Reading Junot Díaz in France: American Racism and Teaching in a Trump Era
Donald Trump recently claimed that “France is no longer France,” citing France’s “inability” to effectively ensure the safety of its citizens in the wake four terrorist attacks over the past year in a half. For those familiar with French politics, this is a tired argument frequently championed by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the ultra right-wing National Front party.
Since Trump’s comments, the city of Cannes has banned the Burkini, a bathing suit worn by Muslim women so that they can remain covered on French beaches. Legislators cite the possibility for women to hide weapons in their Burkinis, and wearers are subject to full-body strip searches. Predictably so, two women have already been forced by police to remove their hijabs.
As teachers, we can see how Trump-era anti-Muslim rhetoric champions only fear, racism, and xenophobia. The link between French ultra-right politics and Donald Trump is revealing in terms of Western discourses of Islamophobia.
As I reflect on how I will address Donald Trump’s political extremism in an introductory French language course scheduled for this fall, I am reminded of the time I taught Junot Díaz’s “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” as a visiting lecturer in France. I was teaching “American Literature” at a prestigious French University where students are accustomed to thinking of US literature as the works produced by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Emily Dickenson.
My course was very different. Instead of the jazz rhythms of Fitzgerald, I introduced students to the intimate prose of Jhumpa Lahiri. Instead of Dickenson, we read Lupe Fiasco, Common, and Kanye West lyrics. Junot Díaz was our proverbial Hemingway.
In Díaz’s story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior De Las Casas, a Dominican American, recently moves back to Boston from New York City after his girlfriend discovers his infidelity. For years, Yunior had been cheating on her with fifty women. Suffering from self-imposed guilt, Yunior is forced to leave his shared apartment in New York City, thus losing friends and going into a sort of exile in Boston. As a creative writing teacher at a prestigious Boston-area university, Yunior is forced into spaces traditionally coded as white. On various occasions, Yunior is met with violently racist locals who hurl insults his way. Díaz writes:
Almost on cue, a lot of racist sh*t starts happening. White people pull up alongside you at traffic lights and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mother. It’s f**king scary. Before you can figure out what the hell is going on, they flip you the bird and peel out. It happens again and again. Security guards follow you in stores, and every time you step onto Harvard property you’re asked for I.D. Three times, drunk white dudes in different parts of the city try to pick fights with you.
In another instance of racism, Yunior is referred to as a “f**king towelhead” by a white resident whizzing by in his Jeep. Throughout the story, these instances occur frequently, finally reaching a crescendo where Yunior exclaims, “I hope someone drops a f**king bomb on this city, you rant. This is why no people of color want to live here. Why all my black and Latino students leave as soon as they can.” Reading this in a country that just experienced the attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo and a hostage situation in Paris, my students were understandably quite alarmed.
In discussing racist aggression, my French students could not reconcile Yunior’s violent response. Why would someone resort to extreme violence in the face of racism? Isn’t a bomb a little extreme? My students were struggling to grapple with Yunior’s response. I asked my students to stop and think and to place themselves in Yunior’s position. How would they react to bodily threats? How would they feel if they couldn’t trust their government to protect their civil liberties?
One student in the class admitted to being discriminated against because her last name was of Arabic origins. She told us about how, on numerous occasions, her colleagues would make comments about Islamic incursions on French culture, such as the waves of immigration from North Africa since the mid-1960s. This student felt exactly like Yunior felt in the story, where she was an invasive presence in a space–the French University–traditionally coded as white, Roman Catholic, and “French.”
Other students in the class noted that the most heavily policed areas of Lyon was the area of town where large numbers of North African people stood waiting for the tram at rush-hour. Another student, a Franco-Brazilian student studying Black Feminist Theory, told me that he was often stopped by the police and asked for his papers because he wore dreadlocks.
By hearing these stories, many of the students who initially struggled with Yunior’s response began to understand the anger and frustration behind it. This experience in a French classroom reaffirmed my belief that we must always be willing to engage in discussions about race, nationality, citizenship, religion, sexuality, and gender in our classrooms–regardless of what courses we teach. We will likely all have one Yunior in our classes this fall, and his/her voice deserves to be heard.
As teachers, we need to urge our students to think more deeply about power dynamics and systems of oppression. By encouraging these types of discussions in our courses, students might begin to identify with those who experience racialized, gendered, sexual, or religion-based oppression as a result of the current political climate.
Nathan H. Dize is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian theater, poetry, and revolutionary poetics during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nathan is also a content curator, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. He is also an editorial assistant for the African American Intellectual History Society Blog. Follow him on Twitter @NathanHDize.permission.
Comments on “Reading Junot Díaz in France: American Racism and Teaching in a Trump Era”
France’s legal authorities later dismantled the anti-burkini local decisions.
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