It took Jeanine Cummins seven years to write American Dirt. The story of a middle-class Mexican bookseller who flees Acapulco with her young son after a cartel violently attacks a birthday party she’s attending, in the process killing her journalist husband who earlier profiled the cartel leader… Loaded with tension, bubbling with suspense, as heartbreaking and current as children in cages on the world news, her hard work earned her a seven-figure book deal. Sounds like a Don Winslow novel to me. In fact, Mr. Winslow called it a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. He was not alone. Stephen King said it was “extraordinary.” And Oprah selected it for her coveted book club.
At least that’s what some people say. Others are calling it “trauma porn” and “an atrocious piece of cultural appropriation.” They accuse her of trafficking in stereotypes and “wallowing in ignorance.” I saw where writer and professor David Bowles called her use of the Spanish language in dialogue “wooden and odd, as if generated by Google Translate.” In addition to attacking her on the mechanics and merits of her work, many believe that a white American woman should not be writing stories about Mexican immigrants.
It’s this last part that gets me. If the book sucks, fine. Torch it. Slather it with all the negative criticism it deserves and post your findings in every literary journal on the web. But don’t disqualify art on the grounds of the ethnicity of the artist. By doing so, we perpetuate the same marginalization we claim to be fighting against. Unfortunately, this is not new. There’s a whole movement out there that is pushing this agenda and shaming anyone who does not conform.
A couple of years ago, Amélie Wen Zhao asked her publisher to pull her novel Blood Heir due to the beating she took online for her lack of racial sensitivity. According to reports, she botched the delicate issue of slavery in her fiction. One of the louder voices in this politically correct lynch mob was Kosoko Jackson, an aspiring writer who worked as a “sensitivity reader” for major publishers of young adult fiction. His job description was to read manuscripts and flag them for problematic content. In addition to his day job, he was also part of a small but intense online community that scolded writers who they felt were out-of-bounds. Last year, in an article by Ruth Graham, I read where Mr. Jackson himself, who identifies as black and queer, was called out by that same community for being tone deaf to the atrocities of genocide in his gay teen love story A Place for Wolves, a novel he also eventually pulled. Apparently the outraged eat their own.
I can’t help but wonder what would happen if my third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, were to pass through the pristine and manicured hands of this Orwellian literary police force. Would they hyperventilate with righteous indignation upon discovering that half the novel is written in the POV of a black kid from a Pensacola project building? Or that the other half is written in the voice of a foster child? Would they purse their lips in disgust as the novel snakes through the infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys? Or label the overdoses and drive-bys and prison violence “trauma porn?” Would they waggle their angry fingers from the anonymity of their computer screens and say I have no right to tell these stories? I hope so. I would welcome that debate.
Right now, I’m two-thirds of the way through the first book in a series about a young incarcerated pregnant woman who’s kicking opiates in the county jail. I’m sure this one would really infuriate the #ownvoices task force. My response would be something like the great Pat Conroy’s to the Charleston school board when his books were banned: On the Shoulders of Giants and Sticks & Stones are my darlings. I would lay them at the feet of God and say “this is how I found the world you made…”
Or I could just follow Jeanine Cummins’ lead. When they asked the author what gave her the right to tell the story of American Dirt, her answer was simple. “I wrote a novel. I wrote a work of fiction that I hoped would be a bridge because I felt that screaming into the echo chamber wasn’t working. For better or for worse, this is the result.”