This post is hopefully one that will raise some discussion in the comments below because I would really love to hear lots of different opinions on the topic of Own Voices Narratives.
The biggest news story in publishing in the past few days has been all about ‘American Dirt’ by Jeanine Cummins. For those of you not in the know here’s the blurb from Goodreads for it:
Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.
Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.
Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?
The controversy surrounding this novel is that it is not Own Voices and instead it reads like a ‘trauma porn’ type read where, typically white people, can read it and feel sympathy for these characters as the violence is ratcheted up to the hilt and ultimately the book descends into the ‘white saviour’ trope and gives an unrealistic view of migrant America to the reader.
I would recommend that you guys read these blog posts / articles that I found that explain the issues around this book in greater detail and make your own conclusions about whether or not it is a book you would want to read.
- Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature by Myriam Gurba
- A Poor Imitation: American Dirt and Misrepresentations of Mexico written by David Schmidt
- American Dirt: why critics are calling Oprah’s book club pick exploitative and divisive by Andre Wheeler, The Guardian Newspaper
- Why Everyone’s Talking About ‘American Dirt’ by Rachelle Hampton, Slate
- Flatiron Books Addresses ‘American Dirt’ Controversy by Claire Kirch, Publishers Weekly
I for one will not be reading American Dirt. From reading up on the book and its author I have decided that it is not an accurate representation of a story that needs telling.
And that brings me to my question about Own Voices authors.
The author of American Dirt is not Own Voices for a migration story and as it is such a sensitive topic in these incredibly divisive times I feel it should have been. Because the story is one that needs to be gotten out to a wider audience. The wonderful thing about reading fiction is that it has the most amazing ability to influence our thinking because it can make us so empathetic. We live with characters in books for days if not weeks; they can become part of us, they can touch us in ways that quick news bulletins and snappy vox pop pieces may not…
But I also believe because we as people are capable of such great empathy and therefore that anyone should be able to write about anything because I want to believe that any author writing an incredibly emotive story should (with careful research) be able to metaphorically inhabit that world and deliver an authentic story to the reader.
So I am at somewhat of an impasse with my own thoughts on this subject.
I see the absolute need for Own Voices, for diversity, for authentic representation. I truly believe that publishers should put more PR and spending into publicising Own Voice narratives. I consider myself an Own Voices reviewer for Chronic Illness storylines because I live with chronic illness. So when I read a book focusing on such I know when the book is realistic and when it indulges in ‘trauma porn’. And in my experience the majority of the best books I have read that feature a chronically ill character are all written by Own Voices authors.
Yet I have read books where the author is not Own Voices for illness and they have struck the right chord for expressing the emotions / living conditions / physical limitations etc for that chronically ill character.
So you see how I am torn right?
I don’t think there can be an absolute answer. I don’t think we can say that these types of emotive or controversial storylines should only ever be written by Own Voices writers BUT I think greater spotlight needs to be shed on Own Voices.
I believe that more PR and spending needs to go into Own Voices writers as they are the ones who should be telling their stories first.
Because if we have more Own Voices writers telling the narratives of their experiences then it will make both non-Own Voices readers and writers more empathetic to these realistic stories. Therefore will lead to a greater proliferation of good writing that will feel authentic and true and also will bring about informed debate on these topics.
I would really love to hear all of your thoughts on this subject matter. If you have thoughts on ‘American Dirt’ or have read any great articles either in opposition or in defence of it then please chat / link in the comments below. And if you have any experience in reading similar themed books with one written by an Own Voices author and one not, let me know what differences you found.