Archive for January, 2020

THE DIRT ON “AMERICAN DIRT”

They’re at it again. The new novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has drawn lots of attention. Following a major publicity campaign by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, American Dirtreceived a number of terrific reviews. Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club (Flatiron published four of Oprah’s books), the ultimate U.S. sales driver. Then the dirt flew.

Although bestselling crime/mystery author Don Winslow (published by William Morrow) cover-blurbed, “A Grapes of Wrath for our times,” and other leading writers praised the novel, a number of Latino/Latina/Latinx authors, critics and social commentators stomped on American Dirt.

Many of those opposed to American Dirt haven’t read it. (Neither have I.) The issue: Jeanine Cummins is white with a single Puerto Rican grandparent. That should disqualify her from writing about Mexicans fleeing to America. Imagination? Empathy? Writing chops? Not in play.

From what I’ve read about American Dirt, the novel offers an inventive take on the Mexican migration story. The heroine, Lydia, owns a bookstore in Acapulco. She gets involved—at least regarding books—with a charming man, who turns out to be the head of a drug cartel. Lydia’s husband, an investigative reporter, writes about the drug lord. Cartel gunmen then slaughter Lydia’s family. Only she and her son Luca survive.

One critic asked why Lydia didn’t fly to Canada since she had the means. It seems there’s an answer. The drug lord can reach any nation but the U.S. (Why, I don’t know.) Traveling with poor migrants offers Lydia and Luca cover. But they discover that they must face the same horrors encountered by the poor and defenseless migrants whom they accompany.

So, Cummins offers a rationale for the story. Does American Dirtstand equal to The Grapes of Wrath? No idea. I suspect Cummins never asked for all the hype but, like all writers, welcomes it. I would. Of course, only by reading a novel can you judge it.

But these days, a story and writing skills aren’t enough. Opponents of cultural appropriation insist that particular stories can be told only by writers of proper race, ethnicity, sex or gender identification or preference.

Some critics of American Dirt don’t mind Cummins writing the novel she did. They just don’t want her to profit from it. (She received a seven-figure advance). A New York Times article quoted Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, whose new memoir covers crossing the border and growing up undocumented in California: “The problem isn’t that a non-Mexican wrote about migration.” It’s “the gross bastardization of the subject and the erasing of others who have written about this and are writing about it.

In short, American Dirt is being heavily promoted by its publisher and heading for great commercial success. Why should Cummins cash in and not Castillo and true Latinx?

Of course, the novel may be a literary dud. Times reviewer Paruhl Seghal writes, “The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.”

Fair enough. Ultimately, readers and awards committees will decide the worthiness of American Dirt. I hope their decisions will be based on the content of Cummins’ characters, not the color of her skin.

Or am I, as an Ashkenazi Jew, appropriating Martin Luther King?

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THE OTHER F-WORD

On December 17, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) stated re the upcoming trial of impeached president Donald Trump, “I’m not an impartial juror.” On January 16, Chief Justice John Roberts swore in the Senate. McConnell pledged to “do impartial justice.” Anyone for cognitive dissonance?

Then McConnell doubled down. Before preliminaries this past Tuesday, he asked, “Can we still put fairness, evenhandedness and historical precedent ahead of the partisan passions of the day?”

Alas, fair is a word generally honored in the breach. Trump’s trial likely will be a great deal less than fair to the American people. Procedures and voting will reflect near-total partisanship. It’s a given that Republicans will acquit Trump.

Personally, I believe Trump’s phone call to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky constituted abuse of his office for personal political gain. This calls for removal from office. But I stress the word believe.

Impeachment is somewhat similar to indicting someone in a criminal case, although it’s a political matter and involves interpretation of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Still, an impeached president, like anyone indicted by a grand jury, remains innocent until proven guilty at trial. That’s fair.

Trial in the Senate roughly approximates a court trial although with major differences. It’s also political. And the 100 senators are not jurors like citizens summoned to render verdicts in criminal courts. Senators are not randomly selected but elected (or appointed) politicians. Prosecuting and defending teams cannot dismiss them at will (peremptory challenges, usually limited) or by showing cause( unlimited). Importantly, unlike criminal jurors, Senators vote on rules pertaining to the trial’s conduct.

Still, fairness demands that the Senate conduct itself according to criminal jury standards: Be open-minded, place the burden of proof on the prosecution, listen to and evaluate the evidence, put aside personal preferences.

So, in spite of what I believe, I consider Trump—whom, to be forthright, I find reprehensible—innocent until and unless the House impeachment managers make a convincing case. To be fair to justice, this may require witnesses and documents not available or requested during the impeachment process.

Citing the imprecise parallels with criminal trials, attorneys may call witnesses who did not testify before a grand jury. They and new evidence may clarify the case for either party by revealing truth.

Senator McConnell at best hedges. Republicans voted down Democratic-proposed amendments re subpoenas to secure new witnesses and documents now. The matter is tabled. Note that whether new witnesses and documents will help or hurt the impeachment management team remains open for discussion.

Still, Mitch McConnell wants to be fair—as he was fair to America by blocking a Senate hearing on Judge Merrick Garland, whom President Barack Obama nominated to the Supreme Court. According to McConnell, Obama had less than a year to go in his second term. A new president should have the right to fill the vacant seat. A sitting president in his last year should sit on his hands.

In the name of fairness, I propose a deal. Trump goes Scott-free without further prosecution. The Senate goes back to its regular business. In return, Trump, less than a year remaining in his term and no assurance of re-election, retreats to Mar-a-Lago and relinquishes the responsibilities of the Oval Office.

Given the integrity modeled by Mitch McConnell, nothing could be more fair.

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FAREWELL, YESTERDAY

The train hurtled eastward through Queens on an early-January day when dingy brick buildings and bare trees turn New York into the bleak set of a Tim Burton movie. As Manhattan receded, so did part of my past.

I was born in the Bronx where my sister Kay had been delivered, but I grew up in Queens. My parents moved to Rego Park about two years before my arrival. Our apartment was my only home until college.

In December 1969, a few months after Carolyn and I were married in San Antonio, we visited my parents. (My mother Blanche alerted my father, “Morris, David has a girl in his room!”) We visited often as a couple then with our kids. After my father died in 1983, I spent one or two long weekends with my mother each year.

After my mother died in 1999, Carolyn and I continued visiting New York. We stayed in Manhattan and usually took the train from Penn Station to Long Island to see Kay and my brother-in-law Herb.

We also took the subway to Rego Park. We’d walk up 63rd Drive, stop at the old building, stroll the neighborhood and have lunch at the now-departed Shalimar Diner. (See “Death of the Diner.”)

My parents ate thousands of meals and desserts at the Shalimar and later, Carolyn and I entertained family and friends there. In Rego Park, I felt connected to my past, and Carolyn knew the neighborhood well. We shared memories.

The Shalimar’s closing made the Rego Park phase of my life more distant, but I thought we’d visit one last time during spring, summer or fall weather. We’d walk up the Drive, stop at the building, then head through the Crescents—tree-lined semi-circular streets with detached homes—pass P.S. 174 and go on for lunch on Austin Street in Forest Hills. We’d return to Manhattan via the E or F train at Continental Avenue.

Two weeks ago, we took the train to the Island to see Kay and Herb and be joined by my nephew Barry and his wife Heidi. I saw a sign.

Always when we’d approached Rego Park, I’d look out the window for a snippet of 63rd Drive. This time, the noon light outside was dim, and not being seated at the window, I was subjected to glare. I sensed when we passed the Drive but couldn’t see it. Returning at night, everything was a dark blur.

The message was clear. My parents are long gone. The Shalimar is a hole in the ground where an apartment building soon will rise. I’m 75, and there’s no more connection to be made with Rego Park—not on the ground.

I’ve always believed that a neighborhood, which undergoes continuous change, belongs to the people who live, shop and work there. At my age, I’m focused on the here and now—life in San Francisco. Without being maudlin, I understand that I’m on a different journey. It’s taking me forward, not back, and the station isn’t all that far off. I’m content to take each day as it comes and let memories unfold in my mind rather than on the sidewalk.

In 1940, a Thomas Wolfe novel was published posthumously: You Can’t Go Home Again. You can. But not forever.

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