Is That the Question?
Last month, I was scrolling through Twitter and found Oprah promoting American Dirt. A thriller about immigration that hooked her on the first page? I’m in. I immediately ordered it on Amazon and went back to reading comments online about the book.
After reading negative comments about how the book misrepresented the immigrant experience, I canceled my Amazon order.
Let me repeat that. I read negative comments about a book and decided that I would not read it!
My actions disturbed me.
Reader, Writer, Librarian
I am a reader, a writer, and a librarian. This past month, the controversy surrounding the book, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, has made me reflect on all three roles.
As an avid reader, I love that I can walk into a library or a bookstore and choose any book to read. There are some places in the world where people do not have that freedom.
Typically, I am a very eclectic reader and let my mood influence what my next book will be. When choosing a new book, I usually don’t pay attention to who the author is until after I finish reading the book. If I like the book, I will research the author to see if they have written any other books.
As a writer, I understand how difficult it is to put a piece of writing out into the world for everyone to read, and criticize. A piece of yourself is out there on display. (Writing this blog post is terrifying.) We become so connected to our writing because of the time and energy spent creating it. So I sympathize with how Jeanine Cummins must be feeling.
As a school librarian, it is my job to make sure that the books I curate for my library allow every student to see themselves reflected in a positive way through literature.
My duty is to uphold the Library Bill of Rights. I should challenge censorship, and provide materials that represent all points of view, regardless of background, origin, or opinions.
Yet, here I am, censoring myself by deciding not to read American Dirt because of other people’s opinions.
People are upset because an author wrote about a group of people that she is not a part of. This escalated into threats, which caused her book tour to be canceled. Bookstores are pulling her books off the shelves. What’s next? Public book burnings? The mob mentality that has surrounded this book is frightening. People are making rash decisions without having actually read the book. This concerns me.
According to an interview on NPR, Jeanine Cummins said, “I endeavored to be incredibly culturally sensitive. I did the work. I did five years of research. The whole intention in my heart when I wrote this book was to try to upend the traditional stereotypes that I saw being very prevalent in our national dialogue.”
The real problem is the publishing industry. It has always been “too white and too male,” and we need to do something about that. We Need Diverse Books and diverse story tellers. Changes must be made in the publishing industry.
However, the conversations I am hearing state certain stories should only be told by certain people.
Writers Open a Door
There have always been stories written by writers who do not represent the characters in their books. But this is how doors are opened. They create a world that allows others to see something that they would never have seen before.
Ezra Jack Keats, used his privilege as a white man to write The Snowy Day in 1962, which broke a huge barrier in children’s literature. At the time, the publishing industry would never have allowed a black man to tell that story. Ezra Jack Keats opened a door, and without that door being opened, we wouldn’t have the beautiful children’s books we have today told by authors of all races and genders.
Do we need more? Most emphatically, YES! But should we censor writers because they don’t look like the characters in the story they want to tell? Most emphatically, NO!
Is there a right way and a wrong way to write about marginalized people if you are not a part of that group? Yes. Wendy Lu has a great blog post called “Writing from the Perspective of Characters in Marginalized Populations” that addresses this topic.
The Reader Gets to Choose
The past couple of weeks, I have read many different articles about the good and bad of American Dirt. There are bookstores on social media posting that they are pulling the book from their shelves. A librarian posted her criticism of the people who were checking the book out. I found a positive post by Scuppernong Books that contained American Dirt displayed alongside better written immigration stories.
The bottom line is that the reader should get to choose. If we start taking books off the shelves because they are too controversial, then we are taking away the reader’s choice and the writer’s voice.
Read the Book First, Then Discuss
I shared my concerns with my husband about reading American Dirt. He said, “Just read the damn book and stay off the Internet!” He is right. To fully understand and participate in the conversations around this book, I need to actually finish reading it instead of the articles about it.
I am not here to debate whether Jeanine Cummins should have written this book, because I do not have the right to do that. She is allowed to write whatever she wants. When I finish reading the book, I will look forward to having discussions about her writing, with other people who have read it.
Despite all of the backlash American Dirt has gotten, there is a silver lining. For the first time, as a nation, we are having an open dialogue about what needs to change in the publishing industry. Communication is the first step in changing the world.
“Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.”
Author: Colleen R. Lee
Colleen R. Lee is a former middle school English teacher and Elementary Teacher. She is currently the Elementary Librarian at Greenfield Elementary School in Chesterfield County, VA. Follow her on Twitter @MrsLeesLibrary.
Categories: Blog Topics, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Intellectual Freedom
I’m not sure the problem with the book has been accurately captured in your summary. I too had the same reaction when I heard about the book – I was so excited to read it! Then I also read the criticism, and my takeaway was entirely different. The criticism I read was that it was not well-written, and full of stereotypes. In the end I will not be reading it because I trust in the POC who have found issue with it, and with a mile-long list of books I want to read, I will not waste my time on something that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. That’s not censorship, that is me changing my mind on something once I was fully informed. It’s okay to change your mind! And it’s also okay to decide to read the book.
I recently read this phenomenal book and not only do I think the argument about cultural appropriation is absurd, but I also believe that this unnecessary controversy is preventing hundreds, if not thousands, of readers from gaining the knowledge about and empathy toward migrants that this novel embodies. Cummins clearly did extensive research and her story is filled with harrowing details of the lives of those who suffer in Latin American countries. She puts individual faces on what many only think of as masses, and writes beautifully about universal issues of family, love, loyalty, and grief. I have learned never to listen to reviews, but to always read the book first and then participate in the conversation. I promise you won’t be disappointed with this book! Here is my Goodreads review:
I love your article and while I have not read the book and have no interest in reading it because I too have a mile long list of books to read. While it may contain negative aspects, that is the right of readers to choose whether to read the book or not. Many published books contain stereotypes, some are in “diverse” books and many popular books are not well written. I’m thinking of the Twilight books. As a community we can review the book and make readers aware, but readers should be free to read whatever they choose. Just because a book in not perfect, does not mean it can contribute the a discussion in one way or another. The mob mentality and book banning should have no place in a free society.
I read it and loved it. Did Shakespeare need to be an Italian teenager to write Romeo and Juliet? The whole point of literature, of reading and writing, is to enrich our imaginations, to put ourselves into other people’s situations, to experience empathy.
Plus, something many haven’t mentioned, is that her husband was an undocumented immigrant for five years. In her acknowledgements she humbly mentions that she has not directly experienced the harrowing experiences of her characters, but she gives credit to many writers who have, for instance, Sonia Nazario, who wrote the excellent Enrique’s Journey and traveled on top of La Bestia and was injured by a tree branch.
Just read the book and then push for more diversity in publishing. But don’t punish the writer because of her ethnicity. And don’t self-censor.
I believe there are sensitive topics at play with this particular text. I think the text is worth examining closer as it is a relevant issue for everyone. I do plan to read the text. Although I consciously make efforts to avoid financially supporting people and organizations that act in a harmful manner toward others, I’d like to know more about what the author has to say before I decide what is happening. I’d also like to collect as many viewpoints as possible in order to consider all of the information surrounding the issues. Knowing more about the issue allows for a sturdier stance on the issue. I respect the decisions of my peers to decline the opportunity because that represents their view point. No matter the position of the perspective reader, to read or not, the conversation has begun. Open, respectful discussion about the topics is what we use to grow and improve our understanding of each other and our world.
Dear Colleen and All,
Today, I posted “Censorship vs Selection and Alternatives to American Dirt” on my blog.
I read and responded to the book in the context of library values and critiqued it in light of best practices in school library collection development.
I recommend high school librarians consider “border” and immigration books by Luis Alberto Urrea rather than purchasing American Dirt. To read my post: https://tinyurl.com/sllblog022420
I am reading the book. I am enjoying the book for the reasons I want to read. It is a touching and adventurous story. It is full of action and relationships. I never expected this to be some kind of documentary or real life account. It is fictional reading. The author keeps me interested. To me, it is apparent that research was done before its writing which adds enough “real” to it to keep it exciting. I believe the only reason there is so much backlash is that it touches on a societal issue of our day. I vowed not to allow a great, well written book with a great story to become so politicized that I could not enjoy the book. So far, I don’t pick up on any hints of “bashing”, no matter what side of “immigration” or politics you are on. For now, I would say: Kudos to Jeanine Cummins.