This week, we are addressing issues of sexual assault, abuse of power, and narratives of truth that have been effecting the literary world recently. Yesterday, we considered the announcement that there would be no 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature as a result of the sexual assault scandal that has tarnished the reputation of the prestigious award.
The second story we need to address is that of Pultizer-Prize winning author Junot Diaz. In April of this year, Junot Diaz published a deeply personal, intimate, and moving essay in The New Yorker, detailing the enduring damage he suffered as a result of childhood rape. The essay was emotional and powerful, and served as a powerful reminder of the ways in which the #MeToo movement needed to encompass victims of sexual violence, no matter their gender, sex, race, or personal status. The essay spoke to many who felt that their experiences had not yet been represented in discussions about sexual violence and power, and for that reason, was a source of hope.
However, within this essay were a number of troubling implications regarding Diaz’s subsequent treatment of women; for example, Diaz’s admitting to “running around with other women”, to “ghosting” women (a phrase which describes the act of cutting off all contact with a person without warning–in effect, to become a ghost), and to betraying lovers and partners. These admissions went largely unaddressed before last week, as most people focused on Diaz’s own narrative. However, in her stunning review of Diaz’s essay, Briana L. Urena-Ravelo called out the way Diaz described the women he used during his journey, noting that:
…it is hard to hear him dissect and discuss the harm he then went on to cause towards the nameless Black and Brown women he dated on his journey of dealing with the effects and aftermath of his assault, reduced to objects that are mere footnotes in his journey, operating as tools to animate and move him forward at a time when he needed life and love and couldn’t make such decisions for himself, mere testaments, lessons of what his messed up behavior lost him.
Then, last week for example, in only became an issue of widespread discussion after allegations of sexually aggressive behavior and misogynistic confrontations came to light late last week. Since that essay, a number of authors, including Carmen Maria Machado and Zinzi Clemmons, came forward to describe their encounters with Diaz, and the belittling, misogynistic, and predatory behavior to which they were subjected. Diaz has long been upheld as an advocate for many things we hold dear: reading, libraries, inclusion, and compassion. So for many, to hear that his public image and private behavior were so incongruous was not only jarring, but truly disappointing and disillusioning.
So what do we take away from all this?
Diaz’s behavior should not obscure his suffering–indeed, this moment offers us a powerful lesson about the ways in which trauma can reproduce trauma–especially in circumstances where people are not provided with the sympathy, tools, and support they need to heal properly.
But Diaz’s behavior should also force us to reckon with whose stories we hear, and whose silences we accept. In her discussion of her experience with Diaz, Carmen Maria Machado (pictured above) recalled:
And I’ll never forget: his male handlers (presumably from the university? I don’t know) were sitting directly in front of me, and every time he spoke they nodded enthusiastically and in unison, and every time I spoke, they froze. When I think about those men I want to scream.
— Carmen Maria Machado (@carmenmmachado) May 4, 2018
This experience points to the ways in which power and privilege in reinforced by those unwilling to question the status quo. This kind of power feeds on silence; not only the silence of victims, but the silence of those unwilling to speak up. And that needs to change. This does not invalidate Diaz’s own experience or suffering; indeed, consider how much his own enforced silence regarding his rape harmed him, by interrogating silence, we have the chance to offer hope to all those involved in these brutal cycles of harm, self-harm, and shame. We have the opportunity to begin chipping away at the structures that privilege one person’s story over another, that dictate who is allowed to suffer and who is not, that encourage others to turn their backs when such stories of suffering are told.
But in order to do that, we have to learn to listen in a more profound way than we ever have before. That is a frightening prospect, because it means opening up to stories that we may not want to hear–stories that challenge our understanding of the world, our assumptions, both positive and negative, about those around us, and, indeed, that challenge our own place in those stories. To not do so, however, is to maintain the silences that have harmed so many for so long. And at this point, such an idea is untenable. We need to do better, as individuals, and as communities. We are here to help. If you have questions regarding the #MeToo Movement, or resources that can help you learn more and access resources that are available, please let a Library Staff member know. We are here. We are listening.