Jeanine Cummins, Perception Is Everything

In Korean culture, age is everything. If someone older than you says jump, you jump. If they take something from you, you bow and don’t say a word. Even if they hit you in the head repeatedly, you take it. Thank God I live in the U.S. ‘cuz would seriously not work for me.

Anyway, I started watching a new Korean drama on Netflix called “Stranger.” In the first episode a freshly minted young female prosecutor shows a flash drive to a senior and proclaims it holds a key piece of evidence. He takes it from her and then coaches her to lie so that she can make a big splash in the courtroom by presenting it at the last minute. To add to the drama, the senior even walks it into the courtroom, whispering in her ear all the while.

After they deliver the killing blow, he points at her from the stands as if to say, “Boom.” And there she is with this stupid little half smile on her face as the alleged murderer – I’ll have to keep watching to see if he actually did it – is screaming the courtroom down proclaiming his innocence. His wife watches in the wings, their infant child strapped to her back asleep.

The prosecutor who actually secured the evidence was also in the courtroom. Little Miss Happy She Made It catches sight of him as he’s walking out, and she stops smiling. His leaving pretty much says it all: You are out of order.

The point to this rather lengthy lead in is to say that perception is everything. That was the first thing that came to mind when I learned of the controversy around “American Dirt. Oprah recently recommended the book in her infamous book club, setting it on a course for stardom, and it’s author Jeanine Cummins along with it. But there’s a problem.

The book is about a Mexican migrant woman who flees to the States after a drug cartel massacre. Cummins is not Mexican or a migrant. So, people are squawking about cultural appropriation and querying whether or not she has the right to tell this particular story. Others are saying she’s bogus because the book – which I have not read – is filled with all of the usual negative stereotypes about Mexican migrants, violence and drugs.

But Cummins has acknowledged the issues. According to one piece I read on CNN, she said she worried if she should write the book at all, that her privilege might “blind her to certain truths, that I’d get things wrong, as I may well have.” She even said, “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” O-kay.

She goes on to say that her Puerto Rican grandmother’s experience coming to the States inspired her, and that she did careful and deliberate research. This included extensive travel to Mexico to learn about people living in the borderlands. That’s cool. It shows some discernment, some consideration.

I don’t believe that a writer has to actually be something in order to write about that thing. I’ve never been married. Does that mean I can’t write about married people? I’m not white. Does that mean I can’t have white characters in my books, and write in their voice? I’m no longer a teenager, and I’ve never been an alien. But I’ve written about both of those things. So, by that yardstick, I guess I’m on fire too because I’ve already done that many times in the romance novels I’ve written under a pen name. Of course I’m not a bestseller – yet. So, there’s no one interested enough to comment on what I write and why.

But it’s crap anyway. Writing is about storytelling. This isn’t the same as a white woman being cast as a Mexican woman in a movie. Fictional stories can come from anywhere, from anyone. Is it unfortunate that a white woman is getting a ton of acclaim writing about a Mexican woman when writers of color have written great stories about the same subject matter and not been as successful? Yeah. But that’s the game.

Luck, timing, Oprah, sometimes there are many things that could prevent a writer from getting the attention and monetary recognition they deserve. The problem is one of those obstacles is often race.

The publishing industry is not diverse. There are voices of color certainly, but the big publishing houses are still primarily run by white people. That impacts who gets read, who gets published and receives a fat ass advance, and who has the best chance of coming onto Oprah’s radar. Even the book’s publisher, Flatiron Books acknowledged “the concerns that have been raised …of who gets to tell which stories are valid ones…”

My concern with Cummins is she seems to have a serious sensitive chip missing. Remember that little story I told in the beginning about the fledgling prosecutor? She seems like Cummins in this scenario, low key gleeful in the face of others despair.

A few days ago on social media she was showing off her barbed wire manicure; the design of her nail art reflects the cover of her book. Apparently at a celebratory event for the book, the floral arrangements had a barbed wire theme as well. Those might seem like petty details, but when people are angry enough to accuse you of cultural appropriation, of profiting off minority pain for financial gain, even if you’re on your way to the top of the bestseller’s list a la the “Oprah Effect,” shouldn’t you dial it down just a bit?

Perception is everything. My friend Kate, who turned me on to the story, agrees with me that the author has a real opportunity to start a serious dialogue about cultural appropriation, storytelling, and the publishing industry. “They talk a big game about diversifying and just shrug their shoulders when they’re actually faced with an opportunity to do so,” said Kate. Meanwhile Cummins is painting barbed wire on her nails…

I’m not saying the woman shouldn’t celebrate – she’s a hit. Writer’s wait their whole lives for a moment like this, and word is she got a seven-figure book deal. That definitely calls for a party, but damn. Barbed wire on your nails? I dunno. This phrase from Fat Albert won’t stay out of my head, “you’re like school in the summer, no class.”

Even though Cummins acknowledges “there is tremendous inequity in the (publishing) industry, about who gets attention for writing what books…” To celebrate so openly seems to make light of legitimate and quite widespread concern. Kate described her as tone deaf, and it’s an apt description.

Cummins has the right to defend herself certainly, and whether it’s a popular position or not, I think she has the right to write this story. It is sad that she’s being held aloft so readily when so many other voices of color writing about the same thing aren’t being entertained at all by traditional publishers. It’s also sad that people’s issue isn’t with her book. I haven’t read it, but if it’s as good as Oprah, Stephen King, and others say, this controversy is definitely a downer. Here’s hoping her barbed wire manicure doesn’t chip before she gets to the top of the NY Times Bestseller’s List.

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