052: Dishing the American Dirt

What does it mean to write a protagonist that is completely different from you? Are you a guest, a tourist, or an invader? How do you write correctly and thoughtfully? What happens when you get it wrong? Listen up as Polli and Kate share some dirt and some resources. 

Two Book Minimum:

Dishing the...American Dirt:

If you're a book nerd in any way, or interested in #OwnVoices literature, you've probably heard about the American Dirt drama. If not, here's a blurb from Rachelle Hampton:

American Dirt follows the journey of a mother and son fleeing Mexico for America after their entire family is murdered on the orders of a local cartel kingpin. Before the slaughter, Lydia Quixano Pérez is a bookseller in Acapulco, mother to Luca and wife to journalist Sebastián. It is Sebastián’s exposé on the kingpin, who also happens to be a frequent customer of Lydia’s bookstore, that serves as the linchpin for the violence that sets off the novel and Lydia’s journey through the desert to the border.

In her afterword Cummins describes a four-year writing process that included extensive travel and interviews in Mexico. Cummins writes of her desire to humanize “the faceless brown mass” that she believes is so many people’s perception of immigrants. “I wish someone slightly browner than me would write it,” she continues. “But then I thought, if you’re the person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge.”  (Slate.com)

So. While the book had been released quite a while ago, it came out this year (to rave reviews) and was picked for Oprah's Book Club, which then led to some deeper digging and scandalous responses. One of the first and most vocal opponents was Myriam Gurba, author of Mean, whose lyrical takedown was (in Kate's view)... spectacular. Here's a snippet:

Unfortunately, Jeanine Cummins narco-novel, American Dirt, is a literary licuado that tastes like its title. Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.

México: bad.

USA: good.

It's pretty brutal and covers multiple levels, including the unnatural-sounding use of Spanglish and the lack of Mexican sensibility. She argues against Cummins' right to write this book, especially given the number of Latinx authors who are remaining unpublished or undiscovered. The backlash against this line of criticism has been stronggggg. And not cute. 

David Bowles' piece, American Dirt: Dignity & Equity, offers a nuanced view of what it means to write the "other," and what a responsibility it is -- "When you write about an underrepresented group, one whose own voices have been excluded from the world of publishing, not getting it right isn’t just disastrous: it’s harmful to people in that group." Bowles' article gives lots of stats and figures to back up his argument, as well as tips FOR writing characters different from you. One to check out is called Writing the Other, a series by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, which has tons of resources for current or prospective authors. 

Diantha Day Sprouse categorized those who borrow others’ cultural tropes as “Invaders,” “Tourists,” and “Guests.” Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.

Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable.

Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.

A good deal of transcultural writing’s bad reputation is owing to authors and audiences who act like Invaders. In one unpublished story I’ve seen, the writer took a sacred song here, a tattoo there, snapped up a feast featuring roasted pig and manioc root from somewhere else and presto! South Pacific Island culture at our fingertips! That this Islands analogue was inhabited by blond, blue-eyed people may have been meant to soften the act of appropriation by distancing readers from its victims. Or the point may have been to allow the blond, blue-eyed author or reader easier identification and access. The effect, unfortunately, was one of cultural theft squared. Not only were the appurtenances of the culture removed from their native settings, they were placed in the hands of people deliberately marked as racially distinct from their originators. (Writing the Other)

Likewise, Alexander Chee addresses this issue often in workshops and lectures and says "Many writers are not really asking for advice — they are asking if it is okay to find a way to continue as they have." He asks a few questions that are very helpful to writers, creators, and consumers:

1. Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?
2. Do you read writers from this community currently?
3. Why do you want to tell this story?

Further reading: 

Twice(-ish) a month, the librarians are in, with their favorite recommendations in Two Book Minimum, a toe-to-toe discussion on a book or topic, as well as news from the book world, updates from Lawrence Public Library, and beyond.
This episode was produced by Jim Barnes in the Sound & Vision studio. Our theme song is by Heidi Lynne Gluck. You can find the Book Squad Podcast on iTunes Stitcher, or SoundCloud Please subscribe and leave us comments – we’d love to know what you think, and your comments make it easier for other people to find our podcast. Happy reading and listening! xo, Polli & Kate