Books are powerful objects, and the most formidable ones exceed the expectations of their own authors and immediate audience. One of the joys of studying and teaching literature is the opportunity to develop close relationships with those powerful objects, who become partners in lonely times or wise peers that you seek for advice. As a scholar and a feminist, a few memorable disappointments have taught me to restrict my friendship to the books, while keeping a prudent distance from the authors and their personal stories. Writers are the product of their times, and very few manage to match the stature of their creation. Distance is harder to keep, however, when writers are living, public figures, who go around embodying their contradictions.
While I prepared to face the disappointment and frustration of my students in response to the news that a novelist who weeks ago—when they started to read “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”—was the source of deep respect, I realized that I am grieving for my friend “Oscar” and his unfathomable story. My compassion and pride go to the women who suffered the verbal and physical abuses of Junot Díaz and who have finally made their voices heard. However, I am sorry also for the great novel that will be tainted by its author’s behavior. I wonder what will happen to Oscar Wao’s story, once the testament to the struggle of brave men and women, uprooted from their homes and fighting in a new, hostile environment to recover a sense of themselves taken away by political despotism. I feel sad for my old friend’s readers, in particular those students of color, who related to Diaz’s success as a source of hope in the midst of their own struggles. I wonder if love, Oscar’s antidote against the tyrant within ourselves, will ever have a chance on earth.
I don’t know if I’ll feel like teaching “Oscar Wao” again—my commitment to equity coming to terms with my passion for literature and the study of power. But before I say goodbye to Oscar, for now, I want to honor what his brief and wondrous story has to teach us, which becomes even more relevant in light of its own author’s iniquities.
In “Oscar Wao,” Diaz’s portrays the abominable yet enduring regime of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, a figure who attests to both the public spectacle sustaining absolutist power and the intimate pillars that ground people’s complicities with the durability of such power. Trujillo’s performance of supremacy, which kept him in power for a third of the twentieth century, resonates with the mass reality shows put forth by our contemporary despots. Next to his unapologetic use of violence, Trujillo’s charisma grounded his mystification, making him the object of people’s fears, hopes and fantasies. The ubiquity of his image and his apparent accessibility to his supporters added to this illusion. Behind the curtain, Trujillo was able to execute his major vanishing acts: the erasure of citizens’ rights and the consolidation of the political control needed to further satisfy his and his acolytes’ appetite for additional wealth and power. Had Trujillo counted on Fox News or Twitter, he may have extended his rule even longer.
It is no wonder why the elites that benefited from his “favors” willingly provided him the platform to remain omnipresent, rhetorically justified his systematic lies and abuses and even feigned the occasional oppositional acts required to keep the illusion of a democratic state. But how can one explain the additional loyalty of the working classes, who adored the tyrant and surrendered their popular will to him?
In its most pernicious form, power works by stripping us of our instinctive will for autonomy, in order to replace it by socially sanctioned forms of freedom. But such freedoms are mostly the privilege of citizens with access to resources and opportunities, while remaining unattainable illusions for many others. The unequal distribution of such privileges allows for the direct or indirect control of citizens by those who own the means of production and who control the flow of information. Violence emerges from the chain of dispossessions fostered by the accumulation of power by a privileged elite. Lacking control in their own lives, the dispossessed populous eagerly claims control over whomever is “inferior” to them in order to assert their own “rights” and privileges. Flagrant racism and xenophobia guarantee the adherence of those who feel legitimized by the public enactment of racial, religious or national supremacy, becoming the perfect façade to ease the anxieties created by economic dispossession. In better times, most of this occurs at an unconscious level, without requiring that we admit to ourselves our compliance with prejudices and exclusion—until the populist in turn decides to exacerbate it on behalf of his own interests.
Diaz’s novel calls attention to the enduring impact of the xenophobia and racism of Trujillo’s rule at the most intimate level of his character’s relationships, in their relation to themselves and to those they “love.” But perhaps what makes Díaz’s portrayal of power exceptional is his critique of the role of sexual violence within and beyond Trujillo’s regime. Díaz exposes how the dictator’s notorious sexual rapacity furthered a nationalism grounded in the exacerbation of patriarchal masculinity, leaving a burdening legacy on the Dominican people’s individual and collective identities.
“Oscar Wao’s” story reminds us that the display of sexual domination is an integral part of the enactment of power. Sexual harassment is not about the “misconduct” of a few men unable to control themselves, it is about the pervasive performance required to sustain the privileges of men. It is a language that men speak to each other, asserting their ability to exercise domination while reminding women that, in spite of our access to labor and public space, we are far from owning that space. Those bodily and emotionally centered attacks of our self-confidence and autonomy both please the narcissism of men in power and reassure women’s subordination.
Women continue to be the easily accessible other over whom to enact control and demonstrate the privileges of masculinity for men of all ethnicities and national affiliations. In addition to naming this form of violence, we need to contextualize it in a spectrum of social behaviors that continue to mediate women’s access and eagerness to claim our rights and freedoms. Tolerance of sexual abuse, from the abuse of lovers and partners to the license to comment on or touch the bodies of co-workers, attests to the patriarchal condition of both intimate and public power. Rape culture is the crudest expression of such power.
Back to the younger Junot Díaz who felt compelled to enact his manhood on young women writers: Who else could be the other for an aspiring intellectual of color, an immigrant from a low-income family and a raped man, stripped of his own masculine privilege? Women of color, of course, even worse if those women were also aspiring writers. It is certainly much easier to portray sexual violence or redeem women of its effects when you are creating characters than when women are bodies and brains exercising their own power, and competing for the limited attention of editors and “ethnic literature” markets.
Books are also more honest than their writers, and Díaz’s works had uncovered his struggle with patriarchal masculinity and its sexual economy much earlier than the latest series of confessions. Another unfortunate lesson of both his books and his actions is that it won’t be easy to retrain men’s sexual conduct. At the core of many men’s inability to see the violence of their desires, and the short and long-term effects of their offenses, stands the equation of masculinity with the privilege to assert domination, legitimized by both the private and spectacular performances of our authority figures. The infatuation with power has been the most long-lasting of men’s affairs, and it continues to be our worst fukú (curse).
While I finish writing, I’ve come to realize that notwithstanding my solidarity with his victims, I am sad for the loss of another brilliant man of color to the collective illness of patriarchal masculinity, both to its sexual voracity and to its addiction to power. Would he be redeemable? That needs to be asked to the women whom he accosted. Meanwhile, my hope remains on the fact that, if men are judged by their times, books are judged by eternity.
Nadia Celis is an associate professor of romance languages and literatures and director of the Latin American studies program.