A report by Jake Nevins and Steph Harmon for London’s Guardian.
The Pulitzer prize-winning author Junot Díaz has withdrawn from the Sydney Writers’ festival, a day after being accused of sexual harassment during a festival event and on Twitter, by the writer Zinzi Clemmons.
“As a grad student, I invited Junot Díaz to speak to a workshop on issues of representation in literature,” Clemmons wrote in a tweet. “I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 year old, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me. I’m far from the only one he’s done this to, I refuse to be silent anymore.”
“I told several people this story at the time,” she wrote in a follow-up post. “I have emails he sent me afterward.”
The festival confirmed on Saturday morning that Diaz has withdrawn from his remaining sessions; Guardian Australia understands that he left the country this morning. A panel he was due to appear on on Saturday afternoon, titled The Politics of Empathy, has been cancelled.
“Sydney Writers’ festival is a platform for the sharing of powerful stories: urgent, necessary and sometimes difficult,” the festival said in a statement. “Such conversations have never been more timely. We remain committed to ensuring they occur in a supportive and safe environment for our authors and audiences.”
After Clemmons’ tweets were posted on Friday night, two other women wrote publicly about their own encounters with Díaz. Carmen Maria Machado, a 2017 National Book Award finalist, who is also attending the Sydney festival, tweetedthat after “asking him a question about his protagonist’s unhealthy, pathological relationship with women, he went off for me for twenty minutes”. In a thread of tweets that followed, Machado said Díaz “has treated women horrifically in every way possible”.
On Friday, another writer, Monica Byrne, wrote in a Facebook post that at a literary festival in 2014 she experienced “verbal sexual assault” at the hands of Díaz, adding that she had “never experienced such virulent misogyny in my adult life”.
The author, whose novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was awarded a Pulitzer in 2008, wrote last month in the New Yorker about his own experience being raped at the age of eight by “a grownup that I truly trusted”. On Friday, Díaz responded to the claims through his literary agent in a statement to the New York Times.
“I take responsibility for my past,” he said. “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.”
In his New Yorker essay, Díaz wrote that as a result of the sexual abuse he endured as a child he had mistreated women himself. “I think about the hurt I caused,” he wrote, referencing infidelity detailed in other parts of the essay.
In a statement made to the Cut, Byrne said she believed in the essay Díaz was pre-empting stories of his own misconduct. “Is it my opinion that he knew that this was coming for him and he wanted to get out ahead of it? Absolutely,” she said.
According to BuzzFeed and the New York Times, Clemmons confronted Díaz about his alleged behavior during the Q&A after a writers’ festival panel in Australia on Friday, asking the author why, in the New Yorker piece, he hadn’t reckoned with his own conduct more.
An attendee at the panel confirmed to Guardian Australia that a woman stood up in the audience, without identifying herself, and questioned Diaz about his past behaviour and the timing of his essay. Diaz was “surprised,” the attendee said, and “didn’t recognise her”.
The panel moderator Ashley Hay apologised to Diaz, attempting to diffuse the situation; the woman grew frustrated and left the theatre.
After Diaz finished answering the question, the audience applauded him.
“It felt like it came out of left-field, as it wasn’t the topic of the talk,” the attendee said. “But you want to respect the person’s right to say that as well.”
The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne confirmed confirmed Díaz’s planned appearance there on Monday would no longer take place after the cancellation of the rest of his tour.