Opinion: Who gets to tell what stories?
People keep asking me about George Simon.
They want to know why I created him and if it was hard to do. One person told me I was “brave.”
I wasn’t trying to be brave. I was trying to write my latest novel, a World War II story called “The Last Thing You Surrender.” But, you see, George, one of my protagonists, is white and I’m not. And at book signings, some people find that noteworthy.
Thankfully, it hasn’t inspired death threats. Jeanine Cummins has not been so lucky. She is a white writer, and “American Dirt,” her new novel about a Mexican woman and her son fleeing to the United States after a drug gang butchers their entire family, has ignited furious controversy and threats of violence. A planned tour was canceled.
Ground Zero of the outrage is a web posting by writer Myriam Gurba. It’s an essay of extravagant loathing for a novel that, she says, springs from the “great American tradition of . . . appropriating genius works by people of color, slapping a coat of mayonesa on them” to make them palatable to American taste buds and “repackaging them for mass racially ‘colorblind’ consumption.” Gurba calls the book “caca.”
But Oprah liked it.
She made “American Dirt” a Book Club selection, prompting 142 writers to sign a letter calling on her to reconsider. Instead, she’s hosting what she calls “a deeper . . . discussion” of “who gets to publish what stories.” It streams next month on AppleTV+.
Having declared 2020 my “Year of Reading Women,” I read Cummins’ book. And I rather liked it, some clunky passages and contrived situations notwithstanding. But I must concede that I’m poorly qualified to judge — certainly less so than a Hispanic observer would be — how much of the novel was built on worn-out tropes of the undocumented-migrant experience. I saw none, but then again, maybe I wouldn’t.
That said, worn-out tropes don’t generally inspire lavish hate and death threats. So I suspect the real issue here is so-called “cultural appropriation.” Or as Oprah called it, the question of: Who gets to tell what stories? As an artist, are you allowed to draw from outside your racial or cultural box? Or should this white-lady writer have contented herself telling white-lady stories?
It is not a new question. White writer Carl Van Vechten faced it in 1926 with his unfortunately titled novel, “Nigger Heaven.” In 1997, some black people dubbed black writer Gene Cartwright’s book, “I Never Played Catch with My Father” “offensive” because his characters were white.
Then there’s me. As if creating George were not bad enough, I’ve been toying with the idea of a novel based on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Am I allowed to write that? Do I need permission from black people? From Jews? Or is the very idea not antithetical to artistic freedom? Not to mention freedom.
And what role do good intentions play? What does it mean if one does the right thing, badly?
Consider “Small Great Things,” a novel of racial conflict by Jodi Picoult, who is white. I liked the book, but the black protagonist felt, as Roxane Gay put it, “clinical, overarticulated” — a character more researched than felt. Yet given the degree to which white people — even well-meaning ones — resist grappling the conundrums of race, I gave Picoult points just for making the effort to imagine herself into an African-American life.
Some day, I may try to imagine myself into a Polish Jewish one. If I fail, I’ll take my lumps willingly. Because that failure would come in the act of trying to draw the through line between someone else’s humanity and my own.
And that’s what art is for.
— Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald.