Fall of Junot Díaz: No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed
Men get raped and attack women as a result, but women get raped, and do what?
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Last week in Sydney, I found myself within earshot of another chapter in the #MeToo movement. I was visiting with other invited international publishers on an Australian Arts Council fellowship at the Sydney Writers Festival. From the pre-publicity and opening night buzz itself, it was clear that the most high-profile guest and writer at the posh and distinctively Sydney literary event was the celebrated Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz.
Díaz has been the darling of readers, writers, litterateurs and fan people of books across the world ever since he won the Pulitzer for his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a glorious paean to diversity and the immigrant experience. But on a sunny Friday afternoon at the Seymour Centre in Sydney, following a spectacular panel on why we read, the Q&A session proved to be Díaz’s Fuku moment.
Author and festival guest Zinzi Clemmons stood up in the audience and asked Díaz if his recent New Yorker article on being raped as an 8-year-old boy was published in anticipation of allegations of sexual misconduct against him that might be on the verge of emerging in the public space. She also asked him if he wanted to apologise for the way he had behaved with her six years ago. Díaz did not avoid the first question and replied that he had contemplated suicide before a friend suggested that he should write about the abuse he had undergone as a child. To her second question, he answered "No". Clemmons left the auditorium in tears even as the audience applauded Díaz. She wept outside the auditorium and no one came out to show support to her.
In a couple of hours, she tweeted the following:
As a grad student, I invited Junot Díaz to speak to a workshop on issues of representation in literature. I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 yo, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me. I'm far from the only one he's done this 2, I refuse to be silent anymore.— zinziclemmons (@zinziclemmons) May 4, 2018
The story went viral within minutes. She had by then informed the festival organisers that she was leaving and would not appear on any other panels where she was due to speak. By the next day, however, many other women writers, including well-known author Carmen Maria Machado had tweeted about Díaz’s aggressive posturing in public events when asked about his portrayal of women and their relationships with the male protagonists in his novels. Next morning, we heard that Clemmons had been persuaded to stay on at the festival, while Díaz had pulled out of it and all his further events were cancelled. I thought to myself, for the #MeToo movement even as it was hitting literature and publishing, this was a small victory.
I had of course read Díaz’s New Yorker article when it had first come out and been moved and discomfited by it. Unlike other women I met at the festival, mostly from the West, I admit I had not found myself "wondering" about the bit where he admits to hurting women as a result of his own vicious abuse at the age of 8. Perhaps it is because I come from a culture and country where men need no reason to hurt women at all, they do it at will and whim. A recent survey in India found that more than 50 per cent of the men and women spoken to agreed that women sometimes deserve to be beaten.
No, I was more caught up in hurting for the young eight-year-old Díaz, seeing in him my own six-year-old boy. But when the controversy broke in Sydney, I went back to his article, and reading it, I remembered a line from Oscar Wao, "No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed." But as someone asked on social media when the news of the allegations against Díaz broke, men get raped and attack women as a result, but women get raped, and do what?
Take it where?
Living in the rape capital of India, it is fairly evident to me that if we are to do anything really definitive about beginning to tackle rape culture, we have to engage with difficult masculinities and how they emerge and are beaten into shape. That would be attacking the problem at its source. We have to engage with them, keep the conversations going, and learn from their motivation to violence and abuse in order to begin to nip it in the bud. And it needs to be done fairly fast. Does that mean that influential men who continue to abuse vulnerable younger men in their own industries and professional spaces ought to be cut some slack in the implementation of due process if there is a history of abuse in their own childhood and adolescence? No, absolutely not.
In his statement while pulling out of the festival, Díaz said, "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." I tried very hard to hear the voice that had moved me in Oscar Wao and the New Yorker article the week before, but there was none of that in this statement. Of course, it might have been composed by some overstressed and overworked legal counsel, but from Díaz, the author of these heartbreaking, searing lines, "That violación. Not enough pages in the world to describe what it did to me. The whole planet could be my inkstand and it still wouldn’t be enough. That shit cracked the planet of me in half, threw me completely out of orbit, into the lightless regions of space where life is not possible", I expected more.