Just weeks after Pulitzer-winning writer Junot Díaz published an essay on his past as a victim of child sex abuse, he’s been accused of sexual misconduct himself.
On Friday, May 4, writer Zinzi Clemmons said on Twitter that when she was a grad student, Díaz cornered and “forcibly kissed” her. “I’m far from the only one he’s done this 2,” she writes.
Clemmons’s tweet comes less than a month after Díaz published a widely celebrated essay in the New Yorker about his childhood. “Yes, it happened to me,” he wrote. “I was raped when I was eight years old. By a grownup that I truly trusted.”
Over the rest of the essay, Díaz goes on to discuss the ways his childhood abuse shaped him, writing that he struggled to become close to women and repeatedly cheated on his girlfriends, that he “hurt people,” and that he attempted suicide more than once. But, he concludes, he’s changed:
I am not who I once was. I’m neither the brother who can’t touch a girl nor the asshole who sleeps around. I’m in therapy twice a week. I don’t drink (except in Japan, where I let myself have a beer). I don’t hurt people with my lies or my choices, and wherever I can I make amends; I take responsibility. I’ve come to learn that repair is never-ceasing.
Shortly after the essay came out, rumors began to swirl across the literary world that the timing of Diaz’s essay was strategic, and that he was attempting to get ahead of a coming accusation against him by admitting to his own trauma. “Hi! Today, please meditate on how easily we accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery,” tweeted author Carmen Maria Machado on the day that Díaz’s essay was published.
Now that accusation appears to be here.
As a grad student, I invited Junot Diaz 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
Clemmons wrote that she documented the event after it happened, and that since then she’s avoided professional events so that she could keep her distance from men like Díaz.
In response to Clemmons’s tweet, Machado tweeted that when she questioned Díaz at a tour event about the way his book’s protagonist related to women, he seemed to become defensive and berated her “for twenty minutes” in what she describes as “a blast of misogynist rage and public humiliation.”
“What really struck me was how quickly his veneer of progressivism and geniality fell away; how easily he slid into bullying and misogyny when the endless waves of praise and adoration ceased for a second,” she wrote.
Additionally, author Monica Byrne wrote on Facebook that when she sat next to Díaz at a professional dinner, he became verbally abusive toward her over the course of the discussion. “I made a point emphasizing how personal narrative is important in empowering the marginalized. He said (and this is my memory, so I’m not including quotation marks), Well, I don’t know if you know how statistics work, but that’s like saying, Oh, I haven’t been RAPED, so RAPE must not exist,” she writes, adding, “Díaz didn’t physically assault me. But shouting the word ‘rape’ in my face is absolutely verbal sexual assault.”
“Verbal violence is a form of violence,” Byrne told Vox over the phone. “A few people pointed out to me that white women perceive men of color to be inherently violent. I’m not immune to that perception; there’s nothing special about me, I grew up in this world and I’m not magic. But I don’t think that’s the case here. I’ve received similar verbal violence from many white men and I would use the same word. There’s so much aggression and violence and anger and hate coming at you that is meant to produce fear, to silence to you. It has that effect, and it’s deliberate.”
She added that she sees her decision to come forward with her account as a strategic act. “Those of us who have the privilege to speak out, whose experiences are ‘not that bad,’ are holding space publicly for those who have had much worse experiences,” she said. “This is not an attention grab. This is a deliberate strategy, and it’s saying, ‘These women are not alone. There are worse stories. And we are going to be in the public eye until the women with those stories feel comfortable coming forward.’”
In a statement made through his agent to the New York Times, Díaz 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.”
Vox has reached out to Clemmons, Machado, and Díaz for comment; we will update this piece with any responses we receive.
What’s consistent throughout all these stories is the confusing disconnect between Díaz’s public persona as a writer who “gets” women, sexism, and toxic masculinity — and the allegations about how he treats women in the real world.
Díaz’s protagonists, in works like This Is How You Lose Her and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, tend to be womanizers. But there’s a distance between the way they behave and the way Díaz writes about them that makes his books seem, as Joe Fassler wrote in the Atlantic in 2012, as though they are about sexist characters but not sexist in and of themselves.
“I think the average guy thinks they’re pro-woman, just because they think they’re a nice guy and someone has told them that they’re awesome,” Díaz said in that Atlantic story. “But the truth is far from it. Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations.”
One of the goals of #MeToo and Time’s Up is to change the gravitational pull of the culture, so that it becomes harder and harder to create “these sort of fucked-up representations” without thinking. It’s a dismantling of toxic masculinity that Junot Díaz’s public persona would applaud — but also one that, if the accusations against him are true, his private self hasn’t internalized.
Update: This article has been updated to include Díaz’s statement to the Times and a statement from Monica Byrne to Vox.