Write for your life


If you’re thinking of writing a novel, be sure to write only about your own race and culture. Or else.

The recent controversy over “American Dirt,” a book that was first widely acclaimed — before its author became the target of violent threats — reminds us yet again that freedom is fragile and that democratic ideals of tolerance and fairness dangle by a thread.

Author Jeanine Cummins doubtlessly thought she was acting nobly when she spent five years researching the immigrant border crisis — traveling to Mexico, interviewing immigrants, volunteering at a soup kitchen that serves migrants, and visiting orphanages.

But thanks perhaps to the overindulgence of her publisher (Flatiron) — Cummins reportedly received a seven-figure advance — and a high-profile rollout, Cummins earned the contempt of critics who considered her unworthy of her topic, not because the book wasn’t quite good enough (as some critics have noted) but because she wasn’t sufficiently Latina. Poor Cummins had only one Latina grandmother. And, get this: Her Irish husband, once an illegal immigrant, wasn’t quite underdoggish enough. (Never mind that many Irish immigrants came to America as indentured servants, or that it was common for signs on stores and restaurants and for job listings to say: “No Irish.” Or “No Irish Need Apply.”)

Once Cummins’ genetic shortcomings caught the attention of social media’s literati, it was off to the bonfires. Not only was she condemned, prompting her to cancel her book tour in fear for her safety, but a petition was circulated asking Oprah to remove Cummins’ novel from her book-club list.

Regardless of the author’s relative value to the genre of fiction, it should be obvious that one’s DNA does not predict literary talent, insight or even wisdom born of experience.

How dare William Styron write “Sophie’s Choice” when he was neither Jewish, a woman nor a Holocaust survivor. A list of authors who have written great books without meeting today’s ancestry requirements would fill, well, a library.

Critics have to say something, of course — and, apparently, there’s plenty enough to say about “American Dirt” without requiring the author to expectorate into a test-tube. Even Cummins seemed to foreshadow what would come her way when she wrote in her own afterword, “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” Had I been her editor, I’d have questioned her grammar — “browner than I” — but not her right to pursue a topic of her choosing.

This is what the threats essentially aimed to do — censor Cummins based on her genetic background. Merely reading the preceding sentence should send chills up one’s spine. And seeking to silence or shame her with threats of violence is a scene from some other dystopian novel about a country or time not our own.

Any columnist worth her salt has been the target of hatred countless times, though it’s become more frequent in recent years. It’s much harder to sustain vitriol through the laborious process of a handwritten letter than it is to vent one’s spleen with a few characters that can be read by millions in a nanosecond.

A high-tech mob can be marshalled in moments and next thing you know: A book tour is cancelled; a cartoonist goes into hiding; an artist decides no painting is worth his life. Such conditions put not only freedom at risk but also the creative imperative. Provocative art and literature are doomed in a censorious society, which is why, until now, we’ve tolerated the worst examples of human creativity in order to protect the best.

The trend of punishing certain folks for expressing unpopular thoughts — or for not meeting standards set by a given special-interest group — has been gaining traction for decades. And I should know. I’ve abandoned certain issues to avoid the wrath of sensitivity monitors, who are doing their best to eliminate humor.

This isn’t to say all things should be said or printed — and I am thankful to my editors (most of the time). But wariness isn’t enough against threats of violence. All thinking people should rail against the bullying of self-anointed censors whose methods have no place in a free, democratic society. I may not read it, but I plan to buy Cummins’ book in solidarity. It’s a small, revolutionary act, but it seems the least one should do.

By Josh Bovee

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