NEW YORK • Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz was in a relaxed, playful mood on a panel at the Sydney Writers' Festival last Friday, until he received an unexpected question near the end of the session.
Writer Zinzi Clemmons stood up. Without identifying herself by name, she asked Diaz about a recent essay he had published in The New Yorker detailing the sexual assault he experienced as an eight-year-old.
She then asked why he had treated her the way he had six years before, when she was a graduate student at Columbia. An uncomfortable murmur arose from the audience, according to attendees.
Hours later, a major scandal erupted in the literary world, when Clemmons repeated her accusations on Twitter. She said the incident happened when she was an "unknown wide-eyed 26-year-old". She had invited Diaz to speak at a workshop, but he "used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me", she wrote.
Other female writers have since come forward, accusing Diaz, 49, of mistreatment and misogynistic verbal abuse.
The Sydney Writers' Festival announced last Saturday that he had withdrawn from his coming appearances and would return to the United States.
Clemmons, who teaches writing at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said she believed Diaz had tried to pre-empt accusations like hers by writing the essay last month in which he said he had been raped as a child by an adult he trusted.
In it, Diaz said that after the assault, he began to suffer from depression and "uncontrollable rage", and later had troubled relationships with women and problems with fidelity.
In a statement provided via his literary agent, Diaz did not address the specific accusations, but said: "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."
A spokesman for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Diaz teaches writing, declined to comment, noting that she was still learning about the situation.
Diaz is the latest author to face claims of harassment and misconduct and is, perhaps, the most prominent. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, he has been celebrated as one of his generation's most gifted and inventive fiction writers. His novel, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and drew rapturous reviews.
The publishing industry has been struggling to deal with the fallout from sexual harassment scandals in recent months.
Last Friday, the Swedish Academy announced that it will delay the 2018 Nobel Prize in literature until next year, because of a sexual harassment scandal that has engulfed the academy after one of its associates was accused of sexual assault.
In his New Yorker essay, Diaz noted that the abuse he experienced as a child had never stopped affecting him. "No one can hide forever. Eventually, what used to hold back the truth doesn't work anymore. You run out of escapes, you run out of exits, you run out of gambits, you run out of luck. Eventually, the past finds you."
NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST