The Hero Paradox: Junot Díaz and the End Of Empowering Our Idols
One of my only professional regrets is that I’ve never had a mentor.
Not once have I asked a veteran writer to share advice about which common career pitfalls I should avoid, and I’ve never reached out to any of the accomplished journalists, novelists or screenwriters in my circle to gain wisdom that only comes when one dedicates her life to a respective art form. Instead, the writers whose lives and careers that I have come to admire have always served as distant advisors, from whom I’ve chosen to gain insight through the lens of a fan–and always from afar, by reading their work and devouring interviews, podcasts and videos where they discuss their personal journey and creative process.
When one of my literary messiahs–Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Díaz–returned to Los Angeles in April 2018 for a discussion about his latest work, a children’s book called Islandborn, it was yet another opportunity for me to learn from someone whose work and persona helped me to shape how I view my writing and the value of creating art around my personal experiences.
I first became aware of Díaz and his work during my junior year of college as an English major. I read “Drown” from the short story collection of the same name, and while I’d come across several of his pieces throughout my academic career, it wasn’t until 2012’s This Is How You Lose Her, released during a period in which I was recovering from a traumatic breakup with my own version of the philandering main character Yunior, that my admiration for Díaz blossomed. His writing was smart, sharp, eloquent and edgy. Though the worlds he created were centered on the lives and flaws of Dominican-American men from the East Coast, the narratives were incredibly relatable for me as a black woman from the south who looks for literature with sounds and imagery reflective of communities rarely celebrated in high literature. His voice was a welcomed foil to the narratives that I had always read but that I felt alienated me, and the success he received for keeping his stories rooted in his own experience was just tangible enough to make me feel like my own writing could one day warrant attention for its verisimilitude.
The very voices Díaz claimed to champion are some of the same voices that didn’t come forward until now because they were fearful of how his power and clout could harm their own lives and careers.
In 2017, I missed out on seeing Díaz in Los Angeles, so when the opportunity presented itself again last year, I quickly snagged a ticket that included a copy of Islandborn, VIP seating at the discussion, and priority access to a book signing. The event was better than I could have hoped for. After a conversation with the moderator where the author discussed everything from his bicultural upbringing to how he views his success, Díaz got to his feet to answer questions from the audience, meticulously pacing the stage as he answered questions from fans of every background imaginable. At one point, Díaz engaged in a beautiful exchange with a student who confessed to struggling with a professor that disapproved of her using English and Spanish in her creative writing. The exchange between Díaz and the young woman was powerful. “If you are an artist of color, or a woman artist, your very presence is a transgression,” he told the young woman, reducing her, and me as I watched from my seat, to tears. Not only did Díaz, an outsider who has obtained universal praise in academia and a God-like reverence in the Latinx literary community, see a woman of color for who she hoped to become, his words to her were encouraging, firm and impactful. He said exactly what I hoped my literary idol would say.
After the event, the lines to meet Díaz snaked through an open courtyard, but when it was my turn to have both my new title and my worn copy of This Is How You Lose Her signed, Díaz was kind, encouraging me to keep writing once I mentioned I was also a writer. I immediately posted a picture of myself with my god on Instagram, including a caption detailing how my favorite writer left me feeling starstruck in a way that I’m sure only the Obamas could. I left feeling empowered after meeting someone I proudly called my #hero.
Yet less than two weeks later, I deleted all traces of my hero from my social media profiles.
“This sucks. I’m sorry. Two weeks ago he was contributing to your strength and this is a letdown.” A friend sent me this in a text message early May 4 after news broke of Díaz being the latest man in a position of power and prestige accused of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior.
In early May 2018, Zinzi Clemmons, author of the 2017 novel What We Lose, took to Twitter for her own #MeToo account, sharing that Díaz forcibly kissed her following a speaking engagement several years ago. “As a grad student, I invited Junot Diaz to speak to a workshop on issues of representation in literature. I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 yo, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me. I'm far from the only one he's done this 2, I refuse to be silent anymore,” Clemmons said in her tweet, which was posted just hours after she confronted Díaz in-person during a panel discussion at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. Within hours, multiple women came forward on Twitter with their own stories involving Díaz, including reporters and novelists like Alisa Valdes, the author of The Dirty Girls Social Club, which by coincidence I read and enjoyed long before I’d ever heard of Díaz.
Just a few weeks prior, The New Yorker published an essay by Díaz titled “The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” where he opened up about being raped at the age of eight by a man that he trusted, and the lifelong shame, pain and fear that followed him well into adulthood. In the article, he spoke of bouts of depression, suicide attempts and the many relationships he sabotaged due to his chronic infidelity. Though in the piece he acknowledged the black and brown women he hurt as a result of his cheating, he makes no mention of potentially harming women outside of his romantic relationships, and certainly not his peers. The piece is heartbreaking, raw and displays his expressive, personable writing style as its finest, but Clemmons quickly noted how the timing of the piece was likely a preemptive strategy, which Díaz loosely confirmed when addressing the abuse claims brought forth by Clemmons and other women. “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath,” he said in a statement to The New York Times following the allegations. “This conversation is important and must continue. I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”
I can't take away from the artistry of Junot Díaz's work. The vulnerability of the characters he creates is exceptional, and his success helped paved the way for more writers of color to be taken seriously despite the literary elite not widely recognizing their art. But what I admired about Junot Díaz the person–a man who claimed to support voices that have been undercut, shamed and silenced–was largely a myth, since many of his accusers, women whose accounts I believe, have accused him of doing what he publicly spoke out against. The very voices Díaz claimed to champion are some of the same voices that didn’t come forward until now because they were fearful of how his power and clout could harm their own lives and careers. He had the ultimate power over each of his accusers, and he used that power to harm and belittle the women he should have been supporting.
For creators, confusing admiration of one’s work with an elevated reverence for the person could dissuade us from reaching our own creative potential when focusing on the person and not the piece.
In Díaz’s work, I saw whom I hoped to one day be as a successful storyteller, but in the accounts of his accusers, I see whom I currently am as a woman of color with limited power. Had my career taken me to Manhattan instead of Los Angeles, I could have easily found myself in similar spaces as authors Chloe Benjamin and Carmen Maria Machado, who both shared stories of being berated by Díaz after asking him questions during events. There’s no question I would have mirrored the same enthusiasm fellow journalist Karina Maria Cabreja had when she interviewed the writer in 2016, only to have been met with what Cabreja called “disdain” after she asked him questions that he didn’t like. In many accounts, Díaz allegedly threatened women’s careers, embarrassed them in intimate settings, and displayed the machismo he often spoke of resisting. The very power he gained by claiming to support the underrepresented is the power he used over those that he abused, which makes his actions all the more disappointing. Women from his community and communities like his trusted him because of his voice, and he violated that trust for years with no consequence.
There will always be celebrities, icons and people we dub “heroes” because these figures represent what we value and hope to achieve in our own lives. We can appreciate the quality of someone’s work, even look to it as we aim to improve our own, without elevating the creator to a standard that renders him or her as a social superior and ourselves as inadequate by comparison. When a piece of art or creator is praised, honored or rewarded for a creative contribution by a revered bastion of society, it is still up to the individual to decide who warrants her attention and admiration, and to what degree that admiration will be bestowed.
There is little danger in admiring someone’s work, but in elevating an individual one doesn't know personally and buying into the aura that is assigned to them if that person has achieved tremendous commercial or critical success, it's not uncommon to and view the creator as someone who is above reproach by social construct. For creators, confusing admiration of one’s work with an elevated reverence for the person could dissuade us from reaching our own creative potential when focusing on the person and not the piece. We can all be inspired to create individual work that serves us and inspires other, but thinking we can create our own iteration of someone else’s life and career, or naïvely thinking that we would want to, puts too much of our power into someone else’s hands.
Being inspired by the work that moves you is proof that great art is doing its job, but I’ve resigned myself to now admiring work without developing attachments to the creators or downplaying my own work and skills in the process. We need those individuals that we can identify as representations of our idealized selves, but it’s important that when respecting the quality of someone’s craft, we’re not allowing ourselves to be disillusioned about who the person is in his or her totality. Only in refraining from looking to others as the ultimate representation of the success we hope to achieve can we begin to take power from those that could use it against us and give it to ourselves and those closest to us. Enjoy the work of others, but reserve the hero story for a narrative that's all your own.
Shontel Horne is a writer who explores how the luxury and travel industry relate to the black and multicultural consumer. She has worked with entertainment companies including Turner Classic Movies, FOX, USA Network, and CNBC alongside celebrities and influencers. She has been published in Angeleno and Travel Noire magazines as well as online at POPSUGAR.
Find out more about her at shontelhorne.com.