When Oprah Winfrey featured Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt in her bookclub, it created excitement in the Latinx community. There was a feeling that a spotlight would shine on the plight of migrants. The book had received considerable hype, with novelist Don Winslow comparing it to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and famed Chincanx writer Sandra Cisneros calling it ‘the great novel of las Americas’.
The acclaim turned to controversy when a viral review by Chicanx writer Myriam Gurba titled ‘Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature’ raised crucial questions about power, representation and whiteness in the publishing industry, implicating the book. When I say whiteness here, I am referring to a racial hierarchical power structure that prioritises white interests.
Gurba’s key criticism was that the book bought into stereotypes and pandered to a dominant and false white narrative of Mexican immigration according to which Mexico is a dangerous and corrupt place and the United States is its only salvation. Cummins’ author’s note, in which she wrote that she ‘wished someone slightly browner’ had written the book, also raised questions about what happens when we write characters from a different cultural background (Cummins identifies as Puerto Rican but is not Mexican, nor is she from a migrant background). Previous debates centred on the question of cultural appropriation and the rising movement against it, but the American Dirt controversy tells us more about how whiteness operates within publishing. Who gets to be right in a public debate like this?
At first glance, the writers the internet chooses to accuse of cultural appropriation may seem random targets. In actuality, we can see a pattern in which one side strongly and publicly asserts its right to ‘artistic freedom’, resulting in a backlash that draws attention to the harm cultural appropriation can cause. Think of Lionel Shriver’s 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival speech or Canadian writer Hal Niedzviecki’s call for a ‘cultural appropriation prize’. Each of these began with a public and ideological declaration against ‘identity politics’ and was followed by criticism, largely on social media. The fear expressed by proponents of artistic freedom is that this criticism will lead to censorship. Others pointed out that cultural appropriation and the dominance of whiteness within the industry leads to a lack of publishing opportunities for marginalised writers.
This debate-like structure creates the illusion that only two opposing sides exist. This occurred to me in 2018, as I sat in a university lecture hall watching six writers debate the topic ‘write what you know’ for ABC RN. While shades of nuance can be explored within a debate, the format itself leaves little room to discuss these in detail. Graeme Simsion argued that, if ‘write what you know’ were true, we would not have some of our most acclaimed fiction, and that telling a Nigerian woman to write about Nigeria rather than a man who turns into an insect would be oppression in its own right. He also said ‘… sticking to what we know may avoid the risk of stereotypical representation of oppressed groups at the price of their invisibility.’ Claire G Coleman reframed the question: of course writers can write what they don’t know, but should they? She defended the right of Indigenous Australians to tell their own stories, pointing out that the story of the First Peoples has been told by the invaders. In the end, if you were to judge by the volume of the applause, Simsion’s side would have emerged as the winner.
The demographic of the majority white audience got me thinking: is this a fair debate? While good points were made during the debate, Simsion’s suggestion that writers of colour wouldn’t be represented were it not for white writers seemed inaccurate. It ignored the fact that writers of colour like me were capable of publishing our own works. Yet it is not an uncommon argument. Stephanie Convery made a similar point in a debate with Peter Polites in Overland when she claimed that if white writers didn’t write marginalised characters ‘they would end up fighting their battles with no allies at all’; and Jeanine Cummins did so when she claimed to be attempting to humanise the ‘faceless brown mass’ when promoting her book.
This does not mean that Simsion, Convery and Cummins are not sensitive to the needs of marginalised writers. But it is important to consider what we mean by sensitivity. When authors suggest a sensitive approach, they usually imply some research or consultation with the community represented. But sensitivity is an elusive word. It could simply mean the author considered the feelings of others. The meaning of sensitivity also changes depending on the person referred to. For example, a white person that is sensitive is usually seen in a positive light, while referring to a person of a more marginalised background may imply an over-sensitivity. Take, for example, the contribution of Chris Cleave – author of Little Bee, a story told from the perspective of a young Nigerian girl – to a Guardian debate on cultural appropriation:
Cultural appropriation is a valid concern to raise, and I’ve long been on record as respecting those who raise it. I do write across boundaries, though. While actively soliciting people’s right to reply (I’ve published all responses, good and bad, on my website for the last decade), I do my best, when I write, to be everyone.
Sensitivity aims to avoid causing offence. In this discourse, offence is often likened to a nerve that is irritated. For example, in his article ‘Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation,’ James Young refers to sensitivity in terms of ‘a raw nerve that is easily irritated’ for those whose culture is regularly belittled, while Stephanie Convery wrote of how ‘Lionel Shriver’s speech touched a nerve.’ In both instances, the effect of touching nerves is cumulative, and constructs a subject that is emotional and inconsistent. Yet not all cultural appropriation is perceived as offensive. As Michael Asch writes in the introduction to The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation, buying a souvenir overseas can be a form of appropriation, but it is not usually offensive. Offence is more likely to occur if there is exploitation.
If marginalised writers are perceived to be over-sensitive, subjective and inconsistent, it makes it easier to dismiss their concerns. In the meantime, unfounded claims that marginalised writers must be represented by white writers in order to have a literary presence continue to prevail. The playing field, as it were, is not even. Once I was having a conversation with my friend, fellow writer and academic Shakira Hussein, complaining that I had to provide extensive proof that First Nations writers and writers of colour were underrepresented in the publishing industry, when writers for the opposite position did not. She said to me jokingly, ‘that is because they have common sense – didn’t you know?’ This, ironically, made sense of the situation with which I was struggling. In her book Experience, Evidence, and Sense, Anna Wierzbicka describes common sense as a feature of Anglo culture, often seen in contrast to ‘theories, ideologies, and logical reasoning’. Arguments such as these come from a shared dominant cultural perspective. In effect, common sense does not need to be true or have evidence; it just needs to be believed by a large group of people. This is also defined by the dominant group, and that is the white majority.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson has written about the ‘possessive logic’ of patriarchal white sovereignty, suggesting that it operates as a kind of common-sense knowledge that is designed to lead to an inevitable answer. This answer reinforces the control of the nation-state. This kind of logic isn’t immediately recognisable because it promotes the idea of race neutrality, appearing egalitarian at the same time. This allows it to define what is normal, and this in turn, allows it to maintain its power structure. Think about the time George Brandis tried to redefine the racial discrimination act by measuring it against what the ‘ordinary, reasonable Australian’ would consider offensive. Critics such as Waleed Aly and Alice Pung had no hesitation in identifying the phrase as a code for whiteness. This form of ‘common sense’ is not innocent, and it may not be immediately recognisable, but it still comes to the same end.
The ‘common sense’ approach to the debate also explains why arguments such as Shriver’s that any criticism of cultural appropriation will lead to censorship are so persistent. In reality, books by writers featuring characters of other backgrounds continue to be published — Anna Krien’s latest book, Act of Grace, featuring ‘an Australian soldier, a young Indigenous Australian woman, and an Iraqi refugee’, was recently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (2020). The privilege of common sense is not afforded to more marginalised writers, who are asked to prove even the most observable phenomenon, such as their underrepresentation in the industry. Even our very marginalisation is discouraged from entering the discussion until we have gone through the lengthy process of proving its validity.
The controversy around American Dirt shows how the debate around cultural appropriation has been consistently framed to the detriment of those who point out white privilege and so it will always point to whiteness as not only right but as authoritative. The recent UK Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing report found that the whole publishing industry is essentially set up to cater for its white and middle class core audience. We need to reconsider the audience and address the dominance of the white gaze if we are ever going to even out the playing field.