Em-URGE-ing Voices

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You Don’t Have To Put Up With Shitty Men in Literature if You Don’t Want to

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February 5, 2019

When we read Junot Diaz’s book Drown in my gender studies course last year, the class was quick to rave about the nuance of his writing. They spoke in grand terms about how he was a literary genius and of the tenderness of the characters– and I didn’t know why I couldn’t get on board.

On the one hand, I appreciate Diaz and his body of work. He is an intensely talented writer. There are pieces of his work that I admire greatly. But, as we read this book full of abusive men, I wasn’t able to look past the way it made me feel.

Drown is a prime example of a book that is not inherently misogynistic but includes misogyny. The book is riddled with gender-based abuse. And while I think there is a place for this writing, and even this book specifically, it’s also okay if you don’t want to deal with shitty men– in your reading, in discussions with friends and peers, in the classroom.

I have read many a novel that is full of abuse towards women– books that are widely viewed as sexist even– and enjoyed them greatly. What I am not trying to claim is that we must remove all misogyny, abuse or gendered violence from our writing.

What I am saying is that it is entirely okay if you want to remove yourself from that narrative. I don’t think we always must praise works for their literary value, if they make us feel deeply uncomfortable, trigger past trauma, or plain ass hurt to read.

The ache we feel for characters who experience violence can be fulfilling and eye-opening– but it can also be detrimental to our mental health. And the power we have as feminist readers, and as people with varied experiences, is that we can choose when and how we interact with stories.

As an addendum to this idea, it should be noted that, for example, white people should be reading stories of racial violence that make them feel uncomfortable. Men should be reading stories about misogyny. Cis people must be reading about transphobic abuse. If you are exempting yourself from consuming content because you are trying to avoid the harsh realities of others, you are writing their suffering off as literary. You are telling the people who experience this that you are not an ally– that their suffering is ignorable. We must expose ourselves to things that make us feel uncomfortable in these contexts. Even in Diaz’s writing specifically, there are essential discussions on race to be gleaned for white people

But, you don’t have to participate in twisted types of trauma porn if you don’t want to. It is a case to case basis. There is no hard and fast rule for what will hurt you and what won’t– but you absolutely don’t have to feel like you are toughing through a discussion that inherently does not recognize your personal attachment to it.

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