At the time Zinzi Clemmons was confronting Junot Díaz at the Sydney Writers’ Festival about his past mistreatment of her, I was elsewhere in the same building attending a writing workshop on literary nonfiction. At that exact moment we were engaged in a vigorous discussion of one of the chief concerns of writing in any genre: ethics. Writing literary nonfiction involves high stakes, said our workshop facilitator Maria Tumarkin. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth writing about. Prior to the workshop she’d asked us to send in our burning questions for her to address. One of mine was how to write well about certain kinds of traumatic events from my past without going into unnecessary details because, as I wrote in my email to her, these are not my stories only.
Reading the stories of Clemmons and others on Twitter the next day, it was all too easy to imagine how Díaz could have operated with apparent impunity in the literary world, no doubt in part due to his elevated status as a champion of marginalised voices. The situation felt uncomfortably familiar. Why has it been so difficult to speak up against someone like Díaz, and why is it so difficult to speak up against similar figures we might think of in Australia? In cases where race is involved, it’s a high stakes situation, and race can be a shield to hide behind, concealing dysfunctional behaviour. But the other difficulty preventing transparency is that when you’re part of a group that might be subsumed within a larger battle—war metaphors, it seems, are inescapable—there’s a lot more at stake than just you and your experiences and thoughts.
Just to be clear, the situations I am referring to in the literary world are not those of sexual assault and abuse—which is not to say that they don’t exist—but those I am familiar with are of violent words spoken aloud and written down, of actions designed to inflict pain. As all writers know, words alone are powerful weapons that can damage and destroy.
I’m aware that by suggesting there’s a similar problem in Australia, I could be accused of setting back the cause and undermining the greater good. Why go after our brown boys when there are white men?, as one friend of mine put it. It’s like going after small businesses for not paying enough tax, when the multinationals pay nothing at all. And, as some of us have known since we were born, surely there are times when loyalty is more important than justice. But perhaps describing this as loyalty overstates what might just be the protective impulse we have for men we perceive as vulnerable, even if they can’t see it themselves.
This lack of accountability has become too much to endure, and emboldened by Clemmons’ example, I think it’s time for a reckoning. We can’t just confront those who have the most power. Speaking as a writer of colour, we need to deal with the lateral violence in our so-called community, as it bleeds beyond racial boundaries anyway. I say ‘so-called’ rather sadly because sometimes it feels that we’re strange bedfellows, coupling due to our new world circumstances rather than out of genuine love.
Like many in Australia, I grew up in the middle of a community profoundly shaped and scarred by conflict and war. For some of us violence was normalised as an everyday occurrence, continuing long after the war itself had ended. It was a lonely, silent and shameful place to exist, and it was impossible to discuss what was going on with others. Talking meant admitting it was happening, and exposing the underbelly meant risking too much. Occasionally someone, usually younger than myself, would let it slip to me that they were in the same boat, and I would freeze, unable to even acknowledge, let alone assist. I was only just surviving myself. For the longest time I fumbled without guidance, feeling my way out, eventually seeking professional help. Later I discovered that by moving away from the centre of my community to the margins of it, there was more room to breathe. But it didn’t take long to realise that it’s impossible to completely escape trauma, and that inevitably I’d find it again in other communities and contexts.
Trawling through the social media fall-out, I found myself relating most to what Carmen Maria Machado wrote on Twitter about her prolonged and fraught interaction with Díaz when she challenged the misogyny in his writing. ‘Every time he asked me a question, I answered it, and he became freshly enraged when I refused to capitulate.’ This was an event recorded and witnessed by many others. Machado ended the story: ‘A friend of mine was so stressed out from the whole interaction that she texted me saying she’d have to leave so she could go home and take a Xanax.’ That friend could easily have been me.
I’ve left certain events at writers’ festivals so shaken that I couldn’t attend the rest of the day, triggered by what I saw unfold. Hundreds, even thousands, have witnessed events like this in Australia where a writer on a panel lets loose on others in the room, both panellists and audience members alike. Clearly not everyone is as affected by these fractious events, and perhaps this kind of collateral damage is inevitable because of the way discourse has shifted to public conversations. They often feel performed, anyway. It’s more than possible to simply view anger as a spectacle, a scolding, a stern warning; perhaps it’s not so different to enjoying horror films (I don’t). Only a minority of us watching in the audience will actually be reminded of just how life-threatening toxic male anger can be, especially when it comes from dominant men who are uncomfortably similar to figures in our own lives. We recognise what it looks like when someone takes up all the space, unable to manage their own fury, and the way everyone around them shrinks and shuts down as a consequence. But hey, it’s a free country, right?
In the face of glaring inequality, anger can well be a valid emotion to possess and express—it gives us all a damn good shake. There’s certainly a lot to be angry about in the world; I get that, even if I don’t always know how to express it. But when does anger stop being righteous and become self-righteous? When is it constructive and when is it destructive? Anger can be unwieldy and dangerous when it’s combined with a hunger for power, which translates in the literary world as a desire to accrue cultural capital, prestige, and control of the space. What’s lost from the silenced is unknown and immeasurable; there’s little I can add to the litany of examples from history. In our most important relationships there will inevitably be anger to work through in the hope of building a future together; yet I’m not sure I see this process happening as well as it could in some of the conversations we have around identity in writing. I fear they may well lead to divorce instead. What I’d like to see is more space allowed for different voices and ways of speaking that are no less powerful and necessary.
Guided by a well-honed instinct for self-preservation, I’ve rarely been in the direct line of fire, and there are those who have suffered far worse and those who have had more spectacular collisions. In recent times I’ve tended to some who have been bullied in various ways, those who are feeling the force of verbal assaults, emails and messages, sometimes expressed in public but mostly in private. Only now am I finally able to acknowledge and assist because I’m not just surviving anymore. But this vicarious trauma has taken its toll on me, just as it has in the past. For many months I’ve been plagued by another question: what is the responsibility of the witness? In a society with the rule of law, witness testimonies are vital, an impetus to act. I think about how important the duty of care is in healthcare, education and other settings I’ve worked in, and how, when I have spoken up when I saw harm occurring—as it inevitably does—the way hierarchy can offer protection. Such measures don’t exist in the literary world. So when you see something that needs to be reported, who can you talk to?
Speaking up against your own is always a risk, however you define your tribe, especially when they’re figures that are adored, even lionised—and wait, who are you again? In Australia, being outspoken as a visible minority also carries the real possibility of being cast out by both the old and the new guard. No one likes a traitor. There’s the potential damage to future writing careers, already so precarious under existing power structures. Particularly as there are those with far more power who have more than an inkling of what’s happening, but choose not to take a stand and stand by—and even enable.
These are some of the reasons why we’re able to be silenced by our angry and self-appointed spokespeople. This is why we struggle to speak up when we see the wrongdoings of our literary darlings, because we seem to have so few. This is what it’s like to be a witness, to say nothing on behalf of those who have been attacked. Yet, eventually, we do speak up because we value the community too much to lose it. Across time this task often falls to the women of the tribe, the only ones able and willing to be publicly critical about their men and, in this case, their art.
Given the tumultuous times we live in, I believe constructive and mutually respectful dialogue is more important than ever. For our civil society to flourish, we need to come together rather than be driven further apart. The instability we’re experiencing in our cultural spheres stems in part from some of the urgent conversations shaking Australia’s very foundations, exposing the structural racism of our society. This change is necessary and overdue. So these are some of our hardest conversations as we attempt to transform old power structures from both within and without. But how can we avoid just replicating power structures with different faces? How can we disable rather than enable misogyny? How do we cut ‘the crimson thread of male entitlement’, to quote Roanna Gonsalves?
Most days I convince myself that saying anything at all is unwarranted because writers are an eccentric bunch, and I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I couldn’t accept individual flaws and differences stemming from personality. For every person in the literary world we would censure there would be legions who would mount a passionate defence of these challenging men (and yes, women too) who have been nothing but collegial and supportive—which clearly they can be. At one writers’ festival event I attended many years ago, a woman stood up and yelled out from the floor in defence of an angry panelist who had just shouted at the room: I owe him everything, I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for him! Yet I wonder if the people who stand up—good people, presumably—turn a blind eye at times, which is what we do with the troubled and complex figures in our lives. That’s what we do with the Díazs of this world when they represent so much more than themselves, and when there’s so much more at stake.
On other days I convince myself that I do have to say something after all, even as I plan my retreat. For the sake of posterity it seems critical to state, for the record, that some of us are conscientious objectors to the wars apparently being waged on our behalf. We’ve had to fight as hard as we can against being conscripted; but that doesn’t mean we aren’t just as passionate about the metamorphosis of the literary world.
When it all got too much earlier this year, I took the risk to reach out and confide in someone more senior than me in both age and experience. I didn’t know who else to turn to who seemed more vertical rather than horizontal in terms of her position. I’m grateful she believed me when I described what I’d seen and the things people had said to me. Indeed, she’d already seen a little herself and heard rumours. But we agreed that she was ultimately powerless as well, and that her being a white woman was unhelpful in this instance. Still, it helped to be heard, even though it meant exposing the underbelly.
Ultimately, the Díaz saga also reveals one of the great tragedies of multicultural societies without broad and robust representation in the arts. With limited space for true diversity, the little that’s available may not end up distributed beyond a small number, including the loudest voices who may have felt like they had to shout down everyone else in order to be heard. Meanwhile, the rest of us stay quiet, doing our best to work in uncelebrated ways; it’s what we—mostly women—have been trained to do from the moment we arrived.
Sheila Ngoc Pham is a writer, producer and broadcaster. Her writing has appeared in a wide range of publications including Griffith Review, Southerly, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and The Big Issue, and she’s produced for radio programs including The Philosopher’s Zone and Earshot on ABC RN. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation and lectures in public health ethics at Macquarie University.