I’m writing this post on March 15th, the Ides of March. The 2020 version of Brutus’s dagger is the Coronavirus poised less than six feet from our lungs. The threat of Covid-19 compels us to wash our hands more frequently than did Lady Macbeth, and English’s newest oxymoron, social distancing, will have unknown effects upon the social abilities of humankind.
When I think about this month’s blog topic, I feel a twinge of guilt. Is the topic too disconnected from our health worries? Will it seem trivial to those who are hunkered down under virtual house arrest? Or, will this short essay be a distraction from the constant news alerts with which we spar every day and night?
Trivial or not, one fact is true. Although I have my own opinions about the topic’s issues, I’m more interested in the opinions of others than I am in sharing my thoughts. Briefly, here’s the story.
A writer, Jeanine Cummins, was given a seven-figure advance and a movie deal for her novel, “American Dirt.” Upon the book’s publication by Flatiron, a Macmillan imprint, Oprah Winfrey chose it as a selection for her book club’s readers.
The novel relates the story of a young mother and her son who witness a mass murder committed by members of a drug cartel, and then flee Mexico. They travel by train and on foot to reach America. There couldn’t be a timelier theme and plot.
According to “American Dirt’s” vociferous critics, the author has appropriated and marketed a story filled with stereotypes, insensitive images, and stilted examples of bilingualism. The story does not challenge its readers to think about what it means to be a migrant. It fails to convey Mexican sensibility, just as “Gone with the Wind” failed to convey the sensibilities of two enslaved maids in favor of displaying them as semi-comedic figures. To make bad matters worse, Cummins, who identified as white in a 2015 interview, now claims a Latina identity by virtue of one of her grandmothers who is from Puerto Rico.
Cummins’ publisher held a promotional event for the book and arranged for the tables to be decorated with barbed wire centerpieces. Stretching that motif to the max, Cummins decorated her fingernails with images of barbed wire.
The book’s latinx critics responded with angry tweets, op-ed articles, scathing reviews, and threats against the author. In an effort to avoid more controversy as well as anti-Cummins demonstrations, the publisher canceled plans for her book tour.
Then there’s the Woody Allen memoir debacle, during which Allen’s step-daughter, Dylan Farrow and son, Ronan Farrow tweeted their reactions to Little, Brown and Company’s contractual agreement to publish the book.
In 2018 Dylan Farrow accused her step-father of sexually abusing her when she was a child. Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Catch and Kill,” (published by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group,) presented evidence of abuses perpetrated against women by powerful men in the entertainment industry.
Prior to Allen’s book’s publication date, angry employees of Hachette Book Group staged a walkout. Shortly after that, Hachette Book Group canceled the deal and returned all rights of the book to Allen.
The issues wrapped around “American Dirt” are representation and racial/ cultural appropriation. It’s a given that representation matters, whether it is between the covers of a book, exhibited on the walls of a museum, flowing from musicians’ instruments, or projected onto screens. The identity of persons who have the right to write about “the other” and the responsibilities inherent in that right remain points of contention.
The issue that engulfs Woody Allen’s book is one of suppression, if not censorship. Who possesses the right to shut down a book, a painting or a piece of sculpture, the performance of a music composition, or the production of a film?
What’s your opinion? Whether you’re a writer, reader, artist, or simply a consumer of others’ creativity, who has the right to write about “the other?” Who has the right to prevent the production of a creative work?
Breaking News: The Allen memoir, “Apropos of Nothing,” was released on 3/23 by Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.
© Renée Bess, 2020
Renée Bess is the author of five novels and the co-story collector of the Goldie Prize winning anthology, OUR HAPPY HOURS: LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS. She is a recipient of the 2019 Alice B. Readers award. Currently she’s doing all of her socialization from a distance. http://www.reneebess.com