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

 

Attack on YA

“Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” – Ruth Graham

The value of young adult literature was attacked by Ruth Graham on Slate where she begins her argument by saying, “As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.”Picture

I won’t lie. As an emerging writer and scholar, I have had my fair share of opinions about young adult literature. If you were to walk up to me and tell me that you thought Stephanie Meyer was the single most amazing writer that ever lived, I’d ask you for your ID. Well, because I’d assume you were too young to have one, and therefor too naive to know good literature. I remember reading all of the Twilight series as a teenager. And as an adult, I think, that was entertaining, but god, was that bad writing.

But that’s what this all comes down to, isn’t it? What is good writing? Let’s take a little look at history to begin, shall we? Edgar Allan Poe, arguably one of the best short story and horror writers to have ever lived, was once a critic himself of literature. He was ruthless against his competition. Poe worked on several literary magazines in his time and was known for his passionate opinions. He was particularly not fond of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But what does that matter now? English students are made to study both of them as a part of the all-powerful literary canon. This isn’t the only case where a now famous author – considered to be one of the messiahs of the literary canon – was once regarded as a fluke in their own generation. Often, the canon consists of writers that were not originally the “popular” stuff of the day or those writers that were forgotten or never realized. How, then, can we judge the value of literature based on its intention or its popularity? The point is, we often cannot tell what will end up becoming what students are taught in classrooms fifty years from now.

We don’t know if in a few decades young adult literature will become a whole new faction of literary study. We don’t know the possible longevity of that prospect either. But I can say that C. S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – a children’s book – and he is considered one of the 20th century’s best authors. And he didn’t just write children’s novels. Lewis was a brilliant scholar and philosopher.

Neil Gaiman didn’t just write Coraline. J. K. Rowling didn’t just write the Harry Potter series. Sherman Alexie didn’t just write The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Here’s the deal, folks: young adult literature is a style all its own. Yes, it is geared towards children and adolescents. Yes, publishers look for certain qualities in a novel considered to be young adult. But the value of the literature has nothing to do with the audience. The value of what we read should be better concerned with the crafting of the words on the page and the reaction of the general audience to the quality of their emotions.