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.