As a writer of books, I guess I should be happy that any book is getting attention in this TV- and movie-soaked world.
I do wish it wasn’t for these reasons.
A new novel by a writer named Jeanine Cummins is causing some to go crazy with praise and others to go crazy with criticism. The book is called “American Dirt.” It’s a fictional story — please remember the word “fictional” — about a Mexican family fleeing for the U.S.
The novel was hailed before it even came out, and fetched a seven-figure payday from its publisher. But one critic, an Hispanic-American writer, ripped it to pieces for misrepresenting the Mexican experience. A floodgate opened. Other critics echoed those sentiments and social media lit up with anger and mocking imitations.
When Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club last week, the debate intensified.
At the core of the firestorm is the fact that Cummins is white (although she has been mentioning lately that one of her grandmothers was Puerto Rican). This has engendered a second level of criticism, not about her characters or language, but whether Cummins should have written it at all.
“When writing about a community to which one does not belong, authors have an obligation to think about the social and cultural politics of what they are doing.” That is what Domino Perez, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Mexican American Studies, told the BBC. “Asking whether or not you are the right person to tell a story,” he added, “means that sometimes the answer is no.”
Now, once again, let’s remember this is a work of fiction. The characters are made up. The story is made up. And while it certainly touches on a hot-button topic in America right now, immigrants fleeing danger by coming to America, it still began in Cummins’ mind and ended up on her pages.
If critics want to call her tone-deaf, well, that’s what critics can do. If people who have lived the experience want to say it’s not accurate, they have the absolute right to do so.
But when we start telling people not to write at all if they “don’t belong” to a community, you’re stepping on a dangerous live wire, one that could sizzle into less understanding between us, not more.
Strictly applied, that sentiment would erase an awful lot of books. Gustave Flaubert, a man, should never have written Madame Bovary. S.E. Hinton, a teenage girl at the time, never should have written “The Outsiders,” a novel about male gangs that has been a fixture in school curriculums for decades. Yann Martel, raised in Canada, should never have penned “Life of Pi” about an Indian boy and a tiger.
Leo Tolstoy should have stayed away from “Anna Karenina.” Ian McEwan, the brilliant — but male — British novelist, should have avoided “Atonement,” a story about two sisters. Jhumpa Lahiri should have skipped “The Lowland,” her novel about two brothers. James Patterson, a white man, should never have created his popular Alex Cross character, since Cross is black.
These are all well-known writers and works, but technically, the author and the “community” are not one. Should they all have put down their typewriters? Written only the worlds they intimately knew?
Where does it stop? Should rich authors never write about poor characters? Americans never write about foreigners? The healthy never write about the sick? Gay never write about straight? How can writers ever expand their creativity if it’s permanently walled in by their own personal backgrounds?
Being respectful of a culture is critical. No one disputes that. And if you don’t show that respect in your work, you will no doubt get knocked for it, and should.
But have we become so identity oriented that a person cannot speak to — or worse, should not speak to — another person through their art unless they share the same ethnicity, religion, social class and nationality?
That doesn’t encourage dialogue and creativity, it fences it in.
Now, some of this — perhaps a good deal of it — is rooted in opportunity. The criticism of “American Dirt” is swirled with matching criticism of opportunities for Hispanics and Mexicans in the writing, editing and publishing worlds. There aren’t a whole lot. And those are valid complaints that should be addressed.
But that’s not the same thing as telling people to stay in their own cultural lane when trying to create works of art. This piggybacks on the backlash over cultural appropriation in music, film and other worlds. Some feel Paul Simon should never have made “Graceland” and Eminem shouldn’t be rapping, Lauryn Hill never should have remade “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and John Legend should not have starred in the TV broadcast of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Why should Richard Attenborough, a Brit, have directed “Gandhi,” and worse, why did Ben Kingsley, an English actor, portray him? Why did Denzel Washington play Richard III on Broadway?
When Lin-Manuel Miranda created “Hamilton,” historians had a fit. Not only did the real Hamilton buy and sell slaves, they pointed out, he was also anti-immigrant, the opposite of Miranda’s heroic depiction. Should Miranda, born in America (unlike Hamilton, born in Saint Kitts and Nevis) have never created his famous musical? Had he no right?
Discouraging artists from exploring worlds beyond their own is not a productive answer. If you want to knock the finished product, that’s your prerogative. If you can point out inaccuracies to make the artist better, that’s productive.
But angrily declaring “It’s my experience, you have no right to explore it!” isn’t going to open any doors between us. It’s just going to slam them closed.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.