Living on a Thin Line

Three years ago, the acclaimed author Jeanine Cummins played an unwitting part in a literary outrage. The outrage was wholly confected. It was an absurd argument which centred upon the rights and wrongs of authors imagining other lives beyond their own within their work.

Initially the publication of her book “American Dirt” was celebrated as a necessary and humane analysis of the border crisis that was costing numerous lives on that dangerous frontier between Central America and the USA. However one reviewer took exception to the book, but for an entirely spurious and dishonest reason, namely that Cummins was a “white” woman and misunderstood Hispanic people.

Unfortunately this one review sparked an unnecessary and toxic campaign against Cummins herself. She even received death threats from angry and offended people, supposedly speaking on behalf of the entire Hispanic community. It is unclear whether any of these agitators actually had the time and patience to read the book in its entirety, or perhaps they in fact felt entitled and arrogant enough to leap on a bandwagon. Nonetheless the row reflects a fundamental ignorance about the purpose of literature, which is to reflect reality and to allow the reader to empathise with other people.

Cummins was inspired to write the book when she saw a young wheelchair bound man from Honduras living in a refugee camp on the Mexican border. He had attempted to cross into the USA by riding upon the roof of a freight train but fell underneath, and lost both legs. She was so moved by his desperate plight that she spent time acquainting herself with the other migrants and their harrowing stories.

The resulting novel is a deeply disturbing tale that centres upon a young woman caught up in the deadly drugs trade. Her husband is shot by an individual involved in a cartel, and as a consequence has to flee her home town. In fear of her life she has few options. She becomes yet another victim in the extortionate business of people smuggling, and encounters the worst elements of human behaviour.

This is perhaps what these activists objected to, that some people are not motivated by morality, just money. Despite the authenticity and veracity of the characterisation Cummins` reputation was almost destroyed by unfair accusations of cultural appropriation and even racism. This highlights the narrow minded prejudices of individuals who only exist because they have a certain political axe to grind, and have very little regard for artistic expression.

The book was not designed to be overtly political, it was just written in response to a contemporary dilemma. In a wider context the issue of representation has reared up again, and whether supposed “sensitivity readers” should be gainfully employed by publishers. Once more, this is another misunderstanding about writing. Writers do not need to use sensitivity readers because that is the whole point of their craft, to rouse sensitivities.

The truth remains that as soon as difficult feelings and situations are expunged from literature the art will die because it will bear little resemblance to the human experience and reading will become a lifeless and sterile pursuit. The identity of an author should not preclude that writer from writing about other identities. Stereotypes aren`t “offensive” they are just examples of bad writing. A proficient writer knows that these things are to be avoided in order to be taken seriously. Literature should illustrate human folly and flaws, as well as the more positive aspects because that is life.

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