This article discusses sexual violence and self harm.
Writers must dread the Q&A part of any festival talk: the time when members of the audience express lengthy, half-baked feelings that resemble questions only by having question marks at the end of them.
What neither audience nor writers at the Seymour Centre on Friday afternoon were expecting, however, was for an international news story to break in front of their eyes.
During questions at the end of the Why We Read panel, author and festival guest Zinzi Clemmons, the author of novel What We Lose, who was sitting in the audience, was handed a roving microphone.
Her question was for panellist Junot Díaz, Dominican-American author of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Clemmons wanted to know if the essay Diaz published in The New Yorker last month was an attempt to pre-empt accusations. (In the essay, Díaz described how the trauma of being raped as a child had ruined his life.)
Clemmons also asked if Díaz had anything to say about “the way you treated me six years ago”. Later, on Twitter, Clemmons alleged that Diaz, 49, had forcibly kissed her at a literature workshop she had invited him to. (She provided no evidence to support the allegations. Time Out makes no claim to know whether Clemmons’ allegations are true or not.) Other women in the literary world soon came out on Twitter with similar allegations, including Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties.
In one of the most extraordinary moments Time Out Sydney has witnessed at a writers’ festival, Diaz calmly insisted on answering Clemmons’ question. He explained that he had recently attempted suicide and had been advised by a colleague to “write this thing down”, to “narrativise the fact you were raped”.
Clemmons left the theatre with the parting shot, “I’m a writer, you can sue me later.” A few hours later the story broke on Buzzfeed, The Cut and The New York Times.
Díaz later responded through his literary agent, saying: “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.”
Sydney Writers' Festival concludes Sunday May 6.