Another One Bites the Dust of ‘Cultural Appropriation’
Author Jeannine Cummins finds out the hard way that she's not Latina enough to write novels about Mexican women.
The New York Times on Sunday invited readers into the brewing controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’s latest novel, American Dirt, about a desperate mother fleeing Mexican narco gangsters with her 8-year-old son in a frenzied quest for safety in the United States. This is no ordinary migration tale based on a desire for the storied “better life” in America; the cartel thugs had massacred the woman’s family, and her escape with her son set them off on a determined trek to find them and kill them too.
Reviewer Lauren Groff, after recounting a scene from the book in the Times Book Review, added, “I felt this scene in the marrow of my bones.” She added that Cummins’s narrative was “so swift, I don’t think I could have stopped reading.”
Based on early notices, the publisher, Flatiron Books, arrived at a first printing of 300,000 copies, then quickly upped that to 500,000 as added praise washed in. Flatiron won the right to publish the novel by bidding in seven figures, according to the Times’s front-page Sundaypiece. The paper added that Oprah Winfrey, in a “splashy” appearance on CBS This Morning with Cummins, announced the novel would be her next book club pick, while “rapturous endorsements” came in from the likes of Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros.
Sounds like a grand old-fashioned literary success story, right? Except that these aren’t old fashioned times. Soon a backlash descended upon the book and its author with a fearsome force. The Times’s Sunday piece, covering nearly a page of the newspaper, sought to clarify, with only limited success, just what got so many people so upset. It seems that in these times of intense racial and ethnic identity and aversions by some to seeing whites “appropriate” other cultures by writing about them, some people of color felt that Cummins simply had no business writing about the travails of Mexicans. After all, she wasn’t Mexican. That she identifies as both white and Latina and has a grandmother of Puerto Rican background, according to the critics, hardly qualified as a credential for writing about Mexicans.
The Times quotes a writer named Myriam Gurba, who sought to explain one element of the anti-Cummins complaint–and did so with a certain racial provocativeness. “Cummins,” wrote Gurba, “identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it.”
What this controversy tells us is that this whole business about cultural appropriation has gotten totally out of control. As the Times puts it, the controversy “falls into the roiling argument over…how the stories of marginalized people should be told and who should be given the platforms to tell them.”
Let’s parse that sentence a bit. How did we get into a “roiling argument” over “how the stories of marginalized people should be told.” Isn’t that what reviewers do? But reviewers weigh in after a book has been published. What the Times writers, Jennifer Schuessler and Alexandra Alter, seem to be saying is that there is a legitimate debate over who gets to decide how a story is told before any book is published or perhaps even written. How is that even a debate? Who gets to decide? How will their decisions be enforced? How is that even workable?
There’s a tinge of totalitarianism here—an effort through the force of public pressure (which is considerable these days) to infringe upon the artistic impulse.
But it gets worse when the reporters talk about who should be given the platforms to tell the stories of so-called marginalized people. If certain people have a right to a publishing platform, then it follows that other people can be denied such platforms. In the case of Cummins, her platform was given to her by her publishing house, which adjudged her work to be so compelling as to promise potentially huge sales resulting in huge revenues. Based on the old-fashioned approach, the same platform was denied to those people who didn’t write such compelling novels and therefore didn’t generate such hopes for big profits.
But the Times wants us to take seriously the argument that, notwithstanding Cummins’s literary transcendence, she should nevertheless somehow be denied the platform from which to make known her work and sell her wares. In other words, she shouldn’t have been allowed to write her book in the first place. That raises anew the questions of who is to make such decisions of allowance and denial, and how will they be enforced?
No doubt those who wish to deny Cummins her platform would argue that they’re merely talking about public pressure to discourage publishing houses from presenting books about Mexicans written by non-Mexicans. No governmental coercion is intended, of course. But such pressure, given substantial legitimacy in the Times piece, is no trivial matter in today’s America, replete as it is with spineless and ideological corporate executives inclined to bow and scrape whenever the forces of diversity threaten agitation. Look no further than young adult author Amélie Wen Zhao, who was so proud of her debut novel Blood Heir but ultimately canceled its highly anticipated release last year after a vicious online campaign accused of being a “racist.” Her publisher, Delacorte Press, “Supported her choice to cancel the book’s June release, but did not urge her to,” according to The New York Times, last January.
And so the case of American Dirt represents a potentially seminal episode in the world of America’s literary endeavor. If the forces of pressure and coercion can discourage writers from writing on topics that inspire them, or can induce publishers to deny writers access to the literary marketplace, the country is thereby diminished.
Americans should resist such pressure. The marketplace of ideas and literary expression should be allowed to operate freely. Let writers write, whatever their racial or ethnic provenance, about anything that captures their fancy. Then let the marketplace determine the fate of those ideas or that literary expression. And if some people, based on ideology or envy or whatever, want to cry and moan and whine about it, let them. But don’t take them seriously. Their arguments are a discredit to themselves and a danger to the principle of free expression.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.