I recently had a conversation about whether to read Jeanine Cummins’ controversial book American Dirt. The book has triggered widespread debate around the notion of ‘own voices’ and how these voices are marginalized in mainstream literature. The speakers on this panel discuss their experiences with these issues in great depth – there is a lot to process. For me, some key points (informed by the speaker panel and novels I’ve recently read) I’ve been thinking about are:
“I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back.”
– Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears
Stories of the ‘other’ as told by white people with ‘power over’ the ‘other’ often fail to acknowledge that the ‘other’ probably doesn’t actually worship America / the West. In reality, no matter where in the world you come from, ‘Home is best.’ Representing ‘others’ as people who regard the West as a perfect sanctuary to which to flee from a violence-stricken place of origin is a dishonest misrepresentation. This misrepresentation is drawn to appease the ‘white gaze’ and cast the ‘other’ in an acceptably pity-worthy frame of mind – that is, someone who is submissive to, and appreciative of, white saviourism. This flattens and misrepresents not only the represented ‘other’ but also America / the West which, in reality, is all too often not a safe haven, particularly for marginalized groups.
“Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death.”
– Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
Stories of the ‘other’ as told by white people offer the single story that is digestible to white readers. The storyteller might acknowledge the problematic nature of the story – but choose to tell it anyway, claiming that good intentions are sufficient justification for telling the story. In some cases, the author might even suggest that the represented group is incapable of representing itself.
“It is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from ‘Secondly.'”
– Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah
There are so many ‘own voices’ alternatives to the mainstream, appropriative stories that big publishing companies tend to pick up and choose to promote. These ‘own voices’ alternatives are more uncomfortable for white readers exactly because they are more complete, more authentic, and implicate white people in the suffering of the represented group. They directly confront and challenge the convenient (for white people) delusion that oppressed people are responsible for their own suffering. They require greater effort for white readers to find, read and process – but doing this work is necessary to gain a more honest and nuanced understanding of the experiences of marginalized people.
I’ve been thinking about the question: what should I consider when deciding to listen to a story told by a person with power over the people being represented in the story? Some guiding questions I have so far are:
- Does the storyteller acknowledge and demonstrate a good understanding of the power they have over the represented group? Did the author make an effort, explicit or implicit, to ensure that her story amplifies rather than displaces ‘own voices?’
- How did the storyteller engage with the represented group in the process of creating the story? Can the manner of engagement be trusted to result in a genuine account of the experiences of the represented group?
- Does the author demonstrate understanding of the consequences that misrepresentation of the represented group might have on the represented group? Has the author made serious efforts to avoid and address any mistakes that were made?
- What were the author’s stated motivations for telling the story? Was the author incentivized in any way to tell the story about the represented group, financially or otherwise?
These questions by no means provide a comprehensive framework for deciding whether to listen to a particular story, and they might not always have available answers. I think, though, that they might inspire critical reflection before, during and after reading stories in which a marginalized or otherwise oppressed community is represented by a storyteller who is not part of the community.