ENOUGH: On Junot Díaz, from a Survivor

By

ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

***

On Junot Díaz, from a Survivor
Alisa Rivera

Junot Diaz and I have a lot in common. We are both Latino. Both Ivy League graduates. Both writers. And we were both raped by a family friend when we were young children.

But there’s one thing Junot has done that I haven’t: used his rape as an excuse to sexually harass and bully women.

To sexually harass and bully me.

 

I first heard of Junot in 1996 as a graduate student at Syracuse University, when my roommate gave me a copy of Drown, his debut collection of short stories. Drown was a revelation because it was written in a voice I knew well. It was a voice I’d grown up with as a Puerto Rican kid in the Bronx, a voice I’d heard in bodegas, playgrounds, the subway, and the streets my whole life but had never read in a book before. And for sure I had never read in a book that was critically acclaimed and generating buzz in literary circles.

I’d always loved to read, but Drown made me realize I could write fiction as well. That I also had a voice and I could put it out there into the world and reach people.

It took six years and a cross-country move to Los Angeles before I was able to act on the inspiration Junot gave me. I took writing classes at UCLA, published several short stories and started a novel. I was new to writing and like all new writers, vulnerable. It takes a huge leap of faith to write, to think anyone will care what you have to say. Junot’s career was my talisman, a light on a path that seemed closed to people like me until he became successful.

And then Junot contacted me.

He messaged me through an online dating site, saying that a friend of his had seen my profile and, noting I was a Latina writer, had sent my information to Junot. He said he had a girlfriend so even though he was contacting me through a dating site, he was purely interested in meeting me to talk about my writing. He was going to be in Los Angeles—would I join him for lunch? Of course. Yes. I was thrilled.

Why didn’t I question the story of how he found my profile? The only answer I can give is that I was blinded by the chance to meet my role model, the person who’d inspired me to make writing the center of my life.

We met at an outdoor cafe in Santa Monica, and I told him that as a bookish, socially awkward kid I was often bullied, assuming from what he’d written that he would understand and empathize.

“Of course they did,” he said. “You have the face of the oppressor. You need to spend more time in the sun and darken up if you want to be a real Latina.”

His words were like a Bruce Lee jab to the solar plexus. Deliberate and devastatingly effective at incapacitating his target. Speechless, I began to cry.

Junot grabbed my wrist and pulled me out of my seat and into his lap, wrapping his arms around my waist. Apart from whatever gratification he got from feeling my body, I think what he really wanted to feel was my pain, to envelop himself in the grief, shock, and shame he’d inflicted on me.

I was too devastated to pull away from Junot. Instead I sat shaking and weeping in his lap, my cries getting louder and louder until I was sobbing loudly enough to get attention from people at the surrounding tables. That’s when Junot released me.

He was shameless enough to contact a complete stranger online and use a racial slur against her in a restaurant to gain access to her body, but a public scene was too much for him.

He walked me to my car. I cried the entire drive home.

 

I told the story to everyone I knew. I have repeated it many times over the past fifteen years. I told it when people asked me if I was a fan of Junot because our writing had so much in common. I told it when people recommended that I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I told it when the news broke that he’d won the Pulitzer Prize.

In retrospect I think I told the story so many times because every “Wow!” and “Oh my God” and “I’m so sorry that happened to you” was an affirmation of how terribly he’d treated me. I needed that affirmation because when you are abused, the abuser can make you feel complicit. A small treacherous part of me whispered, “You were born with the face of the oppressor. How else was he supposed to treat you?”

And then, last week, I learned that Junot had forcibly kissed Zinzi Clemmons when she was a twenty-six-year-old graduate student. Other women came forward with stories of Junot verbally abusing them, screaming “Rape” and “We are gonna fuck, we are fucking” at them. Then I read Junot’s essay in the New Yorker revealing that he’d been raped at age eight.

It’s a gut-wrenchingly accurate description of the damage rape does to the human soul. I know it’s accurate because I was raped by a family friend when I was nine years old.

The person who raped me was a photographer and his wife was an artist. They lived in a home filled with framed paintings and photos they’d created themselves. They held parties where creative people gathered to talk about their work and I always lingered at the edges, wide-eyed, skinny, sallow, and captivated.

So when the photographer and his wife asked my parents if I could sleep over their house, I was thrilled.

In Junot’s New Yorker essay I again saw an echo of my own voice in his descriptions of “the nightmares, the intrusions, the hiding, the doubts, the confusion, the self-blame, the suicidal ideation.”

Here is where Junot’s voice diverges from mine. He runs down a list of all the women he’s hurt over the years in the aftermath of his rape. His descriptions of them are sparse, the women named solely with a single letter and a dash. More striking is the absence of the women who didn’t warrant even a single-lettered pseudonym. The writers he insulted, belittled and shouted at. The students he forcibly kissed against their will.

Junot’s narrative makes his lashing out seem natural, inevitable, and, most of all, forgivable. He was raped. Of course he hurt these women. What else could he do?

But something I’ve learned is that when you’ve suffered a great harm, you have a moral choice to make. You can identify with the powerful and strive to become one of them so you can hurt and control those who are weaker than you and compensate for your pain. Or you can choose to empathize with people who are suffering as you did and work to keep others from experiencing that pain.

Junot made the wrong choice.

 

People have asked me what I want from Junot and the answer is nothing. I didn’t write this for him. I wrote this for the women like me who were targeted by him. Those who have already come forward, those who are thinking of speaking out, and those who will never reveal what he did to them. Those whose experiences were similar to mine and those whose experiences were far, far worse.

It isn’t your fault and you aren’t alone.

Sometimes, from an ugly thing a beautiful thing can emerge. Because I spoke up, I’m now surrounded by fierce, intelligent, talented, and brave women who are speaking with me, a chorus of anger, joy, grief, laughter, sorrow, and hope. I don’t know what will happen to Junot and I know that justice is mostly an illusion, but the circle I stand in today is growing and strong.

We’re here if you want to stand with us.

***

Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

***

ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

Visit the archives here.