#LetsDiscuss2020 – Cultural Appropriation in Fiction – A TCL Literary Musings Post.

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.

American_Dirt_by_Jeanine_CumminsOn 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.

Last Train to LondonMy 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.

What do you think?

47 thoughts on “#LetsDiscuss2020 – Cultural Appropriation in Fiction – A TCL Literary Musings Post.

  1. Like you, I’m somewhat torn on this subject. I agree that authors can’t ONLY write about themselves—we would be so limited in our storytelling and we wouldn’t be reflecting the world we live in. However, in such a timely and specific case of a story of immigration, it’s hard to believe that the story shouldn’t be told by someone who’s experienced it in some way. But no matter what you believe on the subject, we have to be able to express our opinions in ways that aren’t overtly harmful to others—obviously death threats are just never okay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a well written debate! I haven’t read the book that sparked it nor have I been aware of the controversy (I don’t know if it’s because I’m in the UK or not?) but the belief that someone has to be of a culture, faith, ethnicity etc. in order to write about it boils my blood. However, writing about a culture, faith or ethnicity without proper research, sensitivity readers and proper due diligence also boils my blood for it’s presumptuous, arrogant and likely damaging.

    But I really wish people weren’t so quick to lash out and the constant screams of cultural appropriation are getting stupid. Of course, I’m not saying cultural appropriation isn’t a thing but not every case of someone wearing an item of clothing, using a phrase, styling their hair a certain way, making certain foods and shouting about why they love it, is cultural appropriation – if that makes sense? Sometimes it’s just simple appreciation which people seem to have forgotten. Heck, if I had £1 for every time I read a book written by non-Scottish author set in Scotland (historical romances with kilted men on the front in particular) I’d be a VERY rich woman!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this amazingly well balanced report on the topic. My first reaction to the whole uproar was that if we can only write about our own experience, then male writers could never write female characters and female writers could never write male characters. But as I read more about the controversy, I came to think that context is important. The most crucial element here, for me, is that it was insensitive for this book to be published and promoted in an age that questions the small number of works published by minority writers. Your idea about historical fiction makes sense to me. But yes, the publisher was definitely at fault for the barbed-wire centerpieces and the “undocumented” spouse from Ireland.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for writing this! I’ve been so surprised there hasn’t been more discussion on this topic in the book blogging world. I received an ARC of this book through Netgalley, but I was late to start it. I had no idea about the controversy until the day I was set to begin reading. Once I read about all the issues being raised, I didn’t feel comfortable reading it. I’m still on the fence. I don’t know if I could read it right now with an unbiased eye. But I do agree with everything you’ve said. It’s such a polarizing issue, but such an important one. Hopefully it will bring more awareness and lead to positive outcomes. Great post! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, I think the problem is the perspective. If you present your hero as really from a world you don’t know well, it’s very tricky.
    If you present him/her as someone close but still from the outside, discovering things, trying to understand, then that changes everything. Your hero and you the author are allowed to make mistakes and not to know everything that a person fully in that country/culture/situation would obviously know.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What an excellent post Davida. Must say, this book has completely slipped under my radar. I was vaguely aware of the title, perhaps because Theresa had reviewed it, but I hadn’t heard any of the controversy. I think I’ve been totally focused on what’s been happening here in SE Australia over the last month.

    Anyhow, this is an issue I have discussed in my blog more than once, particularly in relation to white writers on black. It’s a big political issue in literary Australia. My theoretical opinion is that anyone should, essentially, be able to write anything. However, I also argue that when it comes to major power imbalances, to white writers writing about marginalised or disempowered people, they need to be highly aware of what they are doing, and very careful (in the ways you talk about). They also need to be ready for some flack (and able to listen to that flack and learn from it.) The book I’m reading now – hopefully reviewing next week – walks in this territory a bit, though the protagonist is white, so I was planning to raise the issue again. Fortunately the writer has given me some answers because she raised the issue herself at the book launch! She knows, in other words, what she’s doing, and why. And, she had, I believe, many beta readers from a variety of backgrounds,

    BUT it’s completely unacceptable in a liberal democracy (in any circumstance, really) for death threats and the like. When I say “prepared for flack”, I mean critical and perhaps harsh discourse, not threats and vituperation.

    As for the publisher’s “apology” or explanation, more than “too little, too late”, I’d say say they showed an astonishing lack of awareness of the culture they are working within. I haven’t read the book so I don’t exactly know, but from what you’ve said, how could they not have realised what they were stepping into?

    Anyhow, well done on writing such a good discussion of the topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I think the callousness of the publisher or editor in not taking these sensitivities into account is what bothers most people. That and it being touted as a book about the “immigrant experience” and the “Grapes of Wrath for our time”!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We’ve had our “immigrant experience” novel controversy. Just check out Helen Dale (aka Helen Demidenko in Wikipedia. The controversy was fierce at the time, 1994-5, and appropriation was part of it, though it was bigger than that too.)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great discussion! In light of sentivive and politically charged content you would think the publishers would have done a better job of listening to advanced readers concerns! The issues in the book must have been brought up by them! I appreciate hearing the concerns but I don’t appreciate being told by other reviewers that I can’t and shouldn’t read it! There are some strong intimidation tactics being used.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This book has brought out so much anger, controversy, questioning, and more. I love your post about it, showing both sides to a tough situation. I love that the reading community is discussing these issues as they are so important. And I agree that authors should write what they know and that which is outside their personal space. Perhaps you’re right that a contemporary topic makes this more difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In another comment here, someone said that in a different FB group someone suggested that had this been written as a fantasy or dystopian or alternative universe novel, it also wouldn’t have gotten as much backlash. I agree.


  9. Rebecca Makkai wrote a great piece a while ago for Lithub about writing across difference, and she shared it again in the midst of this controversy. https://lithub.com/how-to-write-across-difference/. Also, I heard an interview with Cummins on Latino USA yesterday, and it sounded like she did do a lot of research and reading but then ended up writing the book very quickly. It made me wonder how carefully she thought through the details she decided to include.

    I wonder how much the promotion of this book as important to the conversation about immigration ended up making things worse. I haven’t read it and don’t want to, but it sounds like a thriller with a social conscience, rather than an important literary work. Nothing wrong with a thriller, but I think people have different expectations about realism if that’s what they know they’re picking up.

    And, finally, it is terrible that she’s received threats. That’s never the answer. But I understand that her critics have received threats too (some of them have talked about it on Twitter), and that hasn’t been mentioned as much in articles about the situation.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Though I do agree, that people can write about what they like, and many white authors are criticized for not including diversity in their books, it still seems a bit inappropriate to me. However, if the author does elect to write a story from the perspective of someone belonging to a marginalized group, they have a duty to do so responsibility. They need to do through research and utilize sensitivity readers. I personally would pick an OwnVoices book first, if I wanted to know about the experience depicted in books like American Dirt, but that’s my personal thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The first time that I heard about this book was after I had shared a fellow book reviewer’s review. I remembered the title when I later I saw several controversial tweets, so I read on to find out a little more about why everyone was up in arms.

    I’d like to hope that for all those who genuinely know or find better books written about this subject, that they review them and help spread a positive word about them. While the topic is hot, this is a marketing opportunity that others can turn to their advantage.

    On a different note, the exposure that the book / author / publisher are getting over this, reminds me of 50 Shades Of Grey, a book I’ve not read either, but look at the money made from it. I doubt the publisher of American Dirt will pull a book which may have similar potential after the storm about it dies down.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Agree that a writer can choose to go outside their experience but care should be taken not to offend, unless satire is the point. It can be a fine line.

    Did you read about the RWA debacle?


      1. The Romance Writers Of America!

        So. One top writer Courtney Milan, who is half-Chinese, called out another romance writer for producing a novel full of racist stereotypes about Chinese people. This was in the middle of a twitter thread on racism and white supremacy too. The writer complained about the “diss” and people took sides, some saying that Milan’s point about racism was less relevant than her breach of etiquette in not supporting another romance novelist. The horror!

        Milan was suspended from the RWA! Her supporters were outraged and canceled their memberships. (As a side note, the RWA was founded to support female writers especially those of color when traditional houses were taking advantage of them in contracts.) The whole RWA board ended up quitting! And the lovely RITAs were canceled!

        This all just happened in December.

        The novel with the “Chinese stereotypes” has been “grudgingly updated.”

        Stay tuned for more bodice-ripping excitement!

        Liked by 2 people

  13. The Bookworms Anonymous discussion has been pretty tame compared to some other facebook groups I’m in (The “Read It Forward” group has been vicious). I’m so tired of writing the same thing over and over because it feels like I’m talking to a child with their fingers in their ears. But I would like to say that all JC had to do was research. That’s it. And she obviously failed. Her “afterword” leaves a dirty taste in mouth. She has misrepresented herself and her circumstances. So unless there is any proof, I really don’t think she’s been threatened. I believe it is just another of her misrepresentations. Because at this point, she and her publisher have not given me any reason to trust them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure her doing better research would have been enough. I think what she really needed was people of Latinx backgrounds to beta read this book – people who went through similar things or had family who did. I put more blame on the publisher and editor than I do on her.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ultimately, I think it is on her for not being able to remove her “white gaze” from the novel. Because I honestly think that is what happened. JC was surprised to learn many things (like that there is an ice rink) and wrote it into her story. Not realizing/understanding/or caring that her character would not be surprised by something like that.

        And I agree. It is also on the publishers for the way they promoted the book. From “the best immigrant story” to the barbed wire decor. How could they not have sensitivity readers? Then again, JC was the one with the barbed wire manicure. I find it hard to believe that all of these issues didn’t come up pre-publication.

        I would also like to point out that I was right about the death threats. They never happened. JC and Flatiron books just portrayed us as a ruthless mob without cause. I knew they were lying lol

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you! Thank you so much for writing this. I read American Dirt in December as an ARC, not knowing all that much about it. I wrote my review straight after, scheduled it to post in line with the book’s publication date, and moved on. What you’ve said at the end here, in both that quote and your own sum up, is exactly how I felt about the novel after finishing, and what I focused on in my review. Out of everything within that novel, to me, this was the message, and I’ve seen so many opinions out there, written for the large part by people who haven’t read the novel but feel they have a lot to say about it, and none of them ever say that, because of course, they haven’t read it, so they can’t comment on the intent.
    Disturbingly, I saw a comment yesterday on Instagram, that a reviewer had raised the notion that readers shouldn’t even be reviewing this novel unless you have lived experience of the content. I can’t even be bothered unpacking such ignorance, but that’s almost hysterical band-wagoning now. And it completely perpetuates the problem. When I read something, like American Dirt, that has themes and/or issues that make an impact on me, I read further. That’s how we inform ourselves. From reading American Dirt, I then began to think more deeply on, and draw comparison to, Australia’s own border control and the way we detain illegal immigrants indefinitely in atrocious conditions. If I only read books that are written by white, middle-class Australian women, and every reviewer henceforth does the same, mimicking their own cultural heritage, we’re going to become pretty insular.
    As far as opinion pieces on this novel go, yours is the best I’ve read so far. Thank you again for taking the time to write it.
    Also, despite the controversy, I elected to leave my review exactly as it is, along with the 5 star rating. That’s how I felt after reading the novel, to change any part of it now, in the midst of the controversy, would be dishonest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good for you! One of the best-sellers of this year’s likely to be the third in the Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall trilogy – does the reviewer think that no-one should review that unless they lived through the reign of Henry VIII?!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Actually, in the same thread that I saw this, another person argued that American Dirt would have worked if it were dystopian/fantasy/alternate universe. That would make it a completely different type of book, and one I wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole, but it raises questions about different rules for different genres, whilst still remaining within the fictional form.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. And the only people who gain anything are the publishers and the author who are going to make millions off the publicity. Now, if Cummins and/or the publisher donated some of theirearnings to the refugees on the Southern border, that might put some of this right.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Very well stated, Davida. I missed the promotions for this book and only came to know about it when it started to gain further traction on Twitter about someone’s nail art. I followed through the maze of *threads and learnt far more than I realised I might have within a few hours. Such as what happens when you try to back-trace what something is referencing… your blog post openly states the key issues and respectfully states what I felt should be obvious – every writer needs to be able to have the freedom to tell stories but to tell them accurately, authentically and not disrespectfully takeaway from others.

    I truly agreed about the support team which all writers need: not just the editors, but the betas, the early readers (for ARCs, etc) and the round of editors and proofreaders, too. If you take the shortcuts in publishing it reflects on the marketing level – once a book goes to launch it is too late to correct half of those errors but in this case, I was seriously questioning why the book wasn’t pulled. Because of what you’ve outlined. And, the responses from both sides – it just felt like maybe this was one book that needed to be shelved before it released.

    Thanks for sharing your intuitive thoughts and for handling a very difficult subject brilliantly!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. No, I wouldn’t but nothing surprises me anymore. Pre-Twitter and before I started my blog, I might have been more shocked to hear this – now? I wish I could stay shocked but too much has happened and/or been revealled. #bookTwitter reveals far more than people realise and as bloggers, someone gets the word out for those who are not bookishly tweeting their readerly lives as well.

        I marvel at how sometimes I find major flaws and glitches in Major Trade releases; things that copy editors would (or should) catch and how sometimes there is just flaw in the production line of books; I still remember having to read a book where I had to tear the pages apart because of a glue malfunction! Oyy.

        If we all remain mindful and acutely aware of what is going on – we not only become better informed but we can make better informed choices about what we are reading and what we are seeking to read.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Oh – on the subject of stereotypes and lack of research, our GCSE (the exams you do at 16) set play was The Merchant of Venice, and I wrote an essay about how Shakespeare didn’t seem to understand how upset Shylock would have been about Jessica running off with Lorenzo. I don’t think it was what the teacher was expecting!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Obviously, books need to be sensitively-written and well-researched, but I think that the “not their story to tell” argument is dangerous – are people only supposed to write about characters of the same age, ethnicity, religion, nationality, socio-economic class, gender and sexuality as themselves? What about historical fiction – no-one alive now shares the culture of people from the past? What about sci-fi or fantasy, come to that? And what about demographic groups who aren’t in a position to tell their own story because of oppression, or just because their work isn’t likely to be translated into other languages?

    We’re already getting to a stage where people are nervous about saying anything, because everyone seems so quick to accuse others of being prejudiced. I’d hate to think that good authors were frightened to tell a story because of “cultural appropriation”. We’ve had situations in the UK where celebrity chefs have been accused of “cultural appropriation” for serving food associated with ethnic groups other than their own! Some books are good and some books are bad, but that’s not generally because the author and the characters are from different backgrounds.

    Sorry for the rant 🙂 !

    Liked by 2 people

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