Cultural approbation

Has author Jeanine Cummins opened the subject of Mexican immigration to her readers? Or has the publishing industry overlooked writers of color again?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Arion Berger works at Faulkner House Books, an independent bookshop in the French Quarter in New Orleans.

So here are the questions at the heart of this week’s cover story by Stephen Humphries:

Has author Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt” powerfully opened the subject of Mexican immigration to a whole new world of readers? Or has the publishing industry once again overlooked writers of color to let someone else tell their story?

What if the answer to both questions is yes?

By the measure of social media, it seems, these questions must be engaged in a steel-cage death match with everyone taking a side and then defending it until the End of All Things. Only when Frodo at last casts the One Ring to the fiery chasm of Mount Doom will we all be able to breathe free again.

But reading Stephen’s story gives the hope that there might be another way to look at the issue. It is possible to see an author moved by genuine curiosity and compassion – someone who wrestled with who she is and who those around her are and tried to, in some small measure, reduce the distance between them. And it is equally possible to see an industry that is comfortable with the voices it knows and the stories that are familiar and could very much use a kick in the pants.

In the worst cases, cultural appropriation can be the effort to brazenly profit from another community’s inspiration or to commoditize the richness of the human experience into something more comfortable but less genuine. Yet the melding of different cultures can also be fresh fire, sparking the world into new creations, new vistas, and new energies. Where is the line between the two?

Perhaps the simplest answer comes in an appreciation for the power of the story. Art can entertain, yes. But at its most transformative, it enlarges and enriches. It gets us to see beyond ourselves or perhaps see parts of ourselves that we never knew. Art begins to tell us something of the genuine wonder of the world and of the people within it. And there is no more powerful way to expand that larger sense of identity and belonging than through a story.

So the real question might be: Whose stories are we valuing?

The story of the young black man in the hoodie? The story of the police officer behind the badge? The story of the young Bernie Sanders voter facing mounds of student debt? The story of the rural Donald Trump voter seeing the promise of the past fade? The story of the Mexican immigrant coming to America?

Authors can seek to inhabit all these spaces. That is art. But so, too, is the lived experience that drips with authenticity and challenges us to open the aperture of our understanding in new ways. This time of upheaval, for all its turmoil, is really imploring us to let in all these voices. The best literature shows us that in each story is truth and beauty and poignancy that is worth knowing and valuing.

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