Every woman has known the torment of getting up to speak. Her heart racing, at times entirely lost for words, ground and language slipping away.... A double distress, for even if she transgresses, her words fall almost always upon the deaf male ear, which hears in language only that which speaks in the masculine.
—Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”
Syracuse was a city that, to me, felt opulent with decay. Its downtown held traces of old wealth—the “oriental” opera house with its green and gold mural of mermaids—the paint peeling off their scales. There were the marbled lobbies and death-trap art deco elevators; the Technicolor summers that seemed to bloom harder in anticipation of winter and the erasures of its lake-effect snow. I remember the acid-orange daylilies. The green fortress that hid the enchanted lake where I taught swimming lessons. Hid it from the plastic and chemical companies that offloaded mercury into the Onondaga, the dead lake, that lay silent and smelly along the backside of the mega mall. There was the fact that I was twenty-three, a writer, and from the desert—a place of flat horizons and wide-open space—who had come to find herself in a relatively ancient city. There was my hubris over attending a premier MFA program, housed in a gothicy stone castle atop a hill that looked down on a struggling populace, amid which I rented a room.
I first meet the man, or one of them anyway
In the fall of 1997 I walk to an underground café for our department’s annual welcome event for new and continuing students. I remember stepping down into the dark of these subterranean cafés, and the queasy girding feeling of shucking off summer, and submerging into a self-imposed seriousness that had to do with my idea of what it meant to be a writer, and the shifts in upstate weather.
Yet I’m excited. It’s my third year in the program, and I think I have grit and experience. I’ve hung in through the fallout from a nationally publicized sexual harassment scandal, and the departure of my two favorite professors. I’m a survivor amid intrigue and competitors. And importantly, I’ve managed at least one good friend.
I imagine us: My friend wears a checked smock with ruffles and tennis shoes, I wear horn-rimmed librarian glasses and cowboy shirt. Both our outfits are calibrated to offset their feminine components with irony. I’ve recently been told I’m “pretty, but not that pretty” by an aspiring male writer. My friend has been called “angel food cake.”
As I enter I make a beeline to Angel Food Cake because together we are less assessable. Especially if we appear to be scanning the room ourselves. We note the newbies; we note especially the appearance of Junot Díaz, freshly hired faculty, rising star.
I see Díaz pull away from a group and approach too suddenly, but before I lose courage. At this point in my life I often rush and say all I’ve got before it gets back-channeled, and doesn’t come out at all. I introduce myself as a third-year student and ask Díaz if he’d consider being my thesis advisor. He gives me a “whoa there” look, a quick up and down. Asks, “You’re a student?” even though I’ve just said so. When I say “Yes,” he lifts his chin and says, “Why don’t you ask Professor X or Y?”
I tell him X and Y have only been in the program one year. I tell him that the woman I would have worked with resigned as part of the fallout of the sexual harassment suit against the poetry professor Stephen Dobyns. I tell him that she sided with the woman who pressed charges and was ostracized for it. In the same breath, I tell him I liked his stories in Drown, though this is not completely true. I liked some of the stories. I expand to say I liked the stories written from the child’s point of view; that I was writing about young people, girls in particular, and loved how Sandra Cisneros structured her stories around poetic moments.
He puts up his hand up for me to stop and shakes his head. He says, “I don’t write like Sandra Cisneros. I don’t do moments, I do movement.”
I get my mistake.
He thinks I’m lumping him with Cisneros because they’re both Latinx. And maybe I am. Heat shoots to my face, and someone new moves in. As I turn to go he says, “Wait.” And here I’m déjà vu-ing, to another creative writing professor, my undergraduate professor—it’s this beckoning only after I’ve turned away that’s too familiar. It makes me suspect he sees something he likes in my vulnerability. He says, “Come by my office.”
A caveat and a statement of purpose
I need to say up front that my relationship with Junot Díaz did not cross any obvious student-teacher lines. This will not be a striptease of a narrative in which the details get more and more salacious. Díaz did not hit on me, and he did nothing that I know of to damage my career. My interactions with him fall in the gray area where subtle and institutionally supported sexism lives. In my life they had taken the form of a half-written footnote, tucked away, neutralized, until I was asked about writing this essay. Which I did not think I would write. But then I did.
A story came to me through other stories. A tenuous line that emerged through clusters of details; memories anchored by images of undergrad and graduate workshops; of Díaz, of interactions with peers and other creative writing professors, an accumulation of instances of sexual harassment and sexism. So many they started to vibrate in tandem with my smaller story of Díaz (and the larger story of Díaz I was reading about in the news). I saw that my experience, imbued as it was with new perspective, could serve as scaffolding, a vehicle through which I could channel memories of how it felt to be an emerging yet often failed feminist in the cowboy culture of the turn-of-the-century MFA world; a culture with a de-emphasis on critical thinking, a culture that still supported the myth of male genius. There were memories too, of how it felt to be a woman who wanted, in both style and subject matter, to write around masculine norms in an academic world that vaunted a particularly macho style of dirty realism. Yet to talk about these things I need to talk about my own reading and writing and how it developed alongside and in reaction to this culture. My own fledgling ideas about pedagogy. So I hope you will bear with me, because in the end this essay is less about Díaz, than it is about the complexities of the culture, or than it is about me.
A couple moments
In the spring of ’99 I’m hired to teach a full load of classes at a large community college in my hometown, Tucson, Arizona. I consider this my first “real job,” a job to justify my MFA to my family, and I’m excited and proud until I realize I’m not sure I’ve officially graduated. I call the head of my department and explain that though I sent a copy of my thesis to Díaz at both his campus and home address, it had been five months, and I hadn’t heard back.
“What,” states the department head. She’s new to her position and not of the species creative writer. She is a literature professor. I explain that things might have gotten jumbled because I took two months extra to complete the thesis: I was hit by a car, I had some corresponding trouble with anxiety. I don’t tell her that midway through spring semester Díaz had stopped returning my messages, had for all intents and purposes, dropped out of being my thesis advisor. I don’t tell her this because the precipitating incident was clouded with embarrassment, half buried, and hazily understood. But she stops me anyway and says, “Don’t apologize. You should have received word.” She says she’ll send me something I can use as a credential. This woman I barely know has become my hero.
• • •
At my new job I’m teaching a unit on Latina writers, and I’ve been sensing frustration, the rumblings of a “too many women on the syllabus” complaint. One day in a rush, I grab Junot’s book off my shelf and head to work to make copies of a story. As I continue to class, I start to think about telling the students Junot had been my advisor; I think it might give me some credibility. A few more steps and I bristle, irritated at the thought.
What would it mean, I wonder, to use Junot’s name to garner respect? Respect that would have nothing to do with me as a teacher, with the careful annotations I made on students’ papers, the mapping of possible arguments, when Díaz wrote nearly nothing on the pages I’d given him? What was it, to gain respect via a man who (when I knew him) modeled what I was coming to see as a masculine non-teaching style. A status quo of creative writing teachers who operated as personalities, from whom students hoped to absorb wisdom, for occasionally they would offer a self-mythologizing story to make us feel “Oh that’s how I should act to be a writer!” Teachers who floated on male privilege or fame, who did the minimum required, because teaching is a feminine practice? Or because the idea that “writing can’t be taught” still floated around like an enabling cowboy ether? What would it mean to garner respect via an advisor who (it hits me at this moment) didn’t even read my thesis?
Inside the class, I watch student faces as I hand out the photocopied essay. Seeing nothing I state, “Junot Díaz was my teacher.” They look at me as if to say, “So?” The following class period, after the students have taken home the story to read, a young Latino man, bright and cheerful, one of the few students who talks in class, explodes. He says I make them read only essays by women, and when I finally bring one in by a Latino it makes them look like rapists.
I remember the young man yelling at me clearly, though I don’t remember what I did in response, and didn’t remember that the story he was yelling about was “Ysrael” until recently. I hadn’t fully understood the mechanics behind “Ysrael” until recently either—the way its Garden of Eden setting works to naturalize rather than contextualize male violence. Or how through narrative economy, it meshes girls with holes, and with the disfigured “no-face” of its title character. I do remember that the first time I read “Ysrael” was the summer before I decided to ask Junot to be my thesis advisor, and that reading it made me uncomfortable, set off alarm bells that I proceeded to mostly ignore.
Also at that point I was fresh from an undergraduate experience in which my creative writing thesis advisor was enamored with Raymond Carver, and I was enamored with my creative writing thesis advisor. I can remember reading Carver’s stories and feeling similarly disturbed. Yet my undergraduate professor (my “friend,” and someone I kept in touch with) claimed a story’s ability to disturb was ultimately a proof of the brilliance of its form. Form trumped upsetting images; trumped the inconveniently discovered body of a dead woman who must be anchored to the side of a river so the male characters can go on with their fishing date. I see now that “Ysrael” was a type of story that was still much lauded in the ’90s, that borrowed from Carver, who borrowed from Hemingway, and in which narrative economy and showing vs. telling reigns. It’s the type of story that trained young writers to read for plot and to leave images or detail unpacked, no matter how disturbing, no matter what information they contained. My student, I now see, was on to something.
Searching for a feminist form
Early in my MFA program, before Díaz has been hired, I’m working through my vexations with traditional narrative, with its emphasis on economy, on whittling all but the necessary elements so the trajectory of events seems sleek, smooth, and inevitable. The untangling of a line in a move toward truth. I like tangles. I like the peripheral characters like Ophelia, or the apparition of a woman in Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” as she’s forcibly escorted off the road by a soldier. What will happen to her? I like plots that don’t rely on cutting out, but on discovery, inclusion, or building in. I like stories that take on more than they can comfortably handle, that have lumps or curves where they would otherwise be smooth. Structures like the unruly bodies of men or women. I don’t like the lie that the “necessary” elements of plot pre-exist in a natural order to be uncovered like platonic truths, or a natural movement within the universe. Especially as we are being taught how to finagle them through trial and error, juxtaposition, measuring and weighing. It is all artistry. Why not say so? I want a form that lets the artistry of the process peek through.
At this point I have two teachers at Syracuse, Michael Martone and Melanie Rae Thon, whom I admire. Both encourage us to look at form, process, and the role of a writer from different political and cultural angles. With them, it’s easy to start thinking about the ways in which different forms or aesthetics have been gendered and thus relegated to higher or lower positions in our cultural regard.
I’ve mapped out and presented on what I call a feminist structure, a structure that deliberately foregrounds the marginalized “feminine” elements, a structure based on metaphor, or interlinking images that accumulate, multiply, yet still contain or bind meaning. A single image has many vectors. Find a way to link two images, or three or four, and you have a network, a universe of associations, a capacious container. I imagine this potential structure like that net of starlings in Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” those interwoven black knots collapsing and expanding, like a lung against the sky. My presentation is well received, although when two of my male workshop-mates start to reference it as my “womb theory,” I balk.
All of the single women in the program are subject to teasing by our male cohort—with a friend, it’s about her Venus of Willendorf key chain, or the fact that she had a Lisa Loeb song threaded into her mixtape alongside the approved (more masculine) PJ Harvey. With me it’s for spending time in the feminist bookstore, which also happens to sell crystals and greeting cards of coyotes howling at the moon.
On a date one man tells me, unprompted, “You know there’s no actual proof that matriarchal societies ever existed.”
I wish I’d said, “In a thousand years there will be no proof that you existed either.”
Or, “Read Gloria Anzaldúa and Anna Castillo on how logocentric thought whittled away the complexity of the nonbinary Mesoamerican goddesses.”
But I don’t. I’ve always already begun to doubt myself.
For class I still write in a way I feel is more associative than linear, more expansive than economic. But I falter perhaps and chose the word modular over womb. Do I do this because it came preapproved in an essay by Madison Smartt Bell, a man? Womb is essentialist, not all women identify with or even have wombs. But do I throw it out for a masculine-sounding term coined by a man? Later I try the word “crot” from Robert Coover, and later, as a doctoral candidate studying narrative theory, I search for words in Aristotle, Propp, and Bakhtin. I light up at the notion of Barthes’s starred texts—text as a galaxy of recycled fragments, an image that doesn’t privilege structure over detail. But, Bell to Coover, to Bakhtin, to Barthes. I start to wonder, “Where are the women in this?” Is it only men who mark the path, coin the terms for the way we tell stories?
The fall of Syracuse, Rome
I heard about the sexual harassment scandal just a couple months before I was set to drive across the country to Syracuse. This was after I’d turned down several programs including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because I’d heard it was hard on women. I’d chosen Syracuse for several good reasons, and one bad: for its full funding, small class size, the voice of Melanie Rae Thon who called me on the phone to tell me I’d been accepted, and more stupidly, because my “friend,” I’ll call him Undergraduate Professor, had taken a job nearby, and would try to come and visit.
In Tucson the scandal reached me through a bundle of newspaper clippings mailed by an anonymous sender and made a vivid, fractured, experimental movie impression. In this film I saw poetry and fiction professor Stephen Dobyns, distinguished, smug, lose it in the middle of an argument with an attractive, smart, twenty-four-year-old Jennifer Cotter. The event took place at a post-reading creative writing party, hosted, as per usual, at Dobyns’s house. According to all accounts there was an argument. According to Dobyns, Cotter insulted his writing. According to Cotter, Dobyns told his friend, the visiting writer standing next to him, to “stop looking at her breasts.” By two accounts Dobyns called Cotter “a stupid Stalinist bitch.” By all accounts he threw a drink in her face.
After a hearing in which more students came forward with stories of a hostile, overtly sexist environment in workshops, Dobyns had been ordered by the English department to take a two-year leave of absence and to do community service for women’s organizations. The Marxist collective (to which Cotter belonged) was quick to point out in a university op-ed that this was essentially a paid vacation.
Meanwhile, I packed my rickety Honda in Tucson, thinking: the creepy guy will at least be gone for the next two years. Wasn’t it a positive sign that the university had found him guilty of sexual harassment, this vague thing that gave me a stomachache, was much ridiculed by clever writers, but I knew existed, and probably had experienced? Yet as I drove across country I was haunted by the line, “Stop looking at her breasts.” It was the imagined nastiness of a professor trying to fob his aggressive gaze off onto a visiting writer, but simultaneously claiming it. In order to know his friend was looking, he had to have been looking too. To me the line said, I am not just looking, I am making it known that both I and another man are looking at your breasts so you will know that we think nothing of your argument, of your words, because to us you are just this. Breasts.
The newspaper articles had been flimsy and foldable, and made what had happened seem dramatic yet contained. It wasn’t. Entering the program was like entering a cold-war zone laden with interpersonal minefields. There were hidden alliances and misalliances; the sensed possibility of alienating one professor by choosing another. There were broken friendships among the students and faculty, ghostly MIA students who had testified against Dobyns, whose names were mentioned but whom I never saw inside our gray castle or underground, in Syracuse’s subterranean cafés.
I’d be remiss though, not to admit that the mystery and intrigue had its uses. My incoming class of six fiction writers was intense, spirited, and self-important. Self-important perhaps in direct relation to our insecurity about becoming writers. But our jockeying for position (our not uncommon MFA brattiness) was minimized, in part because we all had funding, and in part because our first two workshop professors refused to pick favorites, or to judge or rank us by a single standard, as would become a problem with our final and more famous professor in our second year. Our first professors told us we were chosen because of our different aesthetics and how we might learn from and challenge each other. This made us feel seen, and in turn bolstered our camaraderie. There were scuffles: the two man-boys who hijacked discussions with recitations of unrelated theory. There were snarky comments involving analysis of people’s personalities—whether that be passive-aggressive, depressive, or addictive, and how that might be coming out in said person’s writing or feedback. But we were mostly ready (in those first two workshops) to make a go of it as a group. And this was helped by the fact that we were new, outsiders to the main event of the scandal. We bonded partly like a pack of siblings whose parents go through divorce, and partly because of the intrigue. We huddled in cafés in the otherwise lonely midwinter (these huddle sessions were one of the things that got me through) and from our outsider position tried to draw clear lines.
Our group-think was this: that the faculty had been divided along political power lines. On one side there was the “old boys club”; this group included the more famous writers, with larger paychecks and lighter teaching loads who went back to the days when Raymond Carver walked the halls and who loved to evoke his presence. The old boys supported Dobyns. He was their friend who had a problem with drinking, but, “Who didn’t?” they said. Dobyns was the social center of the program. He was the one who threw the parties, and whose personality was at times “salty” (to borrow Francine Prose’s supportive description of him in an opinion piece for the New York Times). But he was often charismatic. We, or perhaps just I, imagined the old boys saw him as a mascot—an emblem of writerly male genius (he was widely published across genres) who would allow the old ways to go unexamined. The egos and drinking, unthoughtful teaching, and unilateral decision-making. He would allow the status quo to go uncritiqued.
On the other side of our line were the faculty whose writing and thinking were more progressive. Their classes included more texts by women and writers of color, and their style invited critical inquiry. Just after the scandal, Michael Martone offered a class called “Constructing the Author” that paired male and female versions of the writer’s life to striking effect; Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast was paired with Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and Kerouac’s On the Road with Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. These pairings invited us to examine the aura of the author, not just in a general sense. They showed starkly whom the authorial notion of genius excluded, and the macho behavior it enabled. Melanie Rae Thon’s class reading revolved around themes of social justice. We read James Baldwin, Anna Deavere Smith, and Carolyn Forché. And Thon wrote copious comments on our drafts. She gave us the gift of careful reading, querying, and suggestion. Again, she gave us the gift of being witnessed, feeling seen.
Not surprisingly, these professors supported the woman who brought the charges, and the several other students who came forward with additional stories of hostile, sexist remarks, or descriptions of the unproductive environment in Dobyns’s workshops. We supported these professors because we heard how one of them was the victim of harassing phone calls; how one of them had been so berated at a meeting by two of the program’s old boys, that he’d cried uncontrollably, volubly inside his office. We supported them because they were teachers who encouraged us to support one another, didn’t treat us as winning or losing racehorses, but as developing human beings. We supported them because they didn’t play the part of figurehead or outsized personality, or consider their fame and the way it helped facilitate the program’s large endowments their raison d’être within the program. I supported them because I saw them standing against power, standing with the students even though they had much to lose. I saw them as standing metaphorically against what had happened (and was still happening) with me.
These two professors did leave, after being bullied, and ostracized, and when their proposals to examine the culture that led to the problem were shot down. Yet in their leaving, we found we had a role to play. We became more political, turned the energy spent on petty squabbles outward. The two theory boys wrote letters to the head of English and the dean to wrangle an extra student seat on the hiring committee forming to replace our professors. I took that seat and shuttled back and forth between students and faculty, trying to bring student concerns to the table. For this I overheard one committee member call me delightfully persistent, though I felt he could have added “in the face of futility,” for our program’s most famous old boy since Dobyns’s departure had already turned to me in a meeting and yelled, Donald Trump–style, “Decisions are not made by groups, they are made by individuals!”
• • •
That year we ended up hiring two men. We’d had plenty of female candidates. Lan Samantha Chang, Diana Abu-Jaber, Julie Schumacher. Lydia Davis had applied and was not granted an interview.
Despite this, and though I had fought for a woman, I felt OK about the hires. They were men whose different cultural backgrounds and writing styles brought diversity to the program; and they were in fact men who (after Famous Old Boy, of the hiring committee, left for a better job) would work to cultivate a renewed trust between students and teachers; who would help heal the program’s broken spirit. Though this didn’t happen overnight. When a third space opened up, in the following year, one that should have been filled by a woman, another man was hired. This was Junot Díaz.
I was thick into writing a thesis set in the homes of my childhood girlfriends. It was about our fights, and friendships; our different economic statuses, sexualities, and mighty attempts at self-definition. I was trying to write an honest impressionistic interiority, that space inside a female-identified person that Western thought designates as empty. I was trying to write in a less traditionally masculine-identified kind of prose.
Yet the problem, as I saw it, wasn’t just that I didn’t think men could relate. I knew some men could empathize and read with curiosity and openness. It was that even the most liberal men, the “feminists,” had often no qualms about assuming what I wrote was autobiography, which is an invasion of privacy, really, when one presents her work as fiction. Furthermore, there were those who saw themselves in the male characters, the lovers and the fathers; there were the men who fancied I was writing about them.
I remember a story from a woman who’d been in workshop with Dobyns. She was one of the ghostly MIAs, who after testifying about her experience had been “in hiding,” but agreed to meet me and two friends for coffee. She was pale and fragile-boned yet spoke firmly and fiercely. She told us that for a long time she’d been trying to write a series of poems about an older family member’s abusive behavior toward her. She’d come to the program to write these very poems, to find a safe space, the distance from home in which they could live, falter, and grow. Dobyns had taken her aside after workshop and accused her of using the poems passive-aggressively. He insisted that the family member in the poem was a vehicle through which she could vent her feelings toward him. He insisted, in other words, that he was the poems’ father, and was angry about it. He asked her to stop writing them, and for a while she did.
Navigating Junot Díaz
In the fall of 1997 I start to work with Junot Díaz, though my guard is up. I’ve read Drown and been disturbed by “Ysrael.” But I loved (and still love) the stories “Fiesta, 1980” and “Negocios,” and hope he’ll have insight into writing from a child’s point of view. Furthermore, I’d been detecting hints of misogyny in literature my entire reading life. I’d become familiar with the experience of being dazzled and disturbed in quick succession; being pulled in by charisma, or a glimmer of humanity, and then thrust out by asides about a woman’s fat ankles, or inability to urinate with ease. This had happened in high school English class with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” and Updike’s “A&P”; in college and beyond with Bukowski, Hemingway, and Carver. It felt almost, dare I say, natural. Or, at least naturalized by a particular kind of writing. A type of realism that would slip the sexism deftly into metaphor, a breathlessly compact (I don’t know what just hit me) showing vs. telling type of short story. The kind of story that “Ysrael” was, but that other stories in the collection were not. I imagined I could approach Díaz the man in the same way I approached reading his book, and reading literature in general—as a scavenger. I could gloss over the degrading bits, picking up what wisdom I could, but being wary of the entire package. And this approach was manageable, for the most part.
Díaz, the man, was a writer and as such, mostly in control of his script. He knew how to say just enough to test or destabilize, and how to say it in a way that could conceal sadistic intent. He didn’t say much that couldn’t be brushed off as part of his street style, or “up front” charm. And to be fair, I was cocky too. I had my defenses, though they had little to do with smarts or savvy. My best defense—made clearer to me after reading the reports of his aggression toward mostly women of color—was being white.
This was also Junot’s first full-time teaching gig. Most MFA programs (he’d gone through Cornell) offered no teacher training, an omission that still exists in many top-tier programs. An omission that allows the old boy, or cult-of-personality, non-teaching model to keep restaging itself. This is the model Junot acted out, the model he inherited and assumed as natural, albeit slightly differently from Famous Old Boy.
Junot had a veil of progressiveness. Every once in a while he would throw me a “you go girl” bone. Once after I cut my hair short he said, “You look fierce.” The same comment Yunior makes to a character he has failed to sleep with in Drown. And I’ll admit, I was flattered. But most of his comments were memorable in that they felt geared to test my power or throw me off. The first time I met with him I rushed into his office out of breath and he said, “Uh oh, I know a nervous breakdown when I see one.” I’d been running there to meet him, I was red-faced and late. I managed to say, “Why are you so good at knowing nervous breakdowns?”
Once in conference when I brought him a story about a group of boys’ ranking of “hot” girls in high school, he turned to me as if commiserating, or finally gleaning the true and trivial motivation of my work and said, “That’s the hardest thing for girls, when they are pretty but not beautiful.”
In an early meeting, perhaps out of insecurity over his own liberal credentials, perhaps in trying to suss out where I stood, he casually told me that my cohort, my partners in rebellion, were the most apolitical group of students he’d ever seen. And I erupted. I told him how we’d fought to get a second student on the hiring committee (me!), had organized to hire for diversity, how I’d sacrificed my relationship with Famous Old Boy by telling him I thought he was part of a bully ring. I told Junot that, at that very moment, we were organizing a regular women’s night to share stories, and build alliances, since, ahem, after the harassment event and fallout, we had hired three men. Part of me hoped my outburst would make him think I was cool. It’s more likely that it made him start to think I was someone to be careful with.
Perhaps because of my outburst, my meetings with Díaz were not of the “let’s sit down and talk about your particular project” type, but more of the “this works, I’m not feeling that, OK we’re done” variety. A kind of meeting that gave the illusion of accomplishing something, but left me feeling (after pouring my heart into my stories) shortchanged. But this style was not unusual. It echoed my meetings with Famous Old Boy, and occasionally Undergraduate Professor (if he was in a mood). Also similar to Famous Old Boy and Undergraduate Professor, Díaz’s comments on my stories were of the most minimal that could exist and still be called comments. Díaz underlined passages on my stories next to which he wrote “no,” or “yes.” Famous Old Boy used mysterious check marks. Undergraduate Professor used exclamation marks, and the periodic “lovely,” which thrilled me at the time, left me in suspense over what he might mean.
When I brought in stories that experimented with form, that engaged my womb, or modular, or crot ideas, Díaz didn’t read them. Once he said, “This story isn’t ready for workshop,” even though an earlier version had been thoughtfully workshopped in a previous class. The second time he said, “Sorry, I guess I’m not that smart.” And though I was disappointed, I forgave him. It was an admittance that it wasn’t his thing. It was an admittance I craved after being in workshop with Famous Old Boy, who had dismissed a piece of modernist writing I brought to show the class as an example of a story I admired. It was a story by the experimental writer Janet Kauffman. It had been published, yet Famous Old Boy claimed it “just wasn’t working.” In addition, when I brought up my enthusiasm for feminist writer Carole Maso, he dismissed her writing as “pretty fluff.” This, in turn, echoed dismissive descriptions of women writers from Undergraduate Professor: Joyce Carol Oates had “verbal diarrhea,” and Alice Munro was “boring.”
• • •
When I started working with Junot, my stories were getting longer and harder to sustain through a network of images. I wondered if my “womb theory” and plot were not mutually exclusive. Junot had corrected me the first night I met him. He said he specialized in “movement,” not “moments.” So I tried to engage him on his own territory. I asked him if he would talk to me about plot.
Díaz advised (I’m not sure what I was expecting) that I do the opposite of what I had been doing. He said to write fast, and nonassociatively, to forget the detail, to move from event to event, to capture, “bag-up” the whole span of the story in one sitting, and then go back in and attach details. OK, yes, it was a hunting metaphor. OK, yes, this was basically Aristotle (though I didn’t know it at the time). In The Poetics, Aristotle writes, “The most beautiful colors laid on confusedly will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline,” and continues to rank descriptive detail as least important among dramatic elements. This was Aristotle, for whom detail is to confused female matter as the chalk outline is to the superior masculine form. Well, sensing the sexism in this, I still tried it. I tried it with no clear sense of the complicated mechanics behind plot, but thinking that writing a story in one night sounded great. We’ve all seen the movies in which writers pound feverishly on typewriters while downing whiskey. Who hasn’t hoped to write in a flurry of inspiration? Who wouldn’t want to identify the central conflict, locate the source of dramatic irony, the moment of recognition and reversal, to assign backstory and front story all in the span of a few feverishly inspired hours?
Of course I failed. I started looking for help elsewhere. I reached out to one of the first new hires. He had offered his help, after I’d chosen Junot as my thesis advisor. He apologized for not reaching out earlier; he said he felt nervous about approaching women students due to the sexual harassment scandal. I took his help and benefited from it. And I reconnected with my workshop-mates who were toiling away in their own snowy bubbles of post-class isolation.
The story of a story within a story
But then something happened. I wrote a speed story that worked—that felt connected both through its imagery and plot. But I was worried because it was more autobiographical than my other stories had been. It was a story I’d been trying to write for years, about my relationship with Undergraduate Professor. It was a story about how I lost my virginity at the old age of twenty-one to Carver-loving Undergraduate Professor (because I was too much of a geek to lose it to anyone else; because I’d had encounters with boys that felt unsafe, but a man, a man who was often kind to me, who I thought saw me in all my burgeoning writerhood—he would be different).
The story was about how I’d waited to approach him until I’d turned in my last paper, how I was a mixture of frightened and brave; yet so living in my head that he didn’t know it was coming. It was about me being vulnerable, floating in the space of “what do I do with my life?” and the confused way in which I thought maybe, if we fell in love, which I was counting on, he could teach me how to live as a writer. I thought that my being with him would validate my decision to write, for myself and the concerned members of my family. I had planned on not returning home. I had planned on moving into his sexy apartment, up on a hill in Los Angeles. I knew he slept with other students, but I thought I was special. After all, he’d been sending me signals, cultivating a friendly flirtation, asking me out (in ambiguous ways) for three years.
The story had several iterations, two of which I brought to other workshops, and although they were treated objectively in class, after a workshop at a community college, an older woman tapped me on the shoulder and recommended a therapist. Another time, two of my MFA workshop-mates saw themselves in the description of the professor. Similarly yet differently from Dobyns, they thought it was my way of passive-aggressively pointing out their vanities. It was “OK” though, they told me. It was a clever send-up of the narcissism involved in being a writer. They were mostly flattered.
This new version was better than the others. In writing it I’d caught a glimpse of the abuse of power at the heart of the situation, how despite thinking I was in charge (I had timed it, I had finally confronted his advances and asked him out) I’d still been a victim. I saw that in seeing me as an off-and-on conquest of three years my professor hadn’t necessarily seen me at all. I was proud of the way the story unfolded to show Undergraduate Professor and me (student) embodying different narrative styles. The “I” of the story goes on the first date without a definite goal, hoping the night will be one of exploration and expansion, versus the professor who seizes on my (the narrator’s) confession of virginity as the solution to the tortuous ambiguity she’s set before him—he sees where he thinks he is needed, will gladly do the honor, and then will be done.
I gave the story to Junot because I imagined I’d written it under his guidance, or at least the dictates of his fast-writing advice. And he was, after all, my thesis advisor. But I was worried that he’d imagine the professor character as himself, or worse, think I was inviting him to think that way. That I had this worry wasn’t his fault, but the result of boundary crossing by Undergraduate Professor. Anytime I sat privately with a man in conference I planned what I wore to be modest; I acted with a stiff shield of formality. I anticipated that giving this story to Díaz would feel like a letting down of my guard, letting the sloppy embarrassed parts of myself gush out before him. My response to this worry was to work harder on the story, to make sure all the seams were tightened, to make sure it felt complete, an object to be examined as a piece of art. I gave it to Junot, because I felt it was the best thing I’d written so far.
Díaz arranged for us to meet at the local café this time, not at his office. And he didn’t greet me as he usually did. He was eating a large salad, the kind I’d eventually be able to buy, and the kind my students in Tucson would tease me about as being very gringa. The story sat beside the salad on the table. “This is a good story,” he said after he finished chewing, “but what are you trying to do with this?” I remember the head tilt, the suspicious gaze, and what I heard from his manner, from the space of my ruptured boundaries, was, “What are you getting at? Are you proposing something?” And I couldn’t speak. The lingering shame from my relationship with Undergraduate Professor bubbled up, along with the fear I was being called out as a woman who hit on professors for fun, or favors. I froze. I turned magenta.
Junot pushed back from the table and disengaged. He called a waiter over, not to place an order but to start up a casual conversation with a bro. The waiter looked at my flustered magentaness with concern, but Junot talked over this, animated, as if to signal I’d been forgotten. I took the story on which I would find there were no comments. I went home.
A Café of My Own
It’s twenty years after that final muddled meeting, and now I’m sitting in my own café. Actually, it’s a less than glamorous booth at a local grocery chain. But I’m happy with where I am as a writer and teacher: I have a book out—I’ve left the academy to start my own press, and to help run a generative community workshop, a space to test new pedagogy, a space that can reach a less privileged and more varied population than most academic programs. From this safe distance, I’ve been reading the online allegations against Díaz: the forcible kissing with Zinzi Clemmons, the verbal bullying with Monica Byrne and Alisa Rivera. These minimal but straightforward accounts have brought back memories. But my aha moment comes as I read a piece by Shreerekha, “In the Wake of His Damage,” published in The Rumpus’s “Enough” series. When I realize I know the author.
Shreerekha was a second-year student at Syracuse when I was a third. She came to a couple of the women’s nights. I knew her, but she had her own small cohort, and Junot was among this group. As I read I’m thinking about how smart she is. I’m admiring her style, the way she blends expertise and lyric, how she credits so many women’s voices in the evolution of her thought, packs them in tight, so the piece strains against itself, vibrates, makes me double back and reread. I’m excited by the aesthetics of this expansion and straining. I love the buildup and rush of ideas that can no longer be contained.
She references feminists I too have loved—Anzaldúa, and Teresa de Lauretis—though her feminism is infused with more complexity than mine. I understand the epistemic advantage of living both in and outside conventional expectations of gender, but her advantage (and struggle) is redoubled by being South Indian, living both in and outside conventional expectations of race. Yet even as I admire how she makes her piece much more than a confession, I anticipate what’s coming, her admission that when she was Junot’s student she was his girl on the side. She calls herself “his local ride and shelter”; she was also his lover.
This relationship would have been going on at the time I brought Junot the story, a story I imagined only contained my secret, but now see contained hers and his as well. Enter recognition mingled with pity and fear? That feeling of “There but for the grace of god go I”? But wait. I did go there, just with someone else. Aristotle talks about this aha moment, this moment of recognition as a kind of purging, a release of pity and fear that cleanses. He doesn’t account for the aha moments that make you laugh out loud at your own self-absorption and the repeated patterns of fucked-upness in the world.
I have to get up from my booth at the grocery store to walk. And as I walk, through the produce section, down the cereal aisle, I think I finally get it. I get that Díaz saw my story not as a come-on but as a pointed threat. As me saying to him, “I see you. I see what you’re up to with another student.”
I think: this is the reason he didn’t answer my messages when I told him I had to take extra time on my thesis, so needed an address to which I could send it. I think his reaction to the story was in one way an overestimation: he imagined I knew things I didn’t. Yet in another way an underestimation of me as a moral being. If he saw the story as a maneuver, to what end? Did he think I was going to use my “knowledge” to negotiate a reward? A book deal, or meeting with an agent? Agents and early book deals were largely, and I think wisely frowned upon at Syracuse. I considered myself there to develop as a writer, not to launch my career. He needn’t have worried. After the incident I turned corners to avoid seeing him on campus. I was as done with him as he was done with me.
As I walk around the grocery, I’m feeling both angry and sad. Sad for Shreerekha or for myself? I think sad for both of us, for the energy spent spinning our wheels around troubled men we imagined to have superior knowledge or talent, whom we imagined to have genius. I think about how my difficulties with Junot where minor compared to Shreerekha’s. I imagine the isolation she could have felt attending department events, class, hanging out at our women’s night, under the burden of a coerced silence, and in a space where she describes feeling conspicuously other to begin with. I remember encountering her outside Díaz’s office, twice, as I was coming out from a meeting. The awkwardness of it, the petty way in which I felt dissed when I said “hello” and she didn’t say anything back. I wonder how many alliances among women have been prevented by professors like Díaz and Undergraduate Professor, alliances between women who might otherwise be friends; how a professor’s choosing of a woman, or the perception of their choosing, leads to jealousy and rumor on one side, shame and isolation on the other.
And at the risk of sounding sentimental I wonder if this isn’t the biggest loss. The loss of community, of potentially lifelong friends in departments still anchored around the destructive personalities of men and occasionally women of “genius.” A perpetually drunk man. A suffering man. The teacher who picks a favorite to promote. I’m thinking here of Famous Old Boy, who in our third and final workshop chose a favorite from among our cohort. We resisted his maneuver, but his efforts tipped the balance of our mutual support and morale.
Attaching flesh to spine
Those of us who have grappled our way “up” into precarious teaching positions may say we hire less on the basis of fame and publication record and more on the basis of a candidate’s teaching record or thoughtful teaching philosophy. Yet this is easier said than done in a culture that still devalues critical thinking, and that doesn’t make an effort to produce good teachers by offering teacher training in the first place. Faculty who understand the importance of teaching from a variety of aesthetic, cultural, and political perspectives are necessary because masculinity and Eurocentric values have been encoded into our rhetoric and storytelling structures. They are still the defaults. A good MFA program and a good teacher will acknowledge and find ways to challenge this, will be mindful of the problematic culture our most vaunted programs are built on. I use Syracuse as an example with the caveat that Dobyns was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where the age-old concept of reckless male genius was repackaged, macho barroom–style, under Paul Engle. Syracuse, in fact, may have gone through a productive struggle. George Saunders was one of the initial new hires, the one who apologized to me for not reaching out, who admitted his anxiety about approaching female students in the wake of the scandal. Gradually he helped to set a change in motion. A couple of years after he was hired Díaz left Syracuse, and a chain of brilliant and innovative women writers were hired.
Sexism is a deep unconscious vein. It’s embedded in our thought processes, our ways of communicating and telling stories. Traditional narrative privileges plot over details and in so doing trivializes the image, that conductor of the unconscious, of muted memories, dreams, and drives, those little loaded bombs of information, which if unpacked often contain secrets of the body, micronarratives of their own.
What if the creative writing classroom was a space in which critical inquiry was a given, a space for examining and questioning privileged forms or aesthetics, and the pedagogy that often reinforces them. Wouldn’t this kind of space feel safer, more welcoming for those of us brave enough to resurrect our moments, our details, brave enough to write the stories of our bodies. What kind of revolution might that unleash?
At night I’m back to reading the Latina writers I loved before I met Díaz: Anzaldúa and Castillo, Rosario Ferré, Helena María Viramontes, and others who’ve been writing just as long and strong, but who curiously (or not so curiously) haven’t had Díaz’s fame. In “Tlilli, Tlapalli/The Path of the Red and Black Ink,” Gloria Anzaldúa describes her writing process as one of collapsing flesh and bones; her discovery of the spine of her story comes in sections of vertebrae that only appear once the flesh of the images is rendered or evoked. And I’m reading Mieke Bal. A female narrative theorist who breaks from the pack by elevating images, unpacking the ways in which they generate narrative and tell secret, overlooked stories of their own.
At night as I drift I see Ophelia; Hemingway’s woman is being escorted off the road by a soldier. Undergraduate Professor who seduced me by telling stories about the peacocks that lived in his trees. “You have to come and see them!” he said. I see the two women killed with one stone in the Carver story he so loved. The nervous mother of “Fiesta, 1980,” her hand clasping and unclasping her belt buckle. I want to linger on this chain of elision. Of the otherwise omitted, all the women referred to with the smallest sharpest details. It’s these women strung out across these stories as if attached to the same thread, or garland, strung out like ornaments. It’s in these brief eclipsed images that we’ll find the stories we need.