Posts Tagged ‘Cultural appropriation’

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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CONFESSIONS OF A CULTURE CRIMINAL

Last September, I wrote about “cultural appropriation” in “Let the Book Burning Begin.” Some attendees at a literary festival in Australia excoriated the novelist Lionel Shriver for advocating that “white” writers should be free to create characters of other ethnicities. They can also excoriate me!

My novel Slick! (one of Kirkus Reviews’ 25 Best Indy Books of 2012) presents Arab characters. They revealed all kinds of traits, some culturally specific, others simply human. Some characters I like. Others I satirize—as I did white American diplomats.

In San Café, I created—gasp—Latino characters. Again, I satirized human nature across ethnicities.

I avoided crossing most ethnic bounds in The Boy Walker but cop a plea to “cultural speciesism.” Like me, all my major characters are Jewish, but the novel’s narrator is the shattered Greenbaum family’s 12-year-old English Bulldog Brute. However, the speciesism isn’t all that grievous. Brute’s also Jewish.

In Flight of the Spumonis I had the gall to write about an Italian circus family with Irish roots. Was it okay because Italians and Irish are white? People think Jews are white, but I know many Jews with other genetic backgrounds. Also, I don’t identify that way. Still, I got enough Jewish characters into the novel to cover my tracks—including a “black” character who’s equal parts African-American, Chinese, Native American and, yes, Jewish.

Which leads me to my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht. I’m not giving much away by saying that Adonis is not—gasp again—Greek (would that be a no-no?) but Jewish. Yet he undertakes a relationship with a woman named Emily, adopted from Korea by white parents. He works closely with a Mexican-American named Fred. Can it be that in the major art museum where Adonis works, his contemporaries include people with Korean and Mexican genetics? Or must Adonis, living in a large but unnamed city, encounter only other Jews?

In Adonis, I also created an African-American character. I can imagine cultural purists salivating then snarling that Hunter Kirk must be a semi-literate gangster representing every racist’s stereotype. Or a star entertainer or athlete with no depth. Wrong! He’s the museum’s executive director. True, he shows Adonis a football in his office, but the protectors of cultural purity may be surprised:

“People always seem so startled,” said Dr. Kirk. “Or they think, Well, sure. All black men play sports.” A second-string tight end during his senior year, he’d caught the winning touchdown against his school’s archrival with seventeen seconds left. “Division Three ball. No pro scouts in the stands. Well, maybe one or two but not to see me. It was my only touchdown of the season. If you must know, of my career. A broken play. Life’s all about timing.” And discipline, he pointed out. It took discipline to earn a Ph.D. and an MBA. “No easy task for your average street kid.” He chuckled. “Of course, my father was a corporate lawyer, and my mother was a pediatrician.”

How dare a Jewish writer believe that an African-American can be educated and skilled, can lead a major arts organization, can be (final gasp) like anyone else? Take me to literary court and accuse me of recognizing the humanity in all ethnicities. I’ll plead guilty.

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