It all happened at breakneck speed. Before the dust settled, Junot Díaz was on a plane from Sydney back to the United States. The Sydney Writers’ Festival had received a severe spiking of flavour from another Me Too, stop that and what to do skirmish.
The occasion needs some teasing out. It began with fellow participant Zinzi Clemmons at a question and answer session. The time had come for her as to why Díaz had placed her in the uncomfortable position he supposedly did when she was a graduate student at Columbia University six years ago.
Clemmons takes the stance of a revolutionary preacher who refused to stay silent. (Her reticence seemed to have been considerable). “Junot Díaz,” she claimed in a statement to the New York Times, “has made his behaviour the burden of young women – particularly women of colour – for far too long, enabled by his team and the institutions that employ him.”
The timing was all: she had been affected by the act of forcible kissing when a graduate student but “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.”
The intervention by Clemmons unleashed a flood of remarks that were not always consistent with the theme of abuse. Was it a novelist’s crankiness and irritability, or was it a genuine rage of misogyny? Hard to tell – detestable characters are not necessarily unpleasant in a gendered way, but taking offence these days is the first step to assuming that it has something to do with it. Monica Byrne, for instance, claimed that the author had yelled at her face in disagreement. Did this suggest that he did not yell at men? “It was completely bizarre, disproportionate and violent.”
Carmen Maria Machado was of like mind in asking a question regarding Díaz’s This is How You Lose Her. “When I made the mistake of asking him about his protagonist’s unhealthy, pathological relationship with women, he went off on me for twenty minutes.”
An atmosphere of high fever denunciation has assailed debate and banished such matters as a presumption of innocence to dangerous obsolescence. Julie Szego felt discomfort at the whole affair. “I’m uneasy about this episode though I’m not sure I’m allowed to be, by which I mean I’m not sure about the wisdom of publicly airing my unease.”
Remarks by Clemmons become high-priest and inquisitorial skewing evidentiary testing and the firm eyes of a cross-examining advocate. We are left with the impressions of a self-confessed, bright-eyed wonder who claimed total innocence before the alleged rapacity of an author.
The issue about literature going off in such a stink brings a reminder to the fore a previous incident: the disavowal of the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott as candidate for the Oxford Chair of Poetry. The withdrawal from Walcott from the ring was prompted by the sending of anonymous letters to Oxford academics alleging sexual harassment.
Before the hashtag mania ever took off, disputes and scraps over appropriate or inappropriate behaviour that might bar or somehow disqualify a person from office or a position existed. But never ignore personal motivation and malice: the patriarchy, as with any other ideological assessment, can only go so far.
What matters in this is whether a movement is afoot to cleanse the literary, if not artistic world, of its demons and offenders. Bring in, it suggests good Quaker folk who forget the thorny nattiness that concerns matters of sex, religion and politics. Be decent. Avoid offence. The current approach would certainly empty libraries, theatres and opera halls: no figure judged by the current hashtag form of justice will survive, banished by what can only be deemed a form of inadvertent censorship.
The desert awaiting is hard to contemplate. Contracts have been and will continue being withdrawn at the utterance of a tweet. Films won’t be produced, or plays staged. The context of whether a work is good or bad will matter less than whether the person behind it offended or fondled. Crucially, courts will be bypassed as reputations are left smouldering in ruins.
In the irony of ironies, Díaz had conjured up a monster he could not control. He had also felt that riding the wave of the assault confessional would earn him plaudits of sympathy. “More,” he wrote in his tell-all tale of brutality in The New Yorker, “than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. I spent more energy running from it than I did living.”
Such identity politics did not get the gold medal in the sexual harassment stakes, even if it did a rather touching job of invoking that sentiment: “I never got any help, any kind of therapy. I never told anyone.” The literature vultures found revulsion and admiration. “His wording is masterful,” noted Jean Spraker, “but it’s there.” The “there” was a confession “to not only experiencing abuse but also perpetrating it”.
Clemmons, for one, saw the work was purely tactical, a means of pre-emptively silencing those who had been affected by his conduct. What seemed to bubble beneath with disturbing import was simply the sense that there are some tales of assault that will sell, and others that will not. Malice abounds, and competition is everything; some types come across better than others.
As the firm details are brought out about such figures as Harvey Weinstein, the reigning goblin of Hollywood brought down by his hubris, cautionary notes are also growing. Be wary of vengeful condemnations. Watch the cant. Impulsive witch hunts will catch many, but not necessarily the witch. In place are mere cinders.