When asked why she had gone public with her claims of sexual harassment against the Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz, American writer Zinzi Clemmons told an audience of the Sydney Writers' Festival the day after the scandal broke:

''I got sick of everyone saying it in private – it was not a secret – I wanted to say something in public.''

Clemmons received rousing applause from a packed, largely female, crowd. ''Its an act of cowardice to be silent,'' she added.

It was a different reaction in different circumstances when Clemmons first confronted Díaz at the end of a session on Friday in which Díaz and three other authors were discussing their reading lives.

Zinzi Clemmons described silence as an act of cowardice.

Photo: James Alcock

Clemmons took to Twitter to express disappointment in the subsequent apology of Díaz, which she described as a ''soup of unintelligibility'' and said she was left hurt by the reaction of the audience and the moderator, Ashley Hay.


''I was crying in the lobby while you were clapping for him. Hopefully next time you will think twice about siding with a powerful man over a scared young woman.''

But others have defended the reaction of Hay who was apparently blindsided by the question, did not know the identity of the questioner or Clemmons' background.

Díaz, who was in Sydney to promote his first children's book Islandborn, withdrew from the festival, having appeared at three of his five scheduled events, and flew out the next morning.

In that moment the festival found itself at the centre of its own explorations into the impact of the #Metoo Movement and its capacity to shake the pillars of power.

In her closing message, festival director Michaela McGuire said the festival had witnessed the program's theme of power in action, in real time.

It was McGuire who presciently argued at the program launch in April that 2018 was the year in which old power structures had begun to ''tremble under the collective weight of the bullshit they held up''. ''Finally, long-silenced voices rose together and became a movement,'' she said.

Michaela McGuire: the festival is a platform for the sharing of the sharing of powerful stories.

Photo: Adrian Cook

Speaking last night at Carriageworks in which American writer Jennifer Egan gave the closing address on the fallibility of technology and the importance of fiction, McGuire pointed to the cancellation of the Nobel Prize for Literature due to a sexual assault scandal. It was also the week that Irin Carmons five-month-long co-authored Washington Post investigation, telling of 27 more women who had allegations of sexual assault against talk show host Charlie Rose, was published.

''Last night, Irin Carmon joined Tracey Spicer, Jenna Wortham and Sophie Black in a #MeToo discussion at Town Hall that has never felt more timely called, This is Not a Moment, Its A Movement.

''This festival is a platform for the sharing of powerful stories: urgent, necessary and sometimes difficult. Such conversations have never felt more important.''

A total of 400 tickets were refunded after Díaz pulled out of his two remaining events.

While the festival said it would have liked the extra ticket sales, author cancellations are inevitable and are factored into its budget. Festival organisers did not think these would have any impact on the bottom line with many people rebooking their tickets.

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Linda Morris

Linda Morris is an arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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