Whose Voices?

I was in the airport and had time to kill. I had finished the book I brought with me, so I went in search of another. I scanned the display and saw one that looked interesting. It was an Oprah Book Club selection and I usually find her recommendations to be reliable – they are often the right blend of substantive, and highly readable. Aside from having her seal of approval, the descriptors on the cover were ‘propulsive,’ ‘magnificent,’ and, ‘heart-pounding.’ I was in the mood for that. Perfect reading material for my wait in the terminal and the two-hour flight.

I dug in and was taken on a ride from the beginning to the end. I read 378 pages in basically two days. What book was it? American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins.

Some of you may recognize the title. When I was perusing the shelf in the airport store it did not ring a bell. After I finished it and went to enter it to my list on Goodreads, I saw that it was the subject of controversy. I saw comments that labeled the book racist. When I read a little further, I remembered the storm. I don’t think I followed it closely at the time – it was published about two years ago – but I recall the dispute over whether a white woman could credibly tell the story of Mexican migrants.

As I read the book, I did note that the author’s name did not sound Latina and I wondered if its portrayal of Mexican cartels and culture was accurate. I flipped to the back to read about the author, and I also read the acknowledgments. I thought, like with any novel, that I would give the writer the benefit of the doubt – that she likely would have done her research, that she and the editor(s) were responsible and would not knowingly put forth a false picture of that life. I was quite invested in the story, and I wanted to find out what happened to the main characters. After all, I knew I wasn’t reading a scholarly history book or anthropological analysis. I read on and I am not sorry that I did.

It is a powerful story. I came away with a much greater awareness of the dangers, risks and challenges faced by those who make the arduous trek from Central America and Mexico to the United States. I don’t know if many face the near-death experiences that the mother and son did in this work of fiction, but their fear rang true. I was moved by their plight and by those who took the journey with them.

On first reading the criticisms of the book, I was embarrassed that I missed that it was racist. But was it? I wanted to understand what the issue was. Did the story stereotype Latinx? I thought the characters were multidimensional, but I could be oblivious. Did it misrepresent the violence of the cartels by either romanticizing them, downplaying them or sensationalizing them? That is possible, though movies and television shows are far more extreme than this book was. I am not knowledgeable enough to assess the book’s take on that. Most of the disapproval, though, centered on the author’s lack of credentials to tell this story. Under pressure, Jeanine Cummins eventually claimed a Puerto Rican grandmother, though I believe she identifies as a white woman.  Ultimately the question seems to be: can a white woman write a novel about persons of color?

This question applies more broadly, and I am troubled by the conversation around it. I heartily agree that historically marginalized voices need to be heard – space and time must be devoted to those who have previously been denied access. Also, if one wants to gain insight into a culture, it is probably best to read the literature of that culture rather than an outsider’s view. That said, writers should not be limited to only telling stories born of their personal experience. Male writers should be permitted to tell a story from a woman’s perspective and vice versa. Their success must be judged on the merits. I think it is a daring thing to do – I don’t write fiction, I don’t have the imagination for it. I can’t conceive of writing in another voice. But I don’t want to make that a rule for those that can. Thankfully we have many creative storytellers who reach beyond their own lives to explore the world (or create other worlds). Wally Lamb, in my opinion, did it quite successfully in She’s Come Undone, a story with a female protagonist, among others.

This raises several related issues. One might criticize Oprah for picking the book. She has a lot of clout. One could argue that she should use her influence to bring authors forward who would not otherwise get mainstream attention. To be fair, though, I think she has done just that many times over. But, perhaps if she wanted to focus on the migrant experience she could find a book written by someone who took that journey.  On the other hand, this was a very compelling read and sparked a lot of discussion. Isn’t that a good thing?

The publisher came in for a lot of criticism too. To some degree, the same questions that faced Oprah were directed at them. Should this manuscript have been bought and promoted? I don’t know the answer to that. I can only say that I found it to be a spellbinding story.

The controversy over this book raises important concerns. The backlash against it and the author raises lots of questions. In our desire to bring forward previously marginalized voices, is it a zero-sum game? Can the marketplace expand, or will voices that had access before now be silenced? Did this author deserve to be vilified?

I am not one who has worried about political correctness or cancel culture. I believe that many people do indeed need to be more sensitive in the language they use; that our collective (and individual) consciousness continues to need raising; and, that people deserve to be held accountable for their words and deeds. I am concerned, though, that if we narrow who is permitted to be heard on a given topic based on some aspect of their identity whether it be gender, race, ethnicity, or religion, we will have taken a giant step backwards. Sometimes an outsider brings needed insight and a useful perspective.

6 thoughts on “Whose Voices?

  1. I have read this book as well, also finding it compelling and believable. While reading it, I wasn’t thinking about the author’s identity. I don’t see this book as racist, though clearly the treatment of the migrants is often based on privilege, which they don’t have. It’s a good thing to have such a vivid account, fictionalized or not. Hopefully it will help to raise the status of people seeking asylum as well as to shed light on the creativity possessed by people of diverse identities that allows them to express the conditions of others.

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  2. Great review and spot on with your observations. I read this book in the summer of 2020 at the urging of some friends. I was hesitant to read the book mainly because of the title. I thought this would be an anti-American novel with a far leftist view. It was not. It is a novel. Can it be categorized as historical fiction, to a degree I suppose.

    I agree with you, an author need not live an experience to write about a subject matter. Had this book been published years before the Trump presidency, I don’t think it would have gotten the negative publicity that it wound up getting.

    The title remains a mystery to me. As you wrote the reader can decide.

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  3. It seems like a good thing when someone who is not in a particular group wants to learn about that group. It seems to me a good thing when someone who is not in a particular group wants to write about that group, teach about that group. The concept of trying to understand each other and what each other’s lives and challenges are seems like a good thing.
    I recognize that having the perspective of people who are actually in that group is also very important. But discouraging or worse, disqualifying, efforts to reach across those lines seems like something we do at our own peril. It seems to me that there are enough walls separating us from each other, enough misunderstanding. It seems to me that we don’t understand each other too well. That is not our problem.
    I thank you for a sensitive and balanced understanding of this issue.

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