When we were talking about Jamaica Kincaid’s book See Now Then, it was difficult to ignore the strange reception the book was getting. The little gossipmongers Dwight Garner and Sam Sacks just couldn’t bear not dredging up Kincaid’s personal life, speculating that the divorce in the novel was identical to her divorce in real life, and telling her she should have kept the book in a drawer somewhere.
Not liking See Now Then is a legitimate response to a book. It’s a weird book, and prickly, and there were times I was convinced I didn’t like it either, although I warmed to it. But there was something a little gross about those reviews. But it’s so boring and trite to just call out Sexism!, isn’t it? Because we know all the pathways that saying someone is being sexist opens up. They are narrow and limited and none of them end in good places. And it’s hard to prove unconscious motivations.
But I got a very interesting email from a reader, who would like to remain anonymous, but gave me permission to reprint.Hi,
I’m enjoying your coverage of Jamaica Kincaid’s book and the attending, in my opinion, biased sexist press. It’s interesting that Junot Diaz’s recent mediocre to poor story collection was a depiction of his relationships etc… (he’s copped to it in interviews) and the press/reviews mostly praised it as art, and nominated it for awards… The New York Times book reviewer even called the narrator Díaz’s alter ego! The narcissism and self-indulgence of those stories is epic…
Whereas Kincaid is being called out for being self-indulgent, vindictive etc and her reviews have been terrible to mixed. I also wonder whether Diaz’s position as a Pulitzer judge has influenced his books’ reception by reviewers and the vitriol towards Kincaid more weighted because Kincaid’s ex is a public figure (vs. the relative anonymity—and their deafening silence in the stories—of Díaz’s women).
I love this email. And I thank its sender for allowing me to reprint it.
Junot Diaz reads from his new collection.
There was a silence about depression in the larger culture that I inhabit but even in my own work. I thought [it] would be great to break [that silence] a bit. But again you end up organizing this stuff as an artist. So you do this weird shit where you plot the mental breakdown through the whole book. And you hope that the nerds will figure it out and if not – fuck it – you hope that someday someone else will just enjoy it on another level.
But depression fucking sucks, dude. Depression sucks. And part of you thinks, ‘Well if I have to deal with being fucking depressed, I’ll figure out some way to make some art out of it.’
“No, Yunior is not a bad guy, but he is growing up, and as Diaz is honest enough to admit in this collection, getting older isn’t necessarily all mellowing out and seeing the error in your youthful ways. Sometimes, it seems, you can spend your whole life clowning, turning all that rage into jokes designed to make the very people who anger you most laugh the hardest, and then one day that stops working. You’ve done it – you’re a success, a big-deal professor read by millions, and still you’re pissed off.”
- Michael Bourne, “The ‘You’ in Yunior: Junot Diaz’s This Is How You lose Her.”
“It took forever to get the fucking stories I needed to do this project,” says Díaz, whose lunch conversation runs like an advanced literary seminar taught by a bilingual stand-up comedian working very blue. One early version of the title story began at Rutgers, where he went to college and met his first love; another was set in Boerum Hill, where he lived in a cheap walk-up before Drown was published. Eventually, he put the whole thing aside to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a tragicomic picaresque set against the backdrop of his native country’s midcentury Trujillo dictatorship, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. Shortly afterward, he was asked to be on the Pulitzer Prize board, completing his rocket arc into the Establishment.
It was, in some ways, the worst time in his life.”
“What began to be clear to me as I read these women of color—Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Cisneros, Anjana Appachana, and throw in Octavia Butler and the great [Cherríe] Moraga of course—was that what these sisters were doing in their art was powerfully important for the community, for subaltern folks, for women writers of color, for male writers of color, for me. They were heeding [Audre] Lorde’s exhortation by forging the tools that could actually take down master’s house. To read these sisters in the 80s as a young college student was not only intoxicating, it was soul-changing. It was metanoia.”
- Junot Díaz talks race and writing with Paula M.L. Moya
“I found myself exclaiming, “This won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago!” – and I was heartened to see that the phrase made a difference. The best thing to say about the book, though, was, “It’s about a fat nerd and there’s lots of Spanish slang.” People loved that.”
- Our own Edan Lepucki, on giving away Junot Diaz’s novel for World Book Night.
“Last Thursday, I took my 10-month-old son, Dixon Bean, to Eso Won Books in Leimert Park to pick up my copies. Before handing them over, proprietor James Fugate had me sign a form promising to do right by the World Book Night folks. I solemnly swore to pass the novel out on the 23rd, and I was not to sell or dispose of any leftover copies. Outside the store, a playwright named Reginald helped me load the books and the stroller into my car, and when I told him what I was up to, he said, ‘I should read more.’ Why is it that everyone always talks of reading like it’s vitamin-taking?”