It was exactly three years ago today that I was in New York appearing on the NPR show 1A to discuss American Dirt, the controversial novel covered in today’s New York Times article, The Long Shadow of ‘American Dirt’.
I was there because the show’s producer had found two articles of mine (Are White Authors Not Allowed To Tell Stories Involving Black Characters? and Authors Should Not Be Constrained By Gender Or Race In The Characters They Create), and wanted my perspective on a book that had become a lightening rod by virtue of its author’s ethnicity. Sparked by my experience as a white author with a novel that included characters who were Black— The Alchemy of Noise — I came to the discussion with, perhaps, a slightly different take than others there.
My own experience (detailed in the linked articles) involved the type of limitation and marginalization Jeanine Cummins was being assaulted by after the publication of her novel. In my case, it was before: as I was shopping for literary representation of The Alchemy of Noise, I was informed by every agent I talked to, heard from, or met with that, “No publisher will touch your book, so consequently I can’t either,” which, despite the story being based on my own experiences in an interracial relationship, flat-out excluded me from traditional publishing. According to today’s NYT’s piece, that sort of literary censorship and marginalization ramped up after the American Dirt debacle, but I can attest otherwise. It started long before.
As reiterated during my participation in 1A those three years ago, I believe the limiting of art based on the ethnicity and race of an artist is, to my mind, anathema to the very purpose of art, which entails freedom of expression and the exploration of unlimited creativity. How that translates in literature is simple: any writer of any background should be able to not only write any story involving any kind of characters, but should do so without risking commercial rejection (as I did) or creative assassination (as Jeanine Cummins did). Once written, once published, that story can then be judged solely by its craft, artistry, authenticity, and sensitivity, not whether the author dared step too far out of their cultural/ethnic lane.
Whatever inequities exist in the publishing world (and there are MANY), they’re not solved by demonizing and marginalizing creators compelled to tell stories wider than their own skin color, gender, religion, or ethnic background. If we stuck to that formula there’d be no science fiction, no fantasy; no books where animals talk, or ancient civilizations are brought to life; men couldn’t write women or women, men; stories with diverse sets of characters wouldn’t exist; everything would be homogenous, predictable, and safe.
That is not art.
I read American Dirt. I cannot speak to its authenticity from an ethnic point of view, but it was a well-written and compelling story. Should it and she have been cancelled with such ferocity because of who she is and the sensitivity of the story she chose to tell? NO. No one will convince me of that. Any more than anyone can convince me I wasn’t permitted to write my own story.
[Click the link to read the NYT article; it makes some excellent points that bear consideration: The Long Shadow of ‘American Dirt’.]
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