AMERICAN DIRT Who is allowed to write what?

The concerns that have been raised, including the question of who gets to tell which stories, are valid ones in relation to literature and we welcome the conversation,”

The above quote came from Flatiron Books, the publishers of ‘American Dirt’. The book is a novel that tells the story of a Mexican mother who crosses into the USA with her son. It involves a murderous attack on her family and supposedly encompasses something of the undocumented immigrant’s travails in the US.

It has been hyped of course, by those with an interest in seeing it succeed, into something which it apparently isn’t – i.e. possibly the new Great American Novel, the inheritor of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath mantle, the definitive work on populist anti-immigration feeling.

It has, as a result, received a lot of criticism. Not because it is badly written, but because it is supposedly inauthentic and trivialises the immigrant experience. The author, Jeannine Cummins is not a Latina and cannot therefore, the argument goes, represent the experience of one.

There is so much verbiage flying around about ‘pity porn’, ‘cultural appropriation’, ‘damaging stereotypes’ that I have no intention of trying to dissect them all piece by piece. Suffice to say that I am certainly prepared to accept it is not the great new Great American Novel, but…

Look again at that statement by the publisher in response to the virulent attacks on the book:

the question of who gets to tell which stories. This could be read as accepting a need to open the way for those who do not have ready access to publishing contracts to get a slice of the cake – and I have some sympathy with that. But it smacks more of a cowardly response to purity spirals – that concern of self selecting groups to be more extreme than nuanced about any ‘ideal’ in their cultural norms. It isn’t the same as being ‘woke’ or ‘virtue signalling, but it is close, and not a million miles away from online mobs.

And right at the bottom line what it means, if we take everyone at their logical word, is that only someone who is from a group, or has experienced a situation, can write about it. That is: write a novel about it, a piece of fiction. A piece of writing that is inherently MADE UP.

Read the label on the tin. This isn’t reportage, not non-fiction.

If that were the criterion of eligibility to write a work of fiction then no-one who had not been a murderer or a detective could write a detective thriller – bye bye Miss Marple. Nobody would ever be allowed to write SF or Fantasy and Horror would be a very restricted genre.

I’m not trying to diminish the experience of Latino immigrants to the US, or anybody trying to make their way against the cultural elites who rule our world, more power to their elbow. We need more of that voice. But the way to get more of the stories of this resistance out there is not to fight amongst ourselves because somebody who isn’t ‘qualified’ writes a story.

Sure there may be authenticity problems, the author may not be a Latina, she may not have faced the trials of the people she is trying to depict, but she is trying and from what I understand this is not a novel that is punching down against immigrants. It may be flawed but it at least tries to bring the idea into a wider white culture, even if it is through the vehicle of an entertaining crime novel.

Would critics feel happier if we were discussing the great success and sales of a novel by a white supremacist about how they helped ‘Build That Wall’ and took down a busload of refugees from Nicaragua? I sincerely hope not. But I am not sure that wouldn’t fit their agenda better.

I wish the minority US groups all the best in getting their message across in all its authenticity, but the best way to further the cause is not by attacking those who are on your side.

This isn’t white knightism either.

Sure, it’s someone making a buck, but that is writing. If it doesn’t sell no-one gets to read it.

Embrace the opportunity, don’t ban books.

Write more, better, books to explain the plight and of course, publishers…publish them.

3 thoughts on “AMERICAN DIRT Who is allowed to write what?

  1. America is treading very dangerous waters these days. I’m currently based in China, and it’s been an eye-opening experience. There’s very little freedom of speech here, and it’s truly discouraging to see how easily an entire culture accepts it.

    • Thanks Darius,I think it is a concern everywhere. The idea of gatekeeping ideas really worries me. Freedom of speech means allowing even, maybe especially, those thoughts you despise to be aired. ‘No platforming’ may seem like a good idea, but who chooses the acceptable ideas? And restricting fiction writing to those with direct experience of the situation they are writing about feels absurd. By all means speak out if you feel a book misrepresents your experience, but allowing mobs to howl down creativity feels like crossing a major threshold.

  2. Exactly. My nightmare is to see the USA become a place like China, where everyone expects the government to protect them from themselves. I realize there are many Americans who would argue that we’re “already there” (especially since 9/11) but I’d wager those are the same people who have very little actual knowledge or experience with modern China’s ultra-efficient and oppressive “harmonious” culture of censorship.

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