What You Need To Know About Sydney Writers’ Festival’s #metoo Moment

When US author Zinzi Clemmons confronted Junot Diaz, she began an international discussion about assault in literature.

by Wendy Syfret
07 May 2018, 1:45am

Images via Twitter

This article discusses sexual assault.

On Friday, US author Zinzi Clemmons stood up during the Q&A section of a Sydney Writers’ Festival event and confronted star guest Junot Diaz about an encounter they allegedly had six years ago. She explained, and later repeated on Twitter, that when she was a graduate student at Columbia she invited him to speak at a workshop about representation in literature. “I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 yo, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me,” she wrote on Twitter.

Across several tweets, Clemmons detailed how the incident impacted her and her career, causing her to avoid literary functions and refrain from posting images of herself online. Her revelation initiated a wave of other stories from women in the wider literary community sharing their own experiences with Diaz.

Men’s Health Digital Editor Ej Dickson added, “Everyone in the literary world/the media knew this, or suspected it.” The weekend’s events, coupled with news that this year’s Nobel literature prize has been canceled following a sexual misconduct scandal, has lead many to flag this as the large scale start to literature’s #MeToo moment.

By the following day, the festival had annouced that Diaz would be withdrawing from the festival, and he left the country soon after. In a statement the festival detailed: “Following the allegations of inappropriate and aggressive behaviour towards Zinzi Clemmons and other women, Mr Diaz has withdrawn from his remaining sessions at Sydney Writers’ Festival.” Clemmons was also a guest of the festival.

Diaz had been set to speak on a panel titled The Politics of Empathy, and be interviewed by Australian children’s author Morris Gleitzman about his own children’s book Islandborn. A scheduled appearance at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre on Monday was also cancelled.

Despite support online and Diaz’s withdrawal from the festival, Clemmons detailed on Twitter the pain that his inclusion in the festival brought her. Writing about the moments after her confrontation she explained, “Was pretty hurtful to learn that the room applauded Diaz after I left. I was crying in the lobby while you were clapping for him.”

In a statement made through his literary agent, Diaz didn’t refer directly to any claims but said "I take responsibility for my past."

Earlier in the year, Diaz’s widely lauded New York Times personal essay “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” detailed his own experience with sexual assault as a child. In it he explains how it lead to him struggling with “uncontrollable rage” and impacted his relationship with women.

Referring to the piece in his statement he added: “That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continue. I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”

Although that article has been reexamined after the events of the weekend, with Clemmons and other writers asking if the piece was a “preemptive strike” from Diaz to contextualise his own acts.

NPR’s Lynn Neary noted that: “when that article came out in April, it caused a lot of buzz with some speculation that he might have written it to get ahead of some accusation that he saw might be coming at him.”

In her own statement to the Times, Zinzi said: “Junot Díaz has made his behavior the burden of young women—particularly women of color—for far too long, enabled by his team and the institutions that employ him. When this happened, I was a student; now I am a professor and I cannot bear to think of the young women he has exploited in his position, and the many more that would be harmed if I said nothing.”

When asked about her decision to speak out at another panel over the weekend she added, "I got sick of everyone saying it in private—it was not a secret—I wanted to say something in public."

Sydney Writers’ Festival’s 2018 theme was Power In Action. Festival director Michaela McGuire reflected on the events in her closing address, pointing out that Zinzi’s actions were an example of the program’s theme being explored and actioned in real time.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, support can be found the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service.
1800RESPECT (1800 737 732)