My cousin and I frequently joke about the pressures of being the “promise child,” the kid on whom an immigrant family pins all their hopes and dreams of success. They tend to be the top students, involved in all of the activities, and among the first — if not the first — members of their family to graduate from college. Any personal failure feels magnified because you’ve let your family down.
On Friday, Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” let a lot of folks down. He let down a number of women who looked up to him, including those he admitted to hurting and those to whom he has yet to fully apologize over claims of sexual assault and harassment. He let down writers like Zinzi Clemmons, who says he forcibly kissed her, and Carmen Maria Machado, who said Díaz aggressively dismissed her question about the characters in his books.
The feeling of many Latinx writers and journalists when they heard about the allegations of sexual misconduct was that he let us down, too. A number of us had adopted him as our tío, the one who made it and the one we were all proud of for his accomplishments. We defended his work against the literary establishment that scoffed at his Spanglish prose, and we dutifully shared his latest New Yorker essay, in which he revealed he was sexually abused as a child. Several of us would likely admit that his books were some of the first stories in which we saw ourselves reflected. I remember reading “Oscar Wao” on the floor of a boyfriend’s apartment, occasionally shoving the book in his face so he could read the words that were moving me to tears.
You can’t really understand the emotional side of scarcity if you’ve never been hungry. For too long, books and stories by Latinx writers were cordoned off into ethnic writing courses. Characters with our last names and who shared our culture were practically nonexistent in the books I grew up with. The same goes for much of the arts; you seldom hear about Latino filmmakers or Latina painters unless you seek out courses like “Latin America Cinema” or “Mid-Century Mexican Art.”
Díaz broke through that barrier. His books were taught in general writing courses, and his stories were widely shared by readers of all races and ethnicities. Awards, residencies and accolades many of us could only dream of flowed his way. But there’s a problem with pinning all your hopes and dreams on one person — they can fail just like anybody else. He might become just another fallen idol in the literary world, but for the Latinx readers who looked up to him, his betrayal feels so much more personal, like a tío who let us down.
As members of an underrepresented group, we celebrate the success stories in our communities. They become our folk heroes, the ones in whose footsteps we hope to follow. But that lonely success story is something the dominant culture can use against our people, as well. Institutions are absolved of charges of discrimination and racism when they buy into the myth of the token. They’ve read a book by a Latinx author, so they “get it” now. He’s not like “the others.” They’ll see him as a genius who rose above his community, not because he was part of it.
Checking off diversity boxes after just one person from a each group “makes it” chokes off the diversity within each marginalized community. If only one major Latinx author can be added to a reading list, then Díaz was their go-to guy. He was new, he was hip. But he was only one writer. He could not speak to the Latinx experience in totality. He did not write about the political upheavals in Argentina, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, a traditional quinceañera set on the Mexican American border, the Puerto Rican diaspora post-Hurricane Maria, the queer art scene in Brazil or the rush of Cuban Americans visiting the Communist island for the first time in generations.
If he did not tell these stories, are they any less worthy for us to read? Obviously not, but that’s tokenism at work. It’s an erasure of the differences within a community, folding thousands of experiences into a monolithic measuring stick to use against past and future storytellers. We saw it with the lionization of Díaz and Native American author Sherman Alexie when he became the de facto spokesperson for the indigenous literary world. Alexie is similarly facing accusations of sexual assault and harassment. The book world already tends to take men’s experiences more reverently than women’s, so of course the token members from these groups would be male, with bonus points for Díaz’s machismo characters.
Tokenism also reaffirms the horrid notion that there’s no audience for books written by people of color. Money and fanfare tend to follow the chosen ones in a way that never finds others in their fields. The publishing sphere is overwhelmingly white, and that may play a role in which titles a publisher will pick up, how it is packaged and how much money it spends on advertising and a book tour.
I am disappointed, yes. I am also hurt for the women who became the victims of a system set up to protect token men over their safety and careers — that rumors of Díaz’s bad behavior were squashed or downplayed, and that his status made him seem impervious to criticism.
This can also be a moment to open up our shelves to other writers from these communities and do away with the old notion that only one Latino writer represents millions of our stories. It’s a chance to look up the books by Clemmons, Machado and other women perhaps ignored by an industry that didn’t take their art as seriously as that of Díaz. He doesn’t have the last word on the Latinx experience. It’s time for the publishing world, readers and teachers to acknowledge that.