Normally, it’s the kind of flap that barely snares my attention. I first heard about it on NPR and then began seeing the book show up on some of the literary sites that I peruse as it got more notice, especially after Oprah chose it for her book club and it got an approving review from Stephen King.
American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins is about Mexican immigration and was written by an American woman with only a small percentage of Hispanic heritage. She got a seven-figure advance from her publisher. Then the shit hit the fan. Hispanics, and some Hispanic authors, began to complain that she had no right to write the book because she did not have the right DNA and experience despite her claims to have researched the project for a decade. She began to receive death threats and the publisher decided to cancel her book tour for her safety.
It has come to that. The Second Amendment has been turned into complete bullshit, I guess it’s time to begin work on the First. Now we can start issuing fatwas against any artistic expressions that don’t pass some perverted ethic purity test.
This dispute caught my attention because I could be in a Chinese prison (or at least on a blacklist) for writing two books about Chinese women. It’s the subject for a long and complex discussion, but there were times when I asked myself what the hell was an Italian-American male doing writing about another gender from another culture. But I did my research (including a couple of romantic entanglements with Chinese women) and even submitted my first manuscript to Nancy Kwan, the actress who played Suzie Wong in the movie that plays a part in my first novel. I got only approval, no push back (but I didn’t get a seven-figure advance either). Actually, I was more nervous about writing a third-person novel of historical fiction than I was about putting emotions and dialogue in fictional Asian women.
American Dirt is fiction. The author has the right to write whatever she imagines. Her work should be judged on its own merits, not on its author’s ethnicity, gender, nationality, or anything else. I have not read it and probably will not read enough of the genre in which it falls. Unfortunately, part of this criticism comes from the liberal left, presumably in response to the likelihood that Hispanic women authors don’t receive seven-figure advances (although I haven’t checked Isabel Allende). It’s the same criticism we are hearing aimed against the Academy Awards again this year that there are not enough nominations for African American films, actors and directors. Yes, there is past and present discrimination and prejudice, but African-Americans are also only twelve percent of the population, so how you sort this out is not easy. Perhaps a little perspective is provided by the NBA, where Black players are almost seven times that percentage. Here at least we have an objective metric–– they win more.
Some Americans can really be stupid, myopic, bigoted jerks. When Kirk Douglas passed away the other day I was reminded of when a roommate and I pushed our way through a cordon line of VFW protesters at a movie theater that was showing Spartacus when it premiered in 1960. They were protesting because Douglas, who was the producer as well as the lead in the movie, had hired HUAC-blackballed “Communist” screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to work on the script. Never mind that the story of Spartacus was of slaves rebelling against an empire that was ultimately historically matched by the Third Reich. Sometimes––way too often––Americans just don’t fucking get it.
Other than the marketplace, art has no objective measures. So, let the gringa author have a fair chance to get out there and compete at the border. Let the market decide whether her book is worth that seven-figure advance, and let whatever preferences and prejudices readers apply to assay its literary merits apportion how many Amazon stars it gets. But the lesson here is that you can’t countervail racial discrimination with racial discrimination, and it’s not how you do things according to what is supposed to be the American way.*
©2020, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.6.2020)
*For another angle on this issue.