On Mitch Albom’s piece about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt

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I just came in from a run and I don’t know if I have the energy for this. However, in the age of the internet, where everyone has a platform to say what they want, and when the anger is there and you need the outlet, you yell it out into the ether. Then, you let the pieces fall where they may.

I have this blog.

The first piece you should read on the latest cultural appropriation controversy is by Myriam Gurba, entitled: “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.”

You can find Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt,” by clicking on this link.

Here’s Mitch Albom’s essay, which is the piece that has me in a bit of a tizzy:

https://www.freep.com/story/sports/columnists/mitch-albom/2020/01/26/american-dirt-oprah-mitch-albom/4576599002/

In it, he writes, “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.”

He goes on to defend his point by listing a bunch of authors who wrote outside of their experiences. That if we didn’t write outside of our experiences we wouldn’t have the classics we do now.

Well, I’m here to say we can write outside of our experiences and we can do all the research, and express empathy towards those we are portraying. But, nobody is out here burning copies of “American Dirt.” To make it clear, nobody is censoring Jeanine Cummins’ book, they are criticizing it. And in criticizing it, and putting it under a microscope, they are censuring it. This is why critics exist. No artist is above censuring aka expressing our disapproval with Cummins’ work. I’ll get back to that point in a bit.

Albom goes on to say,

“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?”

Whoever said these things? Why the hyperbole? Do I sense a way of writing being threatened. A gate-keeping way of doing the same thing over and over again by the establishment? People who have been silent before are now saying, “Maybe we should think about what we write and who we’re writing about with a bit more compassion?”

Mr. Albom, why is still necessary plunder the stories and backgrounds of other people without care for how we portray them in the name of Art?

Albom pauses and writes, “That doesn’t encourage dialogue and creativity, it fences it in.

No, you not being OK with Latinx (or voices that are not artists) being angry at someone portraying our immigrant experience in a very stereotypical way, fences in creativity and and discourages dialogue.

Again, an artist shouldn’t be censored, but at the same time, they have to open to being censured. People can write about whatever they want to write about from whatever non-experience or experience they want. The idea of fiction enforces that. However, we are under colonialism (we are not post-anything here in any way), and are still dealing with the effects of that. We must start addressing that.

Let’s add another layer here. Jeanine Cummins has been very disingenuous about her background, (labeling herself white before her book was published and now speaking up about one of her grandmothers being Puerto Rican; also claiming a fear for her undocumented husband being deported….when he’s Irish – which is no way a connection to the Mexican immigrant experience).

Let’s add yet another layer here. Latin Americans are not a people. Most of us speak a colonial language (Spanish), and we are made up of a many different colours, races, cultures, and languages. Mexican is not the same as Colombian, and Argentina is not the same as Ecuador. The people in power (politicians and celebrities) that are mostly seen are white. Very rarely do we see an Indigenous politician or a black Latinx actress in telenovelas or Hollywood. As people we are incredibly mixed, but there is racism (BIG TIME) and sexism (BIG TIME) in our culture.

Having white people try to white-splain Latinx by trying to defend this book and trying to silence criticism is the worst kind of censorship, especially when they aren’t Latinx.

“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.”

Again, nobody but you has said that. You seem to want close the doors yourself (as has Jeanine Cummins in blocking all Latinx critics on twitter).

You CAN create art out of what you want. But continue your art by creating/encouraging more art that addresses the harm/creates healing. An artist DOES NOT GET TO walk away from the process. The old guard of, “LET MY ART STAND!” is over.

What can Cummins do? She can:

1. Have a back and forth in essay or panel form with her critics.

2. Bring books by other Latinx authors who do a better job than her at portraying the Mexican immigrant experience.

3. Apologize and/or start listening.

4. Encourage dialogue. Create something out of her own experience now addressing what she is going through right now.

I’m so tired of being angry about stuff like this. I could keep my mouth shut and forget it. But I AM angry and if my anger moves someone to see the light or anything different than ignorance, it’s time for the rest of our silenced voices to start revolting again.

I’m still suffering from PTSD from the last time I spoke out on the topic of cultural appropriation, so this has taken me a bit to parse. You can just google my name and the words “cultural appropriation” and there are a few articles. I don’t really feel like living that experience again. The psychological and emotional labour that goes into defending your right to speak up as a person of colour is incredibly draining and sometimes keeps us from our own art and work.

(And full disclosure: I’m the daughter of Colombian immigrants. I was raised here in Canada with Colombian traditions. My father is black and my mother is white. At one point, as a small child, my parents moved from Toronto to Dallas, Texas to see if job prospects were better. No matter the job they applied for, they were only given jobs alongside immigrants. We lived in some tough conditions and came back. While the racism here for us was less subdued here in Canada than what we faced in the U.S., it is palpable and it is felt in most aspects in our lives. I can not speak of the Mexican immigrant experience and I also acknowledge my privilege in having a voice to use to speak up against a piece, but I have no power over anyone. Nor do I have a wikipedia page nor do I have a giant book deal. I am a writer and an activist.)

(I commend all Latinx writers for taking on speaking up about “American Dirt.” My experience in speaking up about these things is something I don’t want to recreate. The emotional and unpaid energy that you give while writing, speaking, being on a panel of, being subjected to attacks, and fear of reprisals, I don’t wish that upon anyone. In essence, keep on fighting the good fight)

*************************************

Because my pace is slow and I’m running again without walking, the scream at the end Radiohead’s “Climbing Up The Walls,” sums it all up. Felt screaming into the lake. Good run though.:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdPqg-tcAWU 

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