Cummins' American Dirt and Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth: Can stories, even when they aren't our own, build bridges?

Jeanine Cummins is on the hot seat right now for writing American Dirt, a novel about immigration and life on the Mexican/American border, which was (until a few days ago) believed to become one of the most important novels of 2020. Oprah named it a Book Club Choice. Stephen King endorsed it, as did Ann Patchett, John Grisholm, Sandra Cisneros, and other notable writers. The New York Times and Amazon gave it the #1 slot. Rumor has it that the publisher paid Cummins a 7-figure advance.

A few days ago, the dirt hit the fan for Cummins and Flatiron Books (an imprint of MacMillan). The book tour was cancelled. Oprah was unusually quiet for a few days, then posted a video on her book club Instagram page allowing for an opportunity in March to discuss the controversy in more depth.

Suddenly, American Dirt was everywhere. And nowhere.

January 31st Slate Magazine published an article by writer Laura Miller, which discusses this question:

Will the American Dirt Fiasco Change American Publishing? Editors inside the biggest houses discuss what went wrong—and whether they’ve learned lessons from the controversy.

What did go wrong?

Some suggest that if the publisher had presented the novel to the public as commercial fiction (much like Where the Crawdads Sing) rather than literary fiction, reviewer expectations would have been different.

"Where Cummins’ publisher went wrong," according to Laura Miller's Slate article, "was to present American Dirt as if it was also, in the senior editor’s words, 'a contribution to a vital understanding of this issue,' with the implied claim of representing the issue accurately rather than using it as a backdrop for an entertaining suspense story."

So it’s a genre issue? The book was pitched to the public all wrong? 

Cummins wrote that she wished that someone "slightly browner" had written the book, but no one had, so she did, with the hope that the book might become a bridge between cultures.

Do readers care? After the anger about cultural appropriation fades away, will the novel help the non-Latina reader, who was only interested in a good story, develop more empathy for Latinas in the throes of the immigration crisis? Can two-dimensional characters serve as a bridge of understanding about the lives of real people?

Must authors refrain from writing stories with characters whose life experiences are not their own because they fear the won’t “get it right?”

The controversy is not new. Conscientious writers cannot help but be haunted by this ethical dilemma. Should a male novelist write from a woman’s point of view? Should a woman novelist write from a man’s point of view? Can the rich write about the poor? Can the poor write about the rich? Dare we cross into unknown territory? Are the worlds we grew up loving, through the books we read long ago, no longer legitimate?

Hypothetically, from whom should Pearl S. Buck have gotten permission before writing The Good Earth? What right did she, the daughter of white missionaries, have to try and depict the lives of Chinese peasants? 

How do authors know when a story is ours to tell? 

Years ago, while living in Wyoming, I wrote an 1850 historical novel with a main character whose mother was an Oglala Lakota Sioux and whose father was a Scottish Highlander. Two years of intensive research preceded the writing of that novel. I visited the places where my characters lived. I sought out a Lakota advisor who helped with the language. A university professor of Native American studies, who was also an esteemed singer of a Lakota drum group, vetted the writing. My bookshelves were filled with volumes written by Native American experts of the 1800s. I lived in the cultural heartland of the people about whom I was writing. The trails I hiked may well have been the trails they walked.

But did any of this give me permission to write their stories?

At one point during the writing of that novel, I was deep in contemplation over the name of the Lakota grandmother. I heard a commotion outside and looked out the window of my small office in the log home we had built. My children and our dog (whose barking had gotten my attention) were in the oak draw beneath the barn, huddling over a large snapping turtle (unusual for our part of Wyoming).

I went outside and climbed down into the draw. Without thinking, I bent over and placed both hands around the turtle's shell, and abruptly lifted up the creature.

Its head reared back. Its jaws lurched open. It hissed. Loudly and ferociously, and very near my face. The kids stood back. The dog quit barking. I held her away (I sensed it was a female).

How presumptuous of me to grab her! 

I heard a voice. To say the voice was in my head minimizes the power of the words, which were clear and deliberate.

You may write my story, but know who I am. I am Turtle Woman.

Everything changed after that moment. I listened more. I approached the story humbly. I wrote from the core of my own human experience. I wrote emotional truths as I knew them. I trusted that where I failed in factual details, I would succeed in emotional authenticity.

My understanding of the lives of Chinese peasants in the early 20th century may not be all-encompassing, but if love can build a bridge, then Pearl S. Buck surely did.

Though I was not yet a mother when I first read The Good Earth, the story became the fertile soil from which my own understanding of motherhood would grow. I can picture the land and hear the characters, even now....

The sun beat down upon Wang Lung and his new wife, O-lan, for it was early summer. Moving together in perfect rhythm… turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods.  

The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes… 

Wang Lung looked at the woman.  Her face was wet and streaked with earth. She was as brown as the very soil itself… Then in her usual plain way she said in the silent evening air, ‘I am with child.’

Perhaps the best we can do as writers when we question if we have the right to tell a story is to turn inward, where our own conscience dwells, and to ask if our characters live there too.

Do their hearts beat alongside ours?

Are we listening when they point us toward the truth?

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