The author of American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins, has been accused of cultural appropriation. Nicholas Sheppard considers the outrage and accusations.
Jeanine Cummins' novel American Dirt is set to be this year's phenomenon in the publishing world. The book follows a middle-class Mexican woman as she escapes the country with her son after her husband, a journalist, is killed by a drug cartel. The story traces their often violent journey as two of the countless immigrants from Latin America who are forced to embark on a dangerous journey to the United States. The novel has been acclaimed by such figures as Oprah Winfrey and Stephen King and described by one critic as "a Grapes of Wrath for our times".
However, the plaudits were quickly followed by outrage from members of the Hispanic community, who complained that the novel misrepresents the Latin-American experience. Disdain for the novel's depictions of migrants soon bubbled up on social media. Critics described it as "torture-porn" for a predominantly white publishing industry and began tweeting out mock-stereotyped stories with the hashtag "Writing my Latino novel". A contemptuous review by the Hispanic-American writer Myriam Gurba described the book as a "Trumpian fantasy of what Mexico is".
Adding to the controversy are allegations that American Dirt borrowed from other novels about Mexico and misconstrued important nuances, like the use of Mexican phrases in Spanish. The row over the social and cultural politics of the book has rekindled a debate over prejudice in the publishing industry and the notion of who, exactly, is allowed to tell the stories of others.
Pre-empting some of the pushback, Cummins said in a New York Times opinion piece that she did not want to write about race out of fear of "striking the wrong chord, of being vulnerable, of uncovering shameful ignorance in my psyche". She said she identified as white "in every practical way ... I don't know if I'm the right person to tell this story. I do think that the conversation about cultural appropriation is incredibly important, but I also think that there is a danger sometimes of going too far toward silencing people."
Here in New Zealand there was a smaller-scale but similar controversy with the banning of Ted Dawe's award-winning novel Into the River; an incident that briefly made international headlines. Central to the controversy about Into The River was its so-called "corrupting influence" as a young adult book; but there was a further, more latent debate: Who's allowed to tell Māori stories?
The main character of Into the River is Māori — Ted Dawe is Pākehā. A few Māori felt, therefore, that Dawe writing this book might be "problematic". Dawe said he was told by some Māori to 'keep your nose out of our stuff'". Māori author Paula Morris, interviewed in E-Tangata in 2018, said, "I suppose there's the question of what constitutes a Māori story and whether a Pākehā can write a Māori story. Generally, when I talk about Māori literature, I'm talking about writers who are Māori. To me, if you're a Māori writer, you're part of Māori literature — no matter what you're writing."
Discussing his novel Tane's War, Pākehā author Brendaniel Weir also addressed the question of whether Pākehā writers should be able to write Māori characters. "That's a complex question for which I have no easy answer. But I can speak to why I decided it was okay to write Tane. I began by asking myself, why am I creating a Māori protagonist? ... Our literary past is full of Māori functioning as costumery, as backdrop or exotic colour to white-centred stories. More recently I've noticed characters of different ethnicities being used by writers to signal their 'awareness' of diversity or to appeal to a wider audience (a process that invariably props up existing prejudices)."
Surprisingly, these kinds of cultural appropriation and "cancel-culture" debates are playing out in the Young Adult genre more intensely than anywhere else. As the YA genre experienced a boom during the last decade, the tenor of the forums in the online communities became increasingly strident. Young Adult novels in which the author shares a particular marginalised identity with their subject are tagged, approvingly, as "ownvoices". Anything that strays from this can quickly lead to tense online discussions. There are threads devoted to vetting stereotypes and defining the standards for who can write about whom - and under what circumstances.
Commenters scold authors who run adrift of such standards. The authors, their reputations battered, will often retract their books from sale. People argue that women shouldn't "profit" from writing gay men's stories. Authors will release statements addressed to the community, apologising for the problematic representation and historical insensitivities in their work and for failing to heed the responsibility that comes with introducing readers to certain topics. Even if a new Young Adult novel is steeped in diversity, it can still provoke outrage.
In 2017, Keira Drake's YA novel, The Continent, was slammed for its "white saviour" narrative. Drake contacted her publisher and asked to push back the publication date so she could make revisions.
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In early 2019, author Kosoko Jackson withdrew the publication of his debut YA novel, A Place for Wolves. The book, following two American boys as they fall in love against the backdrop of the Kosovo War, had garnered early praise from reviewers and was bolstered by the #ownvoices hashtag, which recognises the main characters of a book sharing a marginalised identity with the writer — Jackson is black and queer. But a withering online review took issue with Jackson's treatment of the war and his portrayal of Muslims. Jackson issued a letter of apology to "The Book Community", stating, "I failed to fully understand the people and the conflict that I set around my characters. I have done a disservice to the history and to the people who suffered."
At the same time last year, Amelie Wen Zhao, Another up-and-coming YA author, cancelled the publication of her debut novel, following a deluge of online criticism from readers over her depiction of race and slavery. Her novel, Blood Heir, was a fantastical retelling of the Anastasia story. Following positive early reviews, there was a groundswell of criticism of Blood Heir on Goodreads and Twitter, calling out what one reader described as "the anti-blackness and blatant bigotry in this book", particularly its depiction of slavery and the death of a particular black character. Negative feedback from the Young Adult community led Zhao to ask her publisher not to release the book "at this time". She stated she was "grateful to those who have raised questions around representation, coding, and themes in my book ... It was never my intention to bring harm to any reader of this valued community, particularly those for whom I seek to write and empower … I don't wish to clarify, defend or have anyone defend me. This is not that; this is an apology."
While some on social media praised her decision to cancel publication, others urged her to reconsider bowing to bullying from a mob. While there is much to critique about the excesses of cancel-culture, accusations of bullying by a mob aren't entirely fair either. When it comes to representation, be it Young Adult "ownvoices"; depictions of Māoridom, or blockbuster mainstream fiction such as American Dirt, there are legitimate tensions about the development of certain narratives and the pathways for diverse writers. According to 2018 data from Publisher's Weekly, 84 per cent of the publishing workforce in America is white, 5 per cent is Asian, 3 per cent Hispanic and 2 per cent black. At the executive level, 86 per cent of the industry is white, as are 89 per cent of book reviewers.
When I was promoting my debut novel, Broken Play, last year, I experienced a little of this dynamic. As a straight author, depicting the imaginary inner struggle of a rugby player who ultimately decides to become the first All Black to publicly come out, I had to field questions during a phone interview from a journalist who happened to be gay, about whether I could legitimately depict such a story.
At the time, I was cast slightly off-balance by the persistence of that line of questioning; but I'm more attuned to the rationale behind it now. I was subsequently invited to the Queer literary festival Same Same but Different. For a moment it wasn't certain my invitation would stand. The festival board voted unanimously, however, to let me attend and discuss the novel as part of a panel, and I look back on that afternoon with great fondness – for the generous spirit of inclusivity that was extended to me, and the opportunity to describe my motivations and writing experience face to face, rather than try to contribute to the discourse at a remove, at a computer screen, in an online discussion, where its much easier to be held, and to hold others, to account.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Hachette, $35) is out now.