Story Lines or Battle Lines?



There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the publication and promotion of a new novel called American Dirt. While Oprah recently touted Jeanine Cummins’ depiction of a Mexican migrant woman struggling to make it into the United States, others took issue with the fact that Cummins is predominantly white. These critics argue that this is not Cummins’ story to tell.

I have a problem with this argument. If authors are only allowed to write about people like themselves, where is the room for imagination? Where are the exercises in empathy that help us learn about other people’s experiences and put ourselves in their shoes – or in the inimitable words of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch, “climb into their skin and walk around in it.”

This is not to say that all writers are equally good at depicting the lives of characters far different from themselves. For example, years ago I read the novel A Widow for One Year by esteemed novelist John Irving. Having read both The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, I expected to love the novel. In Widow, however, I thought Irving was a bit tone deaf in depicting a woman’s mind and voice. But imagine if we insisted that no man should write stories about women or vice versa. Even my beloved To Kill a Mockingbird could be criticized for an outsider and somewhat patronizing image of blacks.

On the other hand, I have been amazed by writers such as Arthur Golden, who so beautifully and realistically portrayed a Japanese geisha in his novel Memoirs of a Geisha. It is possible, through research, imagination, and deep empathy to portray the lives of people very different from ourselves. In fact, several Latina authors have praised Cummins’ novel.

I have no problem when critics raise questions of quality and authenticity in literary works. And I understand that part of the criticism leveled at American Dirt is really directed at a publishing industry that favors mainstream white writers. Certainly a call for reform should be heeded by the powers that be in book publishing.

But the attacks against Cummins and her novel have been so severe that her book tour has been canceled due to security concerns. In today’s hypersensitive climate of opposition to cultural appropriation, publishers have created departments whose sole purpose is to screen manuscripts for depictions that might offend certain groups of people. In one case I read about not long ago, a young man who worked in one of these departments actually decided against putting out his own novel for publication for fear that it was not politically correct. This is a de facto kind of censorship that should be anathema to us as Americans. I do not want others deciding for me whether a given work is of sufficient value and authenticity to be published.

Interestingly, the controversy over American Dirt has not hurt sales of the book. If anything, the highly visible profile it has been given may have spurred interest in the novel.

We have come a long way in our society towards celebrating different cultures, whether it be in literature, film, music, dance or visual art. Promoting and making visible the works of marginalized artists should be an ongoing emphasis on the part of publishers, art galleries, movie studios and the like. But we should not sacrifice the freedom of artists to create as they see fit and allow the public to make up its own mind on issues of truth and authenticity.





Music or Lyrics?

Standard kids thought it was hilarious one day when they heard me singing the pop song “I Can’t Feel My Face.” My son informed me, “You know that song is about taking drugs, don’t you, Mom?” Honestly, I didn’t. To me it was just an upbeat, bouncy tune that I liked. Now it’s tainted by my knowledge that it’s about cocaine-induced numbness.

So many popular songs today have dubious subject matter and language. Rap is an obvious example. But what about more light-hearted sounding tunes? Back in the Sixties, much was made of the “hidden” drug references in such songs as “Along Comes Mary,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “White Rabbit,” and yes, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Songs were routinely censored, and the Rolling Stones were forced to amend the lyrics “Let’s spend the night together” in order to perform the song on the Ed Sullivan Show.

With the advent of rap in the 1990s, Tipper Gore led the charge against profanity and violence in song lyrics and was successful in getting record producers to put warning labels on albums deemed offensive. When I hear some of today’s pop songs, my old favorite “Please Go All the Way” sounds positively tame by comparison.

The question is, which is more important, the music or the lyrics? I tend to go by the standard of the old pop music TV show American Bandstand: whether it has a good beat and I can dance to it. If so, it’s good enough for me. I’m reminded of a funny Chris Rock stand-up bit in which he describes young women gyrating happily to sexist and offensive hip hop songs. For the purposes of dancing or even getting from point A to point B in my car, the lyrics to a song are beside the point.

Yet meaningful lyrics can also bring so much depth to a song. Sometimes I take to a song with a monotonous tune because I love the meaning behind the song. A good example for me is “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. Another is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which, let’s face it, is something of a dirge. But what lifts these songs for me are the words and meanings behind them. In fact, as a high school English teacher, I enjoyed using popular song lyrics as poetry in my classes.

In any event, musical taste is an individual thing, and I will continue to enjoy my bouncy pop or rowdy rock music, whether I like the lyrics or not. Just don’t tell me what “Cake By the Ocean” refers to. I don’t want to know; I just want to enjoy it.