In Al Dia, Beatriz Garcia writes on the latest casualty of what she calls the Jeanine Cummins Syndrome. You might remember the latter as the author of American Dirt, the novel that received much flak for cultural appropriation. Now, it’s Alexandra Duncan, YA author. Harper Collins was ready to publish her novel, Ember Days, about a Gullah conjure woman. Duncan withdrew it after criticism surfaced. I’m not a fan of censorship of any kind, although I’m equally passionate against cultural vampirism. There has to be a balance, though.
Although I agree with some of Garcia’s points, calling the criticism “political correctness” is not the way to go. That’s a term that, like “cancel culture,” only serves to shut down dialogue. I find her assertion that “a writer without freedom is not a writer” problematic. At face value, it can be a truism. Imprisoned writers don’t have the ability to write, period. In what sense does she mean freedom?
If she means the freedom to write anything, I would agree. But I don’t agree with the comment that follows: “You can be an activist, a social educator or, at worst, a propagandist.” Interpretation: you won’t be a “real writer.” It’s reductive to think criticism of your uncritical choice of material necessarily limits your artistic vision. Her slight of activist and political writers is elitist and naive. All writing is political, and there is nothing wrong with using your writing as a form of activism. In fact, you can make a strong argument that we need more of it. In discussing these ideas, I’m always reminded of Sandra Cisneros’ comments about Latinx writers: “We don’t have the leisure to write about flowers in a vase.”
The criticism levied against Jeanine Cummins’ book was justified. She didn’t do her due diligence. But MacMillan still published it. I’m saddened to hear that Duncan withdrew her book from publication. Writers should write whatever they want with the full knowledge that their work may generate criticism. All artists should push themselves to take on challenging projects. It’s essential for growing your art. If you’re going to write a book that is outside of your cultural boundaries, you just better do the research and effort to get it right.
There is another issue that concerns me more about cultural appropriation. When a white writer writes about people of color, they steal an opportunity from a writer of color. For argument’s sake, though, let’s consider one point. If there is a dearth of material on a subject related to a specific community, is it ever valuable for an outsider to pen a well-researched and sympathetic book on it? Is it possible for a white writer to do justice to a story embedded in the experience of people of color? That’s the question.