One of the year’s biggest #MeToo scandals came in the literary world earlier this year when Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American author Junot Diaz was accused by writer Zinzi Clemmons of “forcibly” kissing her. Clemmons not only confronted Diaz at the Sydney Writers Festival, she took to Twitter to speak of her experience.
“As a grad student, I invited Junot Diaz to speak to a workshop on issues of representation in literature,” Clemmons tweeted. “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.”
Other allegations of inappropriate behaviour followed, including stories of verbal intimidation from authors Monica Byrne and Carmen M. Machado. Just a month before the allegations, Diaz had published a searing essay about being the victim of sexual assault in The New Yorker. People could not reconcile the idea that a sexual assault victim could be a perpetrator himself. At the same time, Latinx writers and literature aficionados felt the accusations were an unfair attack on one of their community’s literary superstars. Yet when more women said they’d experienced similar things with Diaz, it looked as though Diaz had used his position and power to sexually and emotionally manipulate younger, less established women writers and aspiring writers.
The controversy inflamed and divided the literary world, with many powerful writer friends, academics and readers supporting Diaz, and other women writers and readers choosing to believe his accusers. Things got messy and nasty fast; Clemmons accused Diaz’s agent Nicole Aragi of protecting her super client to the detriment of the women he had harmed, and Aragi’s partner John Freeman, editor of the literary journal Freeman’s, began to block anyone on Twitter who voiced support for Diaz’s accusers (including me. Full disclosure: I know Byrne, who attended the same college as me, and I supported Clemmons when she made her allegations on Twitter).
When the allegations surfaced, Diaz stayed silent for the most part, but released a statement to The New York Times: “I take responsibility for my past... 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.”
But 2018 seems to be a year for literary scandal and concurrently with the Diaz controversy, another one erupted in the powerful Swedish Academy, which is responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize in literature every year. Jean-Claude Arnault, a French photographer and Swedish cultural figure who is married to (now former) Academy member Katarina Frostenson, was accused by 18 women of sexual harassment, rape and physical abuse over the last 20 years. A club at which Arnault and Frostenson held readings and other cultural events was also found to be partly funded by the Academy, creating a conflict of interest. Arnault was also accused of leaking the names of seven Nobel literature prize winners in advance to the press.
Three members of the Academy and its permanent secretary resigned in the wake of the scandal, which led to the Nobel Prize for literature being cancelled this year. The scandal revealed the prize’s lack of transparency and the muddled state of its financial affairs, and it also revealed a deeply patriarchal system which, The Guardian notes, failed to respond properly to the allegations of sexual harassment. Even the king of Sweden had to get involved because of the damage to the reputation of one of the world’s most powerful cultural institutions.
Nobody should be surprised by the idea that sexual harassment exists in the literary world any more than they should be surprised by the fact that it amasses a huge amount of money and power, and is peopled by those who will do anything they can to remain its gatekeepers. The structure of patriarchy goes hand in hand with capitalism, and the publishing business and all its attendant promoters have adopted all of both structures’ worst injustices.
Diaz looks set to further his glamorous literary career while the women who accused him of inappropriate behaviour have been dismissed as jealous, dangerous troublemakers out to ‘get’ a gifted man.
As Andrew Brown writes in another piece for The Guardian, “The [Nobel] academy had thought it stood for the culture of T.S. Eliot: somewhat masculine and unashamedly elitist, in which power is channelled in the service of tradition.” The same description applies equally to MIT and the Boston Review with which Diaz is associated, although neither institution was as severely rocked by the scandal as the Swedish Academy. No doubt if the Academy could have exonerated itself, it would have done so, but the magnitude and severity of the crimes alleged was too great to be ignored.
And what happened to Diaz? He resigned as chairman of the Pulitzer Prize committee, but continues to remain on the committee. After an investigation, MIT cleared him to continue with his teaching duties at the prestigious Massachusetts university this fall. The Boston Review, of which Diaz is fiction editor, also said it would continue to work with him, which led to three of its poetry editors resigning. Meanwhile, reputation intact, Diaz looks set to further his glamorous literary career while the women who accused him of inappropriate behaviour have been dismissed as jealous, dangerous troublemakers out to ‘get’ a gifted man.
The Diaz case was a discouraging outcome to anyone who is suffering similar sexual harassment at the hands of powerful writers, professors, theatre directors or other litterateurs. They will think a hundred times before going public with their ordeals now. But the shakeup of the Swedish Academy is a sign of hope that these powerful people can be held accountable for their actions. After all, as Brown writes, #MeToo is the result of “the re-evaluation of behaviour that had always been half-known.”
The columnist is a Karachi-based author of seven books
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 2nd, 2018