Literary Enemies: Junot Díaz vs. Meg Wolitzer

Literary Enemies: Meg Wolitzer and Junot Díaz

wolitzer diaz

Disclaimer: I refuse to believe that Meg Wolitzer and Junot Díaz aren’t friends.

I’m going to try my best to keep this from getting all Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, and I promise I’m not going to make When Harry Met Sally references, but I do want to talk about gender. I want to talk about writing women.

I have often heard Junot Díaz called out for objectifying his female characters, and I want to start by saying I disagree. When I was sixteen and read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for the first time, I found Oscar’s older sister Lola profoundly reassuring. Here was a girl my age, then a woman not much older, who found power where she could and used it, who saved herself from what she could, who turned herself into the book’s strongest character by sheer force of will but remained vulnerable enough to fall in love.

Yes, some of Lola’s power comes from her sexuality, even when she’s young. The same is true of her mother Belicia. I do not find this problematic. In fact, I find it the opposite. To me, it is just as bad for a male author to deprive his female characters of sexual agency as it is to reduce them to sex objects. Well, not just as bad. It’s two versions of the same crime, and it’s a crime Díaz never commits.

And yet I can see why a reader might question Díaz on gender. Yunior, his recurring protagonist (call him Díaz’s Frank Bascombe, his Nathan Zuckerman, his Rabbit Angstrom) is a serial cheater. In Oscar Wao, when he’s on-and-off dating Lola, he’s prone to locutions like, “Me, who was fucking with not one, not two, but three fine-ass bitches at the same time and that wasn’t even counting the side-sluts I scooped at the parties and the clubs.” When his girlfriend in the short story “Alma” reads his diary and calls him out for cheating, Yunior says, “Baby, this is part of my novel.” So what’s a girl to think?Continue Reading

The Family You Choose

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The Family You Choose

In college my housemates and I once drew a social map of our class. This is similar. A web, not a tree.

I’ve always been prone to intense friendships. Not best friendships, necessarily, or not in the one-and-only sense. I’m of the Mindy Kaling school on that point: “best friend” is a tier, and mine is a wide one. I get deeply emotionally invested in relationships with my friends, sometimes completely sucked in. I’m in such constant touch with one of my best friends (see above) that I’m convinced that if I were ever to disappear, he’d call the police before my mother or roommates or boss noticed I was missing. I recently read an interview with Hanya Yanagihara (see below) in which she occasionally answered the interviewer’s questions with a friend’s opinions as well as her own, and I couldn’t help laughing in recognition. I do that, too.

So it’s no surprise that I love the literature of friendship. I love reading about the ones that work and the ones that don’t, friendships that struggle and flounder. I have derived a huge amount of relief from Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell’s collection of essays about female friend-breakups, The Friend Who Got Away, while suffering through one of my own. I will say, though, that the existence of that collection seems to confirm an idea that I hear often and believe not at all, which is that men don’t have real friends. That cannot be true, and for evidence I direct you to Hanya Yanagihara’s phenomenal new novel, A Little Life, which I read in under twenty-four hours even though it is over seven hundred pages long.Continue Reading

The Millennial-Gen X Rift Part II: the MFA System And A Digital Latina/o Literary Renaissance

are_you_seriousHector Tobar wouldn’t be the first to speculate about a contemporary Latina/o literary renaissance. That hype has been around for a long, long while. It surrounded the work of Gen X Latina/o writers beginning to publish in the mid to late 90’s and early 2000’s of which Junot Diaz is the most notable. The same can be said about the generation that produced Helena Maria Viramontes and Sandra Cisneros.

So many latina/o writers I know have heard that word so often they scoff at it. Renaissance. A close friend, an old prof, said to me in jest once that Latina/o writing goes through a “renaissance” every twenty years or so. People bestow upon our literature that label. But who knows why? There’s probably a lot of wishful thinking in aligning Latina/o letter with the trajectory of something like the Harlem Renaissance, but probably twice as much marketing can be gleaned from that word alone: clean, prestigious, professionalized. It signals the arrival of something, the coming-of-age of something. Who doesn’t want that? More than anything, who doesn’t want to buy into that? Writer or reader. Continue Reading

The Millenial-Gen X Rift And The Trouble With Latina/o Letters

 Tilde“Hector Tobar is our new hero,” a close friend of mine, a well known Chicano writer, proclaimed to me last week. I was back home in Austin. We were at the Whitehorse. He said it as if it were up for discussion in the first place. “I’m totally with him,” he said. This conversation in reaction to a quote Tobar gave to the Latin Post in an interview earlier this month:

“I really believe we are living through the beginning of a Latino Renaissance that will one day be compared to the Harlem Renaissance. Having said that, every literary culture produces mediocrity. Our mediocrity is populated by Isabel Allende imitators and lots of magical realism rehash written by authors who sell a vision of Latinos as colorful people of simple (and predictable) pleasures, a kind of shallow exoticism. I think our readers are way ahead of the game in their tastes, which explains the popularity of novelists like Roberto Bolaño, who a decade ago would have been seen as a fringe writer.”

The quote not only hit on the third rail of contemporary Latina/o literature. It struck it with an iron sledgehammer.

“The problem with latino letters after 2000,” my friend said, “is that it’s all written with so much heart. So much heart; so little substance.”

“Where is the virtuosity?” he asked. “The hard-mined narrative grit? The incredible research? The complex latina/o characters that aren’t cardboard victims? And this is really gonna hurt,” he said. “Where is the editing?”

It was as if he’d sliced the air in two. Or shattered crystal glass on tile. Or asked my mom out on a date. And then said he was going to be my dad.

“Are you simple or something?,” I said to him.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round Down: Short Stories as a Path to Literary Success

Throes of Creation by Leonid PasternakI’m going to let you in on a little secret about the submissions in my slush pile. When one comes in, the first thing I do–before I have even read the first sentence of the letter–is skim it for the name of a publication I recognize. If I don’t see one, I go back and start reading the pitch, looking for a reason to reject it.

The main thing I’m looking for in new clients is an existing following clamoring for a book from this writer. If the writer has a great idea, however, and understands what it means to be a professional writer, I might still be interested. That’s why I’m looking for the names of publications I like in the author’s bio. If you had twenty-five submissions to read, which one would you start with? I’ll be you’d start with the guy who’s written for Ploughshares and then move on to the staff writer from the Boston Globe, too.Continue Reading

WWTMD? (What Would Toni Morrison Do?)

Image courtesy of the Nobel Prize Foundation.

Toni Morrison. Image courtesy of the Nobel Prize Foundation.

Lately, during the sad, unproductive stretches of writing my first novel, I stare at an empty page and whisper, “What Would Toni Morrison Do?”

This is the closest I come to prayer. Please show me the way, I say to my favorite writers. Please give me the vision to see what I cannot. Unlike most deities, however, the motivations of my favorite writers are knowable. On YouTube, in magazine interviews, and in essays, my favorite writers relate their inspirations and their all-too-human faults. Sure, they hurl lightning bolts of excellence, but they also reveal the failures of the spark.

So, who better to guide me than Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of ten novels—including Beloved, one of the most acclaimed books of U.S. literature?

It doesn’t matter that all I have in common with Toni Morrison is my Ohio childhood; I’m not trying to be Toni Morrison. Instead, after teaching a “Major Authors: Toni Morrison” course, I’m trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned from her work, about narrative structure, knowledge, empathy, and community. Here’s how Toni Morrison guides me.Continue Reading

POC vs PLOT: The MFA, Chipotle Cups, and Narratives We Crave

la-ar-weigh-in-on-your-favorite-cosby-sweater--002By now it seems everyone’s read Junot Diaz’s MFA vs POC blog on the New Yorker website. Even my freshmen at Cornell these days say to me, “Dan, was it really like that?” Usually I just shrug in response. I was a notorious recluse in my MFA. I had a girlfriend—now fiancé—in New York City who I visited every other weekend, and during that time I was watching a lot of films and HBO GO, desperately trying to figure out how narrative worked.

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Burnt Memories: Reading Gabriel García Márquez in Texas

tumblr_m7z6x2aG9l1qlc0voo1_400It took every fiber of me not to rattle off a quick ditty about Gabo the night after he passed.  I tried, of course, but then where do you stop? Fifteen thousand words? Twenty? In this digital age you’re late even if only by a day, which seemed appropriate actually, because I’m a Texican—A Texas Mexican. And in true Texican fashion, I’m always late to the good things: Warby Parker glasses, Death Cab for Cutie (after they were cool circa 2004), hating LeBron James (only after the Heat beat the Spurs in the finals last year), and Gabo too—who was the only Latino I’d read by seventeen years old, when I decided I was going to be a writer.Continue Reading

Las Damas: The New Generation of Latina Writers

La-DamaA student of mine asked the other day if Latinos still wrote. He was dead serious. And by the reddening at the tops of his ears I could tell it was a completely sincere question, a bold one with all of the shame that fills the liminal space between a bold question and the professor’s answer.

Tongues were clucked, little exasperations were aired. One kid even went daaaaaaaaaang for a really long time. And I have to admit, at first even I was like daaaaaaaang, because this is a Chicana/o course that I’m teaching. But when I asked my student to unpack his question with me, I found out he really wanted to know Who are the new Latino writers? Like, the not old ones.

He literally said that—not old. And I laughed so hard. Not because it was a dumb question but because it was an incredibly astute one, a smart one, and I told him so. His ears still kept red but it opened a discussion not only about the state of Chicana/o Lit but about Latina/o Lit at large: What are Latinas/os writing about these days? And who are they and why don’t we know more about them yet? Where are they writing? What are the names of their books? Are they friends with Junot Diaz? THEY’RE NOT FRIENDS WITH JUNOT DIAZ?!

Freshmen have this incredible knack for asking these questions everyone is thinking about but nobody is really asking yet. And I love them for it. I’ve compiled this list of my favorite new(ish) Latina writers for them and also for anyone else who has dared to ask: who are the new voices of Latino writing?Continue Reading

How to Shake the Other Man


How to Shake the Other Man
Derek Palacio
Nouvella Books, May 2013
63 pages

In his memoir Townie, the young Andre Dubus III describes his early years in northern Massachusetts, where as a young man he turned to boxing as a form of escape. Not just escape, actually; salvation. A way to cope with his fractured life and family. Something similar happens in How to Shake the Other Man, the new novella by Derek Palacio—whose work was also just selected, alongside former Ploughshares contributor Jamie Quatro, for the O. Henry Prize Stories 2013.

On page one of Palacio’s slender book, we’re thrown into the midst of a training bout with Javi, a former rent boy living in Queens. Boxing, we quickly learn, has provided a fairly literal escape from Javi’s life on the streets; out cruising one night, he picked up a local coffee stand magnate, Marcel, who quickly took him under his wing—insisting that he train to be a boxer under Marcel’s brother, Oscar, the owner of a local gym.

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