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Teaching Confession, Learning Repentance

The fallout of Junot Díaz and how it changed my teaching

Published on:
June 4, 2018
Read time:
6 min.
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I hate this guy.”

“Are we seriously reading a sexist, racist jerk?”

“I don’t want to think about these things.”

Junot Díaz’s short story “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” always prompted responses like these. And that’s exactly what I expected when I assigned it as a first reading for my college literature courses. I told students that we’d be reading diverse and contemporary American authors, who would help us interrogate narratives about what is normal, healthy, and acceptable. Díaz provided us the opportunity to do just that.

I told students that we’d be reading diverse and contemporary American authors, who would help us interrogate narratives about what is normal, healthy, and acceptable.
Joe George

It’s short and dynamic, with an unreliable narrator who teaches an unnamed “you” how to seduce women of various races. The story set the tone for my class.

I welcomed my students’ disgust with Yunior de las Casas, the narrator. “You’re right!” I’d exclaim, before adding, “And the text agrees with you.” I’d try to push them further, asking, “What do you find disgusting? How does the story frame that behavior?”

Noting that no actual sex occurs in the story, I’d point out that Yunior wants the reputation that accompanies sexual bravado more than he does any intimacy, or even the physical sensations of sex. Yunior only fancies himself a lothario; he isn’t one. As we discussed the numerous problems with this take on masculinity, I’d begin asking students why Yunior acts this way.

Building on their answers, I’d direct students to this line from the story: “Tell her that you love her hair, her skin, her lips, because, in truth, you love them more than you love your own.” The confession here discloses the effects of racism on Yunior, a mixed race young man who moved from the Dominican Republic to low-income housing in New Jersey. There he’s told he’s worthless and that he only matters if women want to have sex with him.

I’d leave these class periods confident that we’d diagnosed some sexist assumptions. The discomfort my students felt, I believed, was worth it because Díaz showed us the toxic nature of normative masculinity. He didn’t revel in sexism; he revealed it.

Of course, that’s before I learned about Díaz’s actual behavior.

Bad Men Reading Bad Men

Reports that Díaz had assaulted and publicly berated women surprised and disappointed me, but it was hardly the first time an artist I respected turned out to be a misogynist. The #MeToo movement has thrown light on the darkness fostered by patriarchal power structures, uncovering abuses by numerous authors, including Sherman Alexie, another mainstay of my syllabi, and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), whose A Series of Unfortunate Events books I read to my children.

Handler and Alexie saddened me, because I found something hopeful and kind in their work. But revelations about Díaz convicted me because I found something relatable in his. I knew that Díaz drew from his own life, and that there was probably more than a little of himself in Yunior, but it never felt like a celebration. His fiction was a confession, one applicable to most American men. Like the author John Updike and comedian Louis C.K. before him, Díaz stripped the male ego of all its civility, so we could sneer at its pathetic pretensions. Their work exposed the stories we men consider normal and shows them to be sick.

In their perspectives, “getting the girl” wasn’t an admirable achievement for cool, handsome dudes; it was a desperate goal of loathsome failures.

But more specifically, I saw myself in the stories told by Updike and C.K. and Díaz. While my actual experiences are nothing like those of the fictional characters, I did recognize my own imagination in them. I knew my mind could be as egotistical and pornographic as Yunior or entitled as Updike’s philanderer Harry Angstrom. And I knew that it was likely circumstance, more than virtue, that kept me from acting like them. I was still working on the virtue part.

But I didn’t read these works to escape my normal life. They were never a means to live out the fantasies of what I longed to be but knew I couldn’t. I read them as confessions of the selfishness inside me, confessions of what I could become if I started buying into American myths of masculinity and success. Reading them wasn’t just interesting—it was, for me, fundamentally Christian. After all, the “ABCs of Salvation” teach that Christians must admit that we’re sinners. And Díaz, Updike, and C.K. provide admissions in lurid, eloquent detail. Whether it be Updike’s overwhelming imagery or C.K.’s discomfort humor or Díaz’s hyperactive voice, all of these writers go too far in their depictions of the straight male mind. In their perspectives, “getting the girl” wasn’t an admirable achievement for cool, handsome dudes; it was a desperate goal of loathsome failures.

To read their work was to see my assumptions and secret transgressions made plain. However cliché it may sound, they showed me how badly I needed grace.

The Wrong Kind of Action

Whatever the value of these confessions, a continued interest in them would ignore two things that have become clear to me now. First, Díaz didn’t just write fictional confessions of fantasy misdeeds, he actually harmed real women.

Second, I’m not just a guy trying to work out his own lusts and expectations; I’m a teacher who assigns readings to students and hands out a low grade when they don’t engage. I’ve asked students, many of whom I now know have likely experienced the abuses described in these stories, to spend time inside the head of someone who objectifies and takes advantage of them.

To read their work was to see my assumptions and secret transgressions made plain. However cliché it may sound, they showed me how badly I needed grace.

I never asked students to justify the bad behavior, and in fact I encouraged them to call out the characters’ horrid ideas; but I did ask them to understand the perspectives of these men, to sympathize with them. And although I didn’t say it out loud, on some level I hoped they would forgive these characters for what their writers described them doing, just like I hoped to be forgiven for what I withheld in my mind.

That desire was so strong that it drowned out the warnings women gave me about reading stories like that. In grad school, a female professor snorted in disgust when I announced that I had just published an article on Updike. “Oh, I am so glad I never have to read Updike again,” she said, a comment I just chalked up to different tastes. A colleague who admired Díaz for his prose and ability to capture multicultural America decided that she won’t teach his stories because that type of thinking gets enough attention. “I want my students to know about different stories,” she said.
All these women were pushing me toward a better way of teaching literature and toward helping students understand things they are disgusted with. I responded to what women told me, but I was never really listening. I am now.

Go and Sin No More

Although confession is an integral part of the Christian life, it’s just the start. Jesus never practiced conviction for the sake of confession alone. To follow Jesus is to move toward repentance.

Look at Jesus’ interaction with the woman threatened with stoning (John 8:1–11). Paying no respect to the power structures that ostracized her, he identifies with the woman by kneeling next to her and listening to her story. He demonstrates to all that she is an image-bearer of God, and teaches them, “Go now, and leave your life of sin.”

He’s directing the command to the woman, and I always took that as the end of it.

But closer inspection reveals that the command has greater meaning to the people he’s actually correcting here: the men holding stones. His lesson is for them, and for me too. “Sit with women. Listen to women, believe them,” he says. “Follow my example, and not that of the men with their stones and their accusations. Go and sin no more.”
To follow that example, I begin with the most basic step. I’ve removed Díaz, Updike, and others from my syllabi, and replaced them with women who can speak about issues of masculinity from another perspective, authors like Gloria Naylor, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Louise Erdrich.

Repentance also requires me to do what I failed to do throughout my history of teaching Díaz and hear what women have been saying about masculinity and abuse. The voices have been all around men, from pieces right here at Fathom—by Abby Perry, Jasmine Holmes, and Rachael Starke—to my students and colleagues. I know what I know about misogyny because of what they’ve taught me, and I still have much more to learn.

My confession has been stated and, if you’re still reading this, it has been heard. Now it’s time for me to do better and listen to the voices that have been there from the start.

Joe George
Joe George (@jageorgeii) has written for Think Christian, Living Lutheran, and Tor.com. He hosts the web series Renewed Mind Movie Talk and collects his writing at joewriteswords.com.

Cover image by Christin Hume.

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