Terms of Concealment: Junot Díaz and the Language of Masculinity

IMAGE BY: Rick Reinhard/Flickr

by Jonathan Russell Clark

Junot Díaz has pretty much made a career for himself with one narrator. We first meet Yunior, a Dominican raised in New Jersey, like Díaz himself, in Drown, published in 1996. The stories that make up Drown show Yunior as an adolescent or a young man, growing up and coming into his own. In one story, “Aurora,” we get our first taste of one of Yunior’s most distinct qualities: his rampant philandering. Yunior’s roommate, Cut, doesn’t like Aurora, and “never gives [Yunior] the messages she leaves with him.” Yunior doesn’t care, though, because the notes are “bullshit mostly, but every now and then she leaves one that makes me want to treat her better.” Through and through, Yunior is always direct about the way he treats women, and over the years it doesn’t really change. Sixteen years later, with the publication of This Is How You Lose Her, we find Yunior older but not any wiser. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” opens like this:

Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty. Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? Goddamn. Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived—but you’re not engaged to super open-minded blanquita. Your girl is a bad-ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; in fact the one thing she warned you about, that she swore she would never forgive, was cheating. I’ll put a machete in you, she promised. And of course you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t.

And you did.

This extended passage displays another of Yunior’s most prominent characteristics: his voice. Díaz is ubiquitously praised for his prose style, his mix of whip-smart prose, low-brow colloquialism, remarkable rhythm, and Spanish words dotting the pages. Put together, these aspects of Díaz’s writing make it energetic, authentic and utterly singular. Notice, though, in the above passage, where the Spanish words appear. Let’s go through them. There’s “sucia,” a Spanish dysphemism for promiscuous women, and “cuero,” another derogatory term for an overly sexual person. Then there’s “blanquita,” which means “white girl,” and “salcedeña,” which refers to a person from Salcedo, a city in the Dominican Republic. What’s interesting about these terms isn’t what they mean so much as how they’re employed: Díaz always uses them when discussing relationships, both sexual and emotional. His Spanish, then (which is never translated for non-Spanish speakers), not only adds to the authenticity of the narrator, but also functions, for the English-speaking reader, as a distancing device between Yunior and his actions, his seeming lack of moral compass. This usage both emphasizes the words and obfuscates their meaning. And finally, because Spanish is Yunior’s native language, his method of obscuring his inner self employs the words of his earliest—and one might argue, most fundamental—form of expression.

Díaz has been raiding this shit since his first collection. In the title story, “Drown,” another feature of Yunior’s life is explored: his rigorous masculinity. The culture Yunior comes up in isn’t exactly the most open-minded in the world, and a male’s perceived masculinity becomes an important trait to defend. “Drown,” then, captures many of Díaz’s recurring themes—sex, masculinity, language—and subtly investigates Yunior’s relationship to all three. Yunior describes what he and his friends do for fun, which consists mostly of going out to bars and failing to pick up women. Afterwards, they’ll “pass the fag bar, which never seems to close. Patos are all over the parking lot, drinking and talking.” Alex, one of Yunior’s cohorts, sometimes stops the car and says, “Excuse me,” and “when somebody comes over from the bar he’ll point his plastic pistol at them, just to see if they’ll run or shit their pants.” Yunior tells this story with a narrative straight-face, implying that such outward homophobia permeates his peer group.

When Yunior first mentions Beto, the subject of the story, he recalls “the way we stole, broke windows, the way we pissed on people’s steps and then challenged them to come out and stop us.” More than homophobic, there is a thread of violence pervasive here as well. They’ll urinate on an innocent person’s home and then challenge them. Ostentatious masculinity does not even need to be provoked; it is offered, presented, displayed.

Some critics find Díaz’s authenticity to be dubious, as if his vernacular were outdated. Critic Rob Jacklosky claims “there is too much reliance on ‘street’ constructions that already sound quaint, such as the use of ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ as an adverb, and ‘dope’ as an adjective.” Though Jacklosky’s intimate knowledge of American-Dominican nomenclature usage is never validated, it’s safe to say that he’s way the hell off here. He seems to believe that if certain phrases disappear from the popular zeitgeist, it must mean they’ve stopped being used by individual communities, as if we’ve stopped saying “cool” decades after its introduction into American language, or “hip” or “awesome” or “sweet.” Even more insidious is the implicit claim here that novels or stories that do not feature up-to-date vernacular are somehow automatically irrelevant. Does Jacklosky have any idea how young people speak? People still say “dope.” But he paints Díaz’s use of “street” language as disingenuous, the kind of “street lingo only an upper-eastside editor could see as cutting-edge.” Rather, Díaz’s language is filled with the kind of lingo that only tone-deaf critics would see as “quaint.”

Díaz’s stories exist in a real place filled with real people, which makes the pervasive homophobia and its underlying violence all the more rattling to read. As Joshua Jelly-Schapiro has it, these stories are “alternately set in an impoverished Dominican campo where young boys grow accustomed, each year, to shitting worms that their mamis don’t have the medicine to treat, to the scarcely-better life of public housing in New Jersey, where those same boys hide the ‘government cheese’ when girls come over.” Yunior is even shown to be a smart kid (which considering that he’s a Diaz stand-in isn’t all that surprising). When Yunior tells the reader about his now-defunct relationship with Beto, he remembers a telling incident, which involves a sign at the neighborhood pool decreeing “No Expectorating”:

Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

Shit, he said. Where did you learn that?

I shrugged.

Tell me. He hated when I knew something he didn’t. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn’t tell him; he thought I didn’t read, not even dictionaries.

Yunior is smart, but he refuses to be ostentatious about it, quite a far cry from his otherwise masculine theatrics. Moreover, it is important to note that it is a single word that functions to show how different Yunior and Beto are, yet how similar. They’re both proud and competitive, especially about intelligence, but Yunior keeps his under wraps, as he doesn’t view himself—or maybe he doesn’t want to view himself—as intellectually curious. Beto, on the other hand, “hated everything about the neighborhood” and was “delirious at the thought” of leaving for college. Yunior, however, “wasn’t like him,” for he “had another year to go in high school, no promises elsewhere.” Yunior has no ambitions, and he seems to be suspicious of Beto’s.

Just as their competitive intelligence is highlighted by a single word, so too is their sexuality. Yunior introduces Beto as a “pato,” a derogatory term for a gay person, and uses the word again when he and his friends drive past the gay bar and make fun of the patrons. Why does this mean-spirited term keep arising? Well, it seems as if Yunior wants to distance himself from the word and its implications in his own life. When Yunior and Beto were younger, best friends who did everything together, Beto shows Yunior one of his father’s pornos. As they watch, Beto reaches into Yunior’s shorts and jacks him off. A similar event happens again, but Yunior stops it before it ends. Now, years later, Beto’s back in town from college, but Yunior only half-heartedly seeks him out, which basically amounts to avoiding him. In the end, he doesn’t see Beto, and probably won’t ever again.

Nowhere in “Drown” does the word ‘gay’ appear. All we get instead is “pato” and “fag.” Yunior won’t use the word, because if he does it will somehow turn into something permanent, something he can’t rationalize away by saying “Twice. That’s it,” as he does with Beto. He can’t face his former best friend, just as he can’t say the word that might be true, recalling Alfred Douglas’s famous phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name.” For a young man in a masculine world that’s also suspicious of intelligence and ambition, there are just some things you can’t say, some things you just can’t be.

Yet these cue (or I suppose anti-cue) words are in Spanish, Yunior’s native language, so the thematic dynamics are distinct between the text-to-reader meaning and the Yunior-to-Spanish meaning. For the reader, these terms function as a brief peak into Yunior’s inner struggles, but for Yunior, the fact that Spanish is the language of his vulnerabilities speaks to its significance. Whenever the deepest, most challenging parts of Yunior emerge, they do so in his most essential and foundational nomenclature. Spanish, to put it another way, reaches even the darkest crevasses of Yunior’s heart.

As noted above, Díaz never provides the translations for the Spanish slang he employs. This is because he wants the meaning of these terms to be one step below the surface, just slightly hidden, a way of suggesting Yunior’s discomfort with their meanings. He can’t face his issues with monogamy, referring to himself as a “cuero” and women as “sucias.” He won’t explain to Beto (or to us) where he learned what expectorating means. And he won’t see Beto, once his best friend, now a “pato,” because he can’t face what’s just underneath the surface, the meaning of the words, obscured from the reader ever so slightly by a foreign tongue, but unambiguously clear enough to everyone, even the people who don’t speak the language.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.

The Art of Criticism

And the grace to receive it.

I believe wholly in the workshop model, in the scathing bravery of criticism, in the investigative eyes of my colleagues.

Work doesn’t progress without the eyes of its audience. But the audience is not limited to post-publication bodies. It should include your fellow writers and artists. It should never be limited in its scope.

I teach Writing and Rhetoric to a group of bright undergraduates. They were horrified when I asked them to begin critiquing their peers’ work. But I believe in the power of transforming your work with the help of fresh eye; so, as teachers have done since the dawn of time, I made them do it anyway. I wrote some of their thesis statements on the board and we whittled them into their best form.

Criticism doesn’t have to be bad, I tell them. In fact, it shouldn’t be. It should never exist to reduce another person or their work. Criticism should be given with care. It should expose the weaknesses of a piece but also explore its strengths. I instructed my students to say things like, “I don’t think this sentence is working” rather than “this is awful.”

Being a good critic requires a sense of self, a sense of the receiver, and the ability to depart from your own emotion in order to more objectively analyze the work. Of course, subjectivity will never be gone from the process. However, it’s not your job to attack an aesthetic or a genre. It’s your job as the critic to figure out if the piece is working at maximum efficiency.

Stay away from, “I didn’t like this piece” or “I loved this piece.” Instead say, “This piece really worked because of x, y, z.” But don’t be afraid to tell the author what isn’t working.

Defensive authors exist, surely. As I live and breathe there are more jerks in the world than there are kind people. Resistance against well-meaning criticism is a sign of narcissism, poor listening, or simply naivety. The most productive workshops come from the kind of relationship where author and critic wholly support one another in the endeavor. It is a privilege to read another person’s work. It is a privilege to hear the opinions of your contemporaries.

Mostly importantly, criticism rounds out your sensibility; it creates a better writer, a better reader. Both giving and receiving criticism is a vital part of the authorial work cycle. My own writing would be nothing without it.

 

 

Image via Flickr, Will: September 14, 2011

 

Defining the Graphic Era

If you wondered whether graphic novel means a larger work of comics you would be correct. But life isn’t always so simple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, let’s redefine the graphic “novel” and rather refer to these collections of narrative images as graphic books. The word novel implies that the work in question is fiction, which is not always the case (Dr. Rebecca Barnhouse, author of The Book of the Maidservant). Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a cleverly illustrated memoir of her own childhood. Wheres as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is entirely fantasy.

Graphic books are either intended narratives that extend beyond the typical page number of a comic book and bound using a method other than the typical stapling, or they can also be a collection of comic books that form a sequence of a story and are also bound in a way other than stapling. The difference between comics and graphic books are relatively simple somewhat arbitrary.

The name comic book refers to a collection of picture panels that form a narrative. Therefor, what right do we have to call graphic books anything if not collections of comic books? This becomes problematic when we examine that I define a graphic book in two ways. In the sense that a graphic book is a collection of comic books bound in a different way, it is a comic collection. A book originally intended to be and published as a larger work extending beyond the scope of the typical comic book is still a comic book.

Unfortunately the word comic is associated with a number of juvenile ideas. The largest demographic for the purchasing of comic books are adolescent boys. Therefor we are hesitant to use the word comic to describe more serious works.

But each panel of art is in itself a comic. And each collection of panels is a comic book. And regardless of how it is bound they are a mutually exclusive idea. In the attempt to mature the world of graphic story-telling, we have evolved to use words that are exclusive to adults. You wouldn’t give your child a graphic movie or a graphic video game. The word graphic doesn’t just imply a picture of some sort. It implies that the content of what you are handling is somehow reserved for the eyes of an adult.

To embrace the new trend of the graphic book we usher ourselves into a new graphic era of literature. While some may be hesitant to accept the legitimacy of the graphic book they will very soon be quieted. We no longer live in a world wholly tolerant of information that isn’t quick and easy to access. We are a visually glutinous population of consumers. Literature, as everything else, must evolve as we do if it is to survive. Instead of holding this concept of literary evolution at arms length, we should embrace it as humanity once embraced the advent of the printing press. Sometime in the future, our quibbles will seem like archaic qualms to our descendants.

The case against entitlement

You will reap from life what you sow. You will be a professor if you work diligently to understand what that means and requires. You will be a doctor for the same reason.

Obtaining a degree does not entitle you to a job. It does not entitle you to status or money or wealth. It does not entitle you to anything.

I come to you after reading One Case Against Removing The Liberal Arts From Universities, an article that was particularly motivating.

The basis of this article was to refute claims that the Liberal Arts are an irrelevant part of the University. This is a hilarious sentiment. Universities were founded on the basis of teaching specialized areas of knowledge, most notably to the clergy and officers of the government. You were educated if you had status and a job the required you to be educated.

The perception is most often that the liberal arts are an ancient tradition of hoo-haw that spoils our brains and doesn’t promote practical thinking. It isn’t as valuable as math or science.

And yes, math and science are what men of the first universities would have learned. They needed to be able to calculate measurements and formulate opinions based on those calculations. This would have been more accurately considered as learning new technology than learning math and science.

Scholars also would have been taught philosophy, as philosophy of more than a hundred years wasn’t such seemingly a frivolous pursuit. It was considered the same as today’s psychologists speculating behavioral problems or meteorologists predicting the weather. The difference is, we understand these concepts better. We understand them differently, and therefor they become archaic.

Truthfully, literature is a relatively new concept compared to mathematics. We measured before we wrote. We needed writing to record those measurements. Writing of language begins in many cultures as a means of recording labor and quantity. Literature as we know it doesn’t emerge until much later, after its inception. The oldest manuscript in our possession is Beowulf, but between the writing of Beowulf and the fifteenth century, surviving manuscripts can be more rare than a white Bengal tiger walking an American beach. It is from the 15th century on that the invention of the printing press and the resurgence of classical thought form the body of work we study today.

I can talk about this until my face turns blue. So I’ll stop.

The reality is that my experience at a university is only relevant because of the amount of work I put in and the opportunities I took to gain experience. What mattered wasn’t my A in 20th Century British Literature. My experiences with organizations on campus mattered.

Therefor without my humanities degree, I might not be anyone special. I might not have any valuable skills.

Celie’s Button and the Perversion of Homosexual Desire in The Color Purple

To say that Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is not a homosexual suggests that her love and sexual liberation is invalid. A fellow student in one of my classes recently stated that he believed that Celie is a victim of homosocial desire rather than identifying her as a homosexual.

I had already planned on presenting to my classmates the idea that Celie was homosexual. It just seemed so obvious as I read. I was curious how they would react. Although homosexuality is tolerated amongst my peers, there is still discomfort when they must face it.

My professor, Dr. Tiffany M. B. Anderson, was aligned with my own personal analysis of Celie’s sexuality, as she had never before heard anyone disagree. But the majority of my class seemed opposed. They preferred the less challenging argument of homosocial desire. Because at a basic level, it makes sense.

Homosocial is a relatively new term to the literary community, and it refers to the relationships between men in classical literature. There are times, such as in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice when characters appear to be much more affectionate and loyal toward the same sex. To a modern mind, this appears as homosexuality. Clearly these two men are gay if they are this affectionate toward one another. And anyone who reads Shakespeare knows that you really have to read between the lines to understand his innuendo. In 1985, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick popularized the term with her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. She presented the literary community with a solid explanation of these unusual relationships between men to the modern reader. Homosocial by itself simply means social interactions between people of the same sex. Homosocial desire as a complete term signifies the desire for the power and comradery of the same sex.

Now, before I go on to say that the homosocial argument is invalid, I’d like to explain why it can actually work. Celie is a submissive woman. She is abused by men and victimized by women. She is incapable of gaining her own control or power as a human being let alone as a woman. The presentation of Shug Avery provides Celie with a model of feminine power and how to achieve it. Shug is also the object of her sexual desire. But the power that Shug holds over men and other people in general is intoxicating to Celie. It allows her to become a sexual being rather than a victim of male desire. In this sense, Celie has homosocial desire for Shug Avery. There is no denying that.

However, I’d like to define what homosexuality is. The concept is foreign territory and tends to elude those faced with it. If you are not homosexual, you may not have a very solid foundation of what it means. Let’s just be honest, it is confusing. But the term homosexual just means people of the same sex. That’s it. That’s all homo (person) and sexual (of, relating to, or involving sex – most often just meaning biological reproductive capabilities that define gender). The term has come to define the romantic desire for and sexual intercourse with a person of the same sex. More accurately, Celie is a lesbian.

I’d love to agree that Walker presents us with a simple case of homosocial desire. It would be easy to create this as an argument. It would be easy to agree with, if it weren’t for the textual evidence that Celie is a lesbian – or at least has lesbian tendencies. This evidence includes her biological/natural desire for Shug. She feels a tingling that a woman might feel for a man when she first realizes her own bodily desire. But in addition to that, Celie is jealous of Shug’s love for Mr. And in addition to even that, Celie loves Shug. She has emotional desire for a woman. All of these contribute to the message that Celie is a lesbian. Now, does that mean she is solely a lesbian? No. But there is further evidence. She continues to have sex with Mr., this time altered by Shug’s interference, where she and Mr. attempt to have more pleasurable sex, and Celie doesn’t enjoy it. The evidence that Walker gives us points to a single conclusion. Celie is a homosexual.

Yes, she has homosocial desires. I would argue that these align more with her relationship to Sofia than her relationship to Shug. But in terms of Celie’s desire for Shug, it clearly crosses over the line of social to sexual. As Sedgwick asks us not to pervert the classical relationships between men by simply categorizing them as homosexual, I ask that we not pervert Celie’s lesbianism by simply saying that her desire is only homosocial.