Isn’t the publishing market already tough enough?

Cultural Appropriation — as a writer, this term scares me. It first appeared in 1980s academia and refers to “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

Like Jeanine Cummins, author of the controversial novel American Dirt, I spend the bulk of my time living in my imagination, writing in different voices, constantly putting myself in another’s shoes.

I am a white, middle class American who is over 250 pages into writing a book set in 300 BC India.

I have never been to India. At this point in my life, it’s just not in the cards. I do careful research but am far from being an expert. I have always written about what interests me; I have always enjoyed exploring other cultures.

What now?

Do I finish this book? Must I, if I ever want my work to be published again, write strictly in voices matching my personal experience? And who is to say that some part of my personal experience can’t be expressed through the voice of an ancient Russian Baba Yaga or a mythical teenaged Vish Kanya trapped in a king’s harem — or, for that matter, a modern-day Latinx immigrant?

I have not read American Dirt and, therefore, have no opinion regarding its literary worthiness or cultural accuracy. When a writer is fortunate enough to have work published, criticism is an inevitable part of the process. But something about this feels different, the backlash created by Cummins’ work is troubling — it is, after all, a work of fiction. Remember that.

She never claimed to be writing a memoir. She, through what I can only imagine to be a tremendously long effort of research, imagination and butt-in-chair dedication, had achieved what most of us only dream about. Cummins grabbed the brass ring: a thrilling nine-house auction that resulted in a seven-figure book deal, a movie option, a slot on the New York Times Best Seller List and selection for Oprah’s Book Club.

The backlash

Now, American Dirt is referred to as a ‘scandal’. Her book tour has been canceled, many bookstores around the country have also canceled scheduled appearances, and her inclusion on Oprah’s book list remains in question — 140 writers have already officially asked that she reconsider her endorsement. Maybe it’s true: all publicity is good publicity. Certainly, our current President could attest to that.

But I can’t help wondering what kind of chilling effect the American Dirt Experience will have on an already difficult commercial publishing market. Regardless of a writer’s race, sex or creed, it’s still an impossibly tough nut to crack.

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