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When we lose our heroes

Pranay Jha and Tanya Ali reflect on the men of colour who have failed them

Artwork by Pranay Jha Artwork by Pranay Jha

CW: SEXUAL HARASSMENT/ASSAULT

“Innocence is such a fucking white myth, man.”

It was a line that really resonated with the crowd at Junot Diaz’s show at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF.) It wasn’t put to the audience in an overtly rhetorical way, nor was it a really complex idea. The reason it really struck with people was because it so perfectly captured the imperfect reality of being a person of colour – the idea that from the moment we come into existence, our lives are shaped by raw experiences that our white counterparts will never understand. Ironically, Diaz himself provided us with one such raw experience – the process of losing a hero.

For those unaware, Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prizewinning author, known most notably for writing The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A headliner of SWF’s 2018 lineup, Diaz’s in-conversation to promote his children’s book, Islandborn, was one of the festival’s fastest-selling sessions. He was also slated for a number of subsequent events – notably, some talks aimed for younger fans on the festival’s closing day. But at a panel that Diaz was participating in the night after his sold-out address, titled ‘Why We Read,’ a young Black woman stood up in the audience question time and asked Diaz a question that would eventuate in Diaz’s withdrawal from the festival, as well as worldwide headlines.

On April 16 – roughly two weeks before Sydney Writers’ Festival began – Diaz published an article in the New Yorker, titled ‘The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.’ The article was incredibly vulnerable, and was lauded online. Seemingly a rejection of the bravado so closely intertwined with performances of toxic masculinity, it was a reflection on Diaz’s history as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, something he had never written or publicly spoken about until its publication. As an audience member at the ‘Why We Read’ panel on Friday 4 May, fellow visiting author Zinzi Clemmons decided enough was enough.

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Overnight, other female authors took to Twitter to voice both their support for Clemmons, and their similar experiences with Diaz. By Saturday morning, SWF has issued a statement advising Diaz had pulled out of any further events at the festival. Clemmons was a panelist at an event titled ‘My Feminism Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit’ on Saturday afternoon. When the moderator of the panel asked Clemmons if she would like to speak to what happened the night before, she was articulate, enraged, and simultaneously matter-of-fact. She didn’t name Diaz once – at this point, there was no need. She started by noting calmly that she did not ‘accuse’ anyone – she asked a question based on what had happened to her, and she knew for a fact that other women had been through the same. Over the day, she said, many people had come and told her how ‘brave’ she was to speak out, and she vehemently disagreed with this sentiment; in that moment, she felt it would have simply been an act of cowardice to stay silent. Clemmons had been getting frustrated about the silence surrounding powerful men in the literary scene, and had decided then and there to take action.

Diaz is not the first celebrated man of colour to let us down, nor will he be the last. Every time something like this happens, what strikes us the most is the sheer sense of betrayal. With every new ‘controversy,’ we feel as though we’ve learnt – as if there will be something different about the next hero we choose to embrace. Despite this, we’re left surprised, shocked and disoriented.

The sense of self-doubt one experiences when losing a hero is difficult to articulate. It’s a feeling that is undeniably intensified, when your understandings of race are tied to the works of men like Diaz or Aziz Ansari. For many of us, the ways in which we establish a sense of mutual identification with people of colour across the globe is through the unique ways in which these men capture experiences of race and culture. We distinctly remember watching Master of None, and finding a sense of affirmation and solidarity in the depictions of being a second generation desi in the West. We have no doubts that young Dominicans around the world would have shared these experiences as they read Diaz’s novels. For people of colour around the world, the tragedy is, then, two-fold. Of course, primarily it’s a sense of collective grief and emotional despair for the harms faced by survivors. But it is also a loss of the foundations of our racial experience – a disassociation from the cultural artefacts we once cherished. For some, this manifests in an irrational protection of men of colour who have done horrible things. Communities galvanise around ‘the accused,’ seeking hope in conspiracy as they desperately cling onto their role models. It is without question that such responses are deeply problematic, and often exploited by men of colour to escape accountability for their actions. But they also reveal a deep sense of mistrust that people of colour have in social institutions like the media. After generations of subjugation and domination, it is far easier to believe the narrative that the whites are trying to bring down another successful cultural icon then come to terms with reality.

For us, the reality is more a sense of loss. We have lost someone who wrote and spoke in a way that made us feel found. Yet another successful, highprofile man of colour letting us down; a rare instance of positive representation within an incredibly white literary scene made invalid. Clemmons puts it better than we can, though:

“If you focus on “what to do about him” you are playing directly into his hands. I feel very sorry for the readers who feel let down, but know that you are mourning something that never existed in the first place. He never deserved your admiration. It was all a lie.

This article appeared in the autonomous ACAR edition, ACAR Honi 2018.