Author guilty of cultural appropriation


I don’t mean to disillusion you, dear reader, but Raymond Chandler, author of “The Big Sleep” (Bogart and Bacall), was never a private eye. An Englishman, he pretty much perfected the hard-boiled L.A. detective novel after losing his job as an oil company executive. “When in doubt,” he famously advised, “have a man come through the door with a gun.”

Patrick O’Brian, author of the encyclopedic Aubrey-Maturin series of 20 novels about the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars (think “Master and Commander,” with Russell Crowe), never served a minute on a square-rigged man-of-war. Born a century too late, you see. O’Brian apparently did do some sailing on a friend’s yacht. The rest of it he made up.

Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice” opens with this epigrammatic, unforgettable line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Austen herself, however, never married anybody, much less a handsome gentleman with an inherited title and 100,000 pounds a year.

She was a literary genius, that’s all.

Novels, you see, are make-believe. Storybooks. Products of the imagination. Not to be confused with newspaper stories or other documentary forms. 

Needless to say, that’s a bit simplistic. But then, this is an 800-word newspaper column. Simplistic-R-us.

Anyway, try to keep the fundamental distinction between fact and fiction in mind regarding the latest ugly furor over “American Dirt.” It’s a sentimental thriller about an Acapulco bookstore owner and her son fleeing for the U.S. border hunted by vicious narcotraficantes with a grudge against her late husband, whom they’ve already slaughtered at a quinceanera (a teenager’s birthday party).

(Notice how the columnist certifies his sophistication by dropping Spanish words into the text?)

It’s a novel written by a white American woman who did five years of research. “I went to the border,” she has said. “I went to Mexico. I traveled throughout the borderlands. I visited Casa del Migrante in Mexico. I visited orphanages. I volunteered at a desayunador, which is like a soup kitchen for migrants. I met with the people who have devoted their lives on the front line to the work of protecting vulnerable people.”

Then novelist Jeanine Cummins hit the jackpot. Her novel earned a million-dollar advance, drew pre-publication blurbs from best-selling authors like Stephen King and John Grisham (both inclined to be generous to other writers). The crime novelist Don Winslow, author of a dark trilogy about the Mexican drug wars, called it “a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our time.” The movie rights sold. Then Oprah Winfrey made “American Dirt” her next book club selection.

All that tells me two things: It’s a page-turner, and well-calibrated to excite the sympathies of Oprah’s audience of women who watch daytime TV. It’s “The Perils of Pauline” – or in this case, of Lydia Quixano Perez: a brown-skinned woman otherwise very like the novel’s intended audience.

Then the guacamole hit the fan, big time.

Chicana writer Myriam Gurba posted an angry review to the effect that author Cummins didn’t know squat about Mexico or Mexicans, addressing her as a “pendeja” (jerk, bitch or worse). “American Dirt’s” protagonist, she wrote, “perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist.” (As I say, pretty much Oprah’s core audience.)

The diversity police jumped in. A group of 123 authors, few household names among them, signed a petition urging Oprah to withdraw the novel on grounds of something called “cultural appropriation.”

America’s original sin and greatest genius, in other words. But hold that thought.

Her publishers canceled Cummins’ book tour. The usual death threats ensued, both against the author and her critics. So tiresome, these online bullies. The New York Times published a review by Parul Sehgal, who complained of a prose style “so lumpy and strange it sounds like nonsense poetry.” An Indian-American writer with no dog in the fight, she provided examples.

A woman’s expression: “It’s as if seven fishermen have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they’re all pulling at once. One from the eyebrow, one from the lip, another at the nose, one from the cheek.”

“Yes, of course,” Parul snarks. “That expression.”

Back in my own book-reviewing days, prose like that made my back teeth ache. The best-seller list overflowed with it anyway.

Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros was more generous. Yes, “American Dirt” has its awkward moments, she acknowledged to NPR’s Maria Hinajosa. But its intended audience, “maybe is undecided about issues at the border. It’s going to be someone who wants to be entertained, and the story is going to enter like a Trojan horse and change minds. And it’s going to change the minds that, perhaps, I can’t change.”

As for these literary commissars demanding birth certificates and passports, to hell with them. Anybody’s free to appropriate whatever they choose.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at [email protected]

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