With this post, I’ve decided to join the 2020 Discussion Challenge, hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!
I’ll probably just reach the “Discussion Dabbler” level (1-10 discussion posts), but who knows? Maybe I’ll do more with my first year doing this blogging challenge!
For my first entry, here’s a discussion about a book that’s very much in the news right now.
On the Facebook page Bookworms Anonymous, one of the members, Lori Lane Fox recently posted her review of the controversial novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins. In her review she started by saying that “While some critics argue that Jeanine Cummins was not the right person to tell the story of migrating to the US from Mexico because she is not Mexican, so it is not her story to tell, I ask, are not all stories either about leaving home or returning home, as novelist and poet Sherman Alexie claims? Do stories belong only to certain groups of people? Do we not all bleed red and pee yellow?”
This sparked a very long conversation on that group, where people came down on both sides of the question: was it really okay for Cummins’ to tell this story, or was this cultural appropriation? What was really surprising was that the remarkably civil discussion that ensued included people of both Latinx and non-Latinx backgrounds, with many noting parallel situations. Of course, all of this got me thinking, and from what I can see, it boils down to this:
- Can fiction writers write about cultures other than their own?
- If so, what are the elements required of that book for it to remain respectful of the culture about which they’re writing?
Surely, the answer to the first question must be yes! Otherwise, as many people on the thread noted, that would be censorship. Furthermore, if we’re all confined to our own sphere of present experiences and cultural history, would that mean that an author can’t write about Incan Columbia, Tudor England, Renaissance Italy, Tsarist Russia, or Ancient Rome, if they can’t trace their own ancestry back to one of those periods? What about the books about futuristic dystopian societies, or genres like fantasy, and science fiction? Those types of books aren’t in anyone’s cultural wheelhouse, so it would be ridiculous to tell anyone that these types of books are taboo for them to write about, since they have no skin in those games.
Obviously, I don’t think that authors should be limited to writing only about their own culture or backgrounds, but I do think that they have to be really careful about being authentic, staying away from stereotypes, and avoiding anachronisms. In fact, I’ve read many books where the authors weren’t from the culture or background of their protagonists, and I’ve noticed varying levels of success. Some of these books are wonderful while others are cringe-worthy.
When I think about these books, I realize that from my experience, the ones that succeed the best are historical fiction novels, with or without biographical fictional elements. Even with them, good research combined with good editors that use good fact checkers, and good beta readers, particularly ones FROM that culture or background (if possible) are essential to not insulting readers who come from that culture or background.
My regular readers know that I’d be a rich woman today if I had a nickel for every time I read a passage in a book on a Jewish subject or with Jewish characters, written by a non-Jew, that had such glaring errors (and even some antisemitic stereotypes) that were so awful that I wanted to take a match to the book! On the other hand, I’ve read books with Jewish themes or characters written by non-Jews that have been so beautifully researched, and felt so seamlessly written that they’ve received five glowing stars from me. (Case in point: “The Last Train to London” by Meg Clayton Waite.)
This is why I think that it is totally possible that had Cummins written this book as an historical fiction novel, making it more of an allegory than a plausible reality, it might have been received very differently. As it stands, the contemporary setting is therefore one of the biggest problems here. My point is that the plight of refugees and asylum seekers coming to the US across the southern border is a very current point of contention. It is going on right now, in real life, in real time, and it shows up on the news at least once a week (and if it doesn’t, it should be).
Frankly, this is why it should have been no surprise that a novel published on such a sensitive subject at this particular time would raise eyebrows – for both the good and the bad. Also, while people are saying that there are surely plenty of Latinx authors out there who could tell their own family’s immigration story (and I’m sure there are), would their more relevant cultural background really matter to any book on this topic, at this particular time? To be honest, I can’t answer that question; as they say in the field of Social Work, we have to work with what we have here. On that vein, someone in that Facebook thread said:
The problem with this book is not that it’s a bad book written by a fake writer to promote a false account, it’s that it takes the place of better books by more authentic authors promoting more realistic account – who don’t get a 1% of the promotion and attention this book is getting. I think Cummins meant well and I will fight for the right of an author to write about whatever the hell they want. I blame the industry, her publisher and Oprah’s publicity machine for not doing the same justice to #ownvoices writers. As an emigrant myself, at this point in my life I’m fed up with this in real life and don’t read about ’emigrant experience”. But found this article very enlightening, you may follow their suggestions. https://www.texasobserver.org/17-great-books-on-the-border-to-read-instead-of-american-dirt/ I wholeheartedly believe that anyone can write about any subject, to think otherwise is censorship, and coming from a totalitarian culture [I] won’t stand for that. But by the same token, the readers have all the right to reject accounts that are not authentic.
Now, I’m certain that Cummins had the best of intentions when she wrote this book, which she told NPR about. I just wonder if good intentions are enough if people who actually had these experiences are saying she got things very wrong. Surely fact checkers, and beta readers with either first-hand or at least second-hand knowledge of immigrants from South America, and in particular from Mexico, would have caught the inaccuracies. Where were they before this was published? Whose fault is it Cummins didn’t have the types of support to make a fictional story feel more authentic to those readers who know of or have experienced that reality?
Then I read this statement from January 29:
… Flatiron president and publisher Bob Miller said that “based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety.” Instead, he said, the publisher will “be organizing a series of town hall meetings, where Jeanine will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book. We believe that this provides an opportunity to come together and unearth difficult truths to help us move forward as a community.”
Saying that the company was surprised “by the anger that has emerged from members of the Latinx and publishing communities” about the book, Miller acknowledged “serious mistakes in the way we rolled out this book. We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland; we should not have had a centerpiece at our bookseller dinner last May that replicated the book jacket so tastelessly. We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.”
Well, with all due respect, this is an attempt at an excuse that for me, is both unfortunate and unacceptable – as in a sort of “too little, too late” situation. However, I also find it unconscionable that there are threats being made on booksellers and the author. Go ahead, get angry, voice your protests, write reviews that detail the inaccuracies and what you see as being offensive stereotypes – that’s free speech. But threats of violence? No, that’s intolerable and I’m appalled by it; that’s not free speech, that’s bullying, and that is something I will never condone.
I’d like to conclude this quote from Ron Charles’ perspective piece about this controversy from the Washington Post:
It’s worth recalling an earlier melodramatic thriller tarted up with flowery ornaments and freighted with earnest political relevance by a white woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe. We can debate how egregiously Stowe appropriated the lives of black people and exploited their suffering, but President Abraham Lincoln said that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sparked the Civil War. If “American Dirt” similarly motivates some Americans to fight against this country’s immoral immigration actions along the southern border, then more power to Cummins. And once engaged in that struggle, these readers might move on to better books.
I agree that this is a story that needed to be told, and let’s also hope that the threatened violence is all a bluff; America doesn’t need another civil war over a novel. However, America does need to wake up about what’s happening on its southern border, which is horrifying. Despite the poorly received roll-out of this novel, we could hope that people who read this book will understand that although this is fiction, it is also trying to be a political statement about a problem that should not be ignored. That is admirable, even if what is portrayed is not a proper reflection of the real people trying to find safe haven in the US. It is the treatment of these refugees and asylum seekers that we should be rising up against, not a (flawed, but well intentioned) work of fiction.