A Woman’s Guide to Man Up

Man UpEchoing the reality of coming of age in America, Man Up addresses aspects of race and racism, of skin color, of sexuality, of masculinity, of femininity, and of love. Carlos Andrés Gómez uses a direct, uncomplicated prose to project his voice. There is little music to his writing, and, perhaps, the lack of lyricism in his writing is intentional. At times, his words are didactic. He recounts stories of his past shortcomings, stating how he has learned and is still learning to deconstruct what society has constructed, how he has learned to be a better man. This didacticism, however, does not necessarily serve to disconnect readers from the text. It reads more as an emphatic appeal to the reader. This author is not afraid to preach about all the ways in which society is just flat out wrong.

In many ways, I connect Gómez’s story to Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. I was lucky enough to attend a reading of one of the stories from Diaz’s most recent book and to hear Diaz describe it as a book about “male sluttery” – the kind where “men do a bunch of shit and then feel like they’re the victims.” Gómez addresses this “male sluttery” as reflection.

He writes about how he came to learn his own privilege. He candidly describes receiving oral sex from women he didn’t love, so he could feel more of a man, so he could feel validated, recognized. He admits openly to his own violence – slapping his female cousin across the face for disagreeing with him. He writes about waking up kissing his male best friend, confused and ashamed that he might be gay. Each of these stories, woven in and out of a fairly straightforward timeline, brings about a lesson learned. Gómez recounts his life experiences to show how men hide vulnerability, perpetrate violence, and use and abuse women because they are taught that these are the best ways to assert power in the face of powerlessness.

In a memoir that feels impossibly honest, I couldn’t help but feel connected to Gómez, his simple logic, his self-doubt, his wavering identity. Within these pages and pages of self-reflection and introspection, Gómez articulates a political voice – trying to negotiate his life experiences with the framework of how we construct gender within a particularly American landscape. The memoir highlights the ways in which men are stifled by societal gender norms and homophobia, and this stifling is what often provokes men to be more violent and abusive. He argues that breaking free of these unspoken norms will allow for a more compassionate, creative, and productive man.

“If I hadn’t found poetry,” he writes, “who knows where I would be today?… I watch men walk around, their emotions clenched tight in their chests, and I wonder, how many great poems are trapped inside of them? How many brilliant paintings and choreographed dance pieces? How many guys in my neighborhood in Brooklyn would have their lives saved by allowing themselves to sing? To sculpt something with their own two hands and rediscover what the greatest power in their palms might be?”

I connected to this man’s story because I am a poet, because I began writing poetry to negotiate my own life experiences within the framework of societal gender norms. The further and further I delved into his story, however, I began to wonder, have I been trying to man up all these years? Am I less of a woman for connecting to this story? Am I different from other women? Am I trying to defy my own gender norms?

As all these questions began to surface, I started to look at the white spaces, those places of silence within the text. Man Up’s white spaces are glaring. White spaces are left for us to fill in the blanks. As a woman of color, as a poet, this is where I see Gomez also professed the ways in which women’s identities are constructed. In order to deconstruct masculinity, you must also recognize how to deconstruct femininity, how femininity is not masculinity. White spaces need not be white silence.