When the News Runs You Over

In one of my sleepless hours last night, I was composing a blog essay about what it means that a white writer (me) writes a novel in which 45 of the 80 named characters are Asian or Asian-American. But in my e-mail this morning, a message from our region’s terrific independent bookstore:

We regret to inform you that Flatiron Books, the publisher of American Dirt, has cancelled Jeanine Cummins’ tour. Bob Miller, president and publisher of Flatiron, wrote, “Based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety.” Northshire Bookstore apologizes for any inconvenience and is issuing a refund to all ticket-holders.

So I turned to the news for more detail. And I clearly haven’t been reading the news much in the past week. American Dirt, and the controversy around it, is all over the place. Even trying to reduce the difficulty to any sort of summary is unfair to the complexity of what’s playing out. Questions not merely of who gets to write a story, but of who gets to review it. Questions of what it means to have a multivalent identity, taking us right back to claims and counter-claims all too reminiscent of the “one-drop rule.” Questions of graphic design and iconography, of what it means to have a barbed-wire manicure. Questions of whether the publisher cancelling the tour because of “threats” and “peril” is another form of stereotyping and victim-blaming.

Questions of what it means to be a victim. Of what constitutes violence.

And of course, the contemporary fire-accelerant of Twitter, difficult social issues compressed to “racist pieces of shit” and “brownface” and “trauma porn.” The important online magazines like Vulture and Slate and Vox all needing their hot take to reinforce their currency.

Amplifying it all, the author’s success to lend the angle of profiting off the suffering of others. The nine-publisher bidding war, the “seven-figure book deal,” the selection into Oprah’s Book Club being the final match to light the conflagration. If this book gotten a $5,000 advance and had sold a mere few thousand copies like almost every other, there would have been no controversy at all; it would have been mentioned as merely one of numerous problematic portrayals of Latinx characters, in the lit review of a poorly read literary theory article by a young scholar trying to make tenure.

(The term Latinx is its own ground of contention. Some Spanish speakers complain that it’s a non-word, and that Spanish is a gendered language that doesn’t deserve to be neutered. Others reject the construct entirely, preferring Hispanic. There is never a singular, uniformly correct answer to any meaningful social question.)

In her furious review of the book—a review that was killed by its commissioning magazine, Ms., because the reviewer wasn’t a famous enough writer to be deemed worthy to take down a famous writer—author Myriam Gurba adds the lines that speak to my own dilemma right now:

Writer Alexander Chee has said that writers interested in exploring the realities of those unlike themselves should answer three questions before proceeding. These are:

  • “Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?”
  • “Do you read writers from this community currently?”
  • “Why do you want to tell this story?”

These are questions I’ll be sitting with in the coming days as I think again about my own role and responsibilities as a storyteller.