews.

“I was able to knee him and push him off. I was 27 and remember feeling I should just finish out the day as if nothing happened,” Haber said. “And that’s what I did.”

There’s a recurring pattern in each of these stories, from Clemmons’ to Ursu’s accounts, and it isn’t confined to the field of literature: A woman is harassed, assaulted, or demeaned by someone famous or powerful and she cannot speak out because she’ll lose her job or face retaliation. More often than not, there are only two solutions: Endure the harassment or leave.

It took Clemmons, Valdes, and Machado years to share their stories publicly—and these are women noted for their “strong voices”; these are women with audiences. How many times has it happened at your own workplace? How many times has it happened to you?

https://twitter.com/okaywowstop/status/992348613220163584

Díaz’s “Alma” represents how male predators perceive women as spiteful, sexual possessions. But what would Alma say if she was given a voice? Maybe she would object to being the girl with “a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.” Maybe she could fill an entire novel with anger and rage and fear, all directed at the narrator for doing more than just cheating on her.

But until we start supporting women that speak out against men like Díaz, men like Díaz will be given the space to influence generations of readers. So let’s start filling our bookshelves with Clemmons, Valdes, or Machado. Or Black voices like Ijeoma Oluo, Morgan Jerkins, or Jesmyn Ward. Or any of these women of color instead. Let’s change these industries from the outside in.

Ana Valens

Ana Valens

Ana Valens is a reporter specializing in online queer communities, marginalized identities, and adult content creation. She is Daily Dot's Trans/Sex columnist. Her work has appeared at Vice, Vox, Truthout, Bitch Media, Kill Screen, Rolling Stone, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends her free time developing queer adult games.