Paul Haeder, Author

writing, interviews, editing, blogging

I have people worried that as white writers they will be hit with “cultural appropriation” if they write a novel with characters who are not of their own race. You know the deal — writing about barrios, or ghettos or even a mix of people in a big city, people outside the lilly white background of the author.

We know that is balderdash, to put it lightly. The cultural appropriation fear came up in a memoir writing class I teach. Memoirs, which are about people remembering a time in their lives, with significance, tied to themes, they are about the person, and then, through their looking glass and through deep analysis, about how they experience the world. A memoir is what the person, the author, is remembering. So, for instance, I grew up all over the place, but say, when I was three or four, we were in the Azores. Of course I have a right to write about my Portuguese “nanny” (babysitter). Or anything I learn/learned about Portugal.

Wrestling with my Mexican-American friends in high school in Tucson? Doing a sweat with my Apache friends up on the White River Apache Reservation? All the time I was in Central America, or in Mexico? These are off limits to me because I am Irish-German? Bull-shit!

The issue was brouched by a student who was watching that Uncle Tom, Oprah, who had on her show the author of American Dirt. She wrote a novel about — Mexicans coming across the border. She’s white, and she got all the hype, a seven-figure advance, and she said her husband, too, was an undocumented immigrant, but the problem is that fellow is Irish. Lots and lots of hype, publicity, and $$. She was even a headliner for an annual Spokane literary festival, Get Lit, set for April 2020. I was also going to be there as small potatoes writer reading, but both she was cancelled, through her agent and publisher, and the event got hit with the Covid paranoia.

There’s no use in getting into the debate about how she may have done some “brown facing,” or the fact that minority and marginalized and BIPOC writers in the USA get short shafted when it comes to literary notice, literary contracts, big promo’s and the big bucks. I explained to my students that to have a panel of people who have studied cultural appropriration, who know the ins and outs of the bizarre debate about teaching history about blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and such, and how they can debunk these anti-“critical race theory” racists, to have them there, talking, and then giving the students a chance to query and discuss, that is the only way to deal with the actual issue of cultural appropriation.

Here, the background:

Oprah Winfrey will soon host a conversation about “American Dirt,” a novel mired in controversy that’s also the latest selection for her book club.

It’s too little too late. Winfrey should rescind her support now.

In nearly 25 years, only once has the entertainment mogul yanked a coveted book club endorsement. That came in 2006, after James Frey’s memoir about his addiction and recovery, “A Million Little Pieces,” turned out to be far more fiction than fact.

“American Dirt” needs to be the second.

For months, Jeanine Cummins’s novel about a Mexican mother and her young son heading to the border to escape a drug cartel has been widely criticized in Latinx circles for perpetuating what writer and translator David Bowles calls a “pastiche of stereotypes and melodramatic tropes of the sort one might expect from an author who did not grow up within Mexican culture.”

Cummins has long identified as white. In interviews, she now mentions her Puerto Rican grandmother, and some headlines call her “a white Latina.” She says she deeply researched the book, including spending time in Mexico.

Yet this isn’t about how Cummins self-identifies. It’s about a novel fostering stereotypes, and what happens when communities of color get shut out from telling their own stories.

After a publishing industry bidding war, Cummins received a seven-figure advance, and the movie rights have been sold. Her novel received glowing blurbs from Stephen King and John Grisham. She got a major credibility boost from acclaimed Latinx authors Sandra Cisneros, who called the book “masterful,” and Julia Alvarez, who said it’s “a dazzling accomplishment.” All appear on the book’s back cover.

In the ensuing debate, neither Cisneros nor Alvarez have stepped forward to defend a book to which they lent their names and, especially, their reputations. —  Renée Graham Globe Columnist,Updated January 28, 2020

I get where this entire thing comes down to (bad writing, white woman with no real ground-living/ground-truthing). And without shooting myself in the foot, me being a white guy who happens to know where I have been, for whom the people I have been with, what those close relationships I have fostered — with people way outside my demographic — have taught me about them and myself. I get how I stick out like a sore thumb when dealing with academic types, with university types, with those in MFA writing programs. I have been cancelled and delegitimzed my entire life. My stories and my characters in stories are my characters. Having to tell me that I have only the right to write about my own people and gender (heterosexual white as is my family/blood) is absurd. But I get the reactions to this white priviledge in publishing, but I also hate what the MFA Writing Programs have done to writers and writing the past 30 years. I hate the barbaric thinking on both side of this debate. And Oprah? I am an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, and I wonder what Malcolm X might think of the current affairs of this rot-gut country? Billionaire? Oprah? The make or break literary arbiter?

The fact is just two days ago, we get the Oregon news around the education outcomes of Black students in Multnomah County.

Part of why Portland’s Black and Latino students are so vastly underrepresented in advanced courses, parents of color say, is that many teachers, counselors and other educators assume those students aren’t smart or skilled enough to handle the challenge.

Low expectations and a lack of structural support for Black and Latino students also continue to lead to persistently low graduation and college-going rates for those groups, an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive has found.

That is true even though the district’s top leaders pledged nearly 2 ½ years ago that they would dramatically boost Black and Latino student achievement by this year.

Despite making up about 7% of the overall student population, Black students represent about 1% of those who took advanced courses this school year and last, district figures show.

And even though Latinos make up about 16% or 17% of district enrollment, they represent about 8% of those taking advanced courses. (“Left Behind: Low expectations, lackluster education for high school students of color in Portland span decades” — Oregonian)\

This is 2022, not 1964 when Malcolm X did his The Ballot or the Bullet speech.

I am not embarassed or ashamed of the white crackers in this country, whether they are dirt poor crackers or rich as kings crackers. Racists, sexists, ageists, they all are a bunch of privileged fools. But they hate. Most people I know of never ever go into a cracker bar with a bunch of Harleys outside. I do. And the shit coming out of these people’s racist mouths is consistent with their country’s history of killing and killing. So embarassed? Why? These people are the nature outgrowth of who they are, where they came from and how they have developed. Bad-bad folks. Yes, there are deplorables, just not the way that white racist Hillary was thinking about!

Just two days ago:

A Kansas principal was allegedly forced to apologize to high school staff after showing them a video about white privilege, KMUW reports.

The incident started in January when Principal Tim Hamblin reportedly showed Derby High School staff a 2011 video focused on the perspectives of Dr. Joy DeGruy. DeGruy, who is a Black author, spoke about her personal experiences with racism and white privilege.

The story was about her being forced to present identification to a grocery store cashier, while her sister-in-law, who has a fair complexion, did not have to do such a thing. The relative ended up calling out the store manager and staff for racism.

“She used her white privilege to educate and make right a situation that was wrong,” DeGruy says in the footage. “That’s what you can do every single day.” (source)

I’ve been in meetings and conferences with DeGruy. An amazing person. Is it just Kansas? The putz apologizes? This is one sick country — and the sickness is deep:

What would Malcolm X think or say? About this shit in this day and age?

What would Malcolm X think about this government overreach, the Klanadians, and who they are, as compared to who the Americans are?

Kanyenkehaka (Mohawk) is from the Tehanakarineh family of the Bear Clan. His home is in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, but he currently resides at the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory (near Hamilton, Ontario). He is an Onkwehon:we (Indigenous) man and belongs to the Kayenkehaka Nation, not the Canadian or English nation. His people have kept their ways and traditions, and despite generations of mistreatment at the hands of the Canadian government, they remain a separate, allied Nation with their own rights and responsibilities to creation.

“For all of you who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, maybe you’re new to this country. They didn’t teach you that Indigenous people own these lands. They’ll tell you that it’s theirs. It’s Canada’s wonderful free place. It was only free because they stole things. I’m talking to all the brown people in the cities that didn’t want to go and support the truckers because they thought they were racist. Well, the Liberal Government’s racist and so is the Conservative Government. The entire government of Canada is racist. And the RCMP are racist. Let’s face the facts the RCMP are just as much a culprit in the in the theft of the indigenous children that got sent to residential schools, because they were the collectors.”

Here, the Latinx calling out “American Dirt”: Myriam Gurba,

Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature

When I tell gringos that my Mexican grandfather worked as a publicist, the news silences them.

Shocked facial expressions follow suit.

Their heads look ready to explode and I can tell they’re thinking, “In Mexico, there are PUBLICISTS?!”

I wryly grin at these fulanos and let my smile speak on my behalf. It answers, “Yes, bitch, in México, there are things to publicize such as our own fucking opinions about YOU.”

I follow in the cocky footsteps of my grandfather, Ricardo Serrano Ríos, “decano de los publicistas de Jalisco[1],” and not only do I have opinions, I bark them como itzcuintli. También soy chismosa and if you don’t have the gift of Spanglish, allow me to translate. “Chisme” means gossip. It’s my preferred art form, one I began practicing soon after my period first stained my calzones, and what’s literature, and literary criticism, if not painstakingly aestheticized chisme?

Tengo chisme. Are you ready?

A self-professed gabacha, Jeanine Cummins, wrote a book that sucks. Big time.

Her obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following:

  1. Appropriating genius works by people of color
  2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
  3. Repackaging them for mass racially “colorblind” consumption.

Rather than look us in the eye, many gabachos prefer to look down their noses at us. Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us. Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide. This denial motivates their spending habits, resulting in a preference for trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf. To satisfy this demand, Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a “road thriller” that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.

I learned about Dirt when an editor at a feminist magazine invited me to review it.

I accepted her offer, Dirt arrived in my mailbox, and I tossed it in my suitcase. At my tía’s house in Guadalajara, I opened the book.

Before giving me a chance to turn to chapter one, a publisher’s letter made me wince.

“The first time Jeanine and I ever talked on the phone,” the publisher gushed, “she said migrants at the Mexican border were being portrayed as a ‘faceless brown mass.’ She said she wanted to give these people a face.”

The phrase “these people” pissed me off so bad my blood became carbonated.

I looked up, at a mirror hanging on my tía’s wall.

It reflected my face.

In order to choke down Dirt, I developed a survival strategy. It required that I give myself over to the project of zealously hate-reading the book, filling its margins with phrases like “Pendeja, please.” That’s a Spanglish analogue for “Bitch, please.”

Back in Alta California, I sat at my kitchen table and penned my review. I submitted it. Waited.

After a few days, an editor responded. She wrote that though my takedown of Dirt was “spectacular,” I lacked the fame to pen something so “negative.” She offered to reconsider if I changed my wording, if I wrote “something redeeming.”

In the end, though, it’s Black History Month. Anyone with any worth should listen to Malcolm X’s talk, The Ballot or the Bullet. Goddamn it, listen.

I’m not a politician, not even a student of politics; in fact, I’m not a student of much of anything. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican, and I don’t even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there’d be no problem. Those Honkies that just got off the boat, they’re already Americans; Polacks are already Americans; the Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren’t Americans yet.

Well, I am one who doesn’t believe in deluding myself. I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American. Why, if birth made you American, you wouldn’t need any legislation; you wouldn’t need any amendments to the Constitution; you wouldn’t be faced with civil-rights filibustering in Washington, D.C., right now. They don’t have to pass civil-rights legislation to make a Polack an American.

No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.

These 22 million victims are waking up. Their eyes are coming open. They’re beginning to see what they used to only look at. They’re becoming politically mature. They are realizing that there are new political trends from coast to coast. As they see these new political trends, it’s possible for them to see that every time there’s an election the races are so close that they have to have a recount. They had to recount in Massachusetts to see who was going to be governor, it was so close. It was the same way in Rhode Island, in Minnesota, and in many other parts of the country. And the same with Kennedy and Nixon when they ran for president. It was so close they had to count all over again. Well, what does this mean? It means that when white people are evenly divided, and black people have a bloc of votes of their own, it is left up to them to determine who’s going to sit in the White House and who’s going to be in the dog house. (transcript here)

Ahh, some Mexican writers have called this latest book on today’s Mexico, one of the best. Written by, well, Theroux, the old white guy!

Theroux then goes deep into the hinterland, on the back roads of Chiapas and Oaxaca, to uncover the rich, layered world behind today’s brutal headlines.

He meets with the legendary Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista movement dedicated to defending the rights of Mexico’s indigenous people. ON THE PLAIN OF SNAKES: A Mexican Journey is replete with adventures, history, discursions on literature about Mexico, stunning descriptions and, running through it all, a deep humanity and respect for the ordinary Mexicans who are his main subject.

Paul Theroux has been called “The world’s most perceptive travel writer”. He is the author of many highly acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Great Railway BazaarThe Mosquito Coast and Riding the Iron Rooster. We spoke with him last about his book Deep South.

Interview here of Paul Theroux: Source/Podcast.

What would Malcolm X say?

So, what I’m trying to impress upon you, in essence, is this: You and I in America are faced not with a segregationist conspiracy, we’re faced with a government conspiracy. Everyone who’s filibustering is a senator — that’s the government. Everyone who’s finagling in Washington, D.C., is a congressman — that’s the government. You don’t have anybody putting blocks in your path but people who are a part of the government. The same government that you go abroad to fight for and die for is the government that is in a conspiracy to deprive you of your voting rights, deprive you of your economic opportunities, deprive you of decent housing, deprive you of decent education. You don’t need to go to the employer alone, it is the government itself, the government of America, that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in this country. And you should drop it in their lap. This government has failed the Negro. This so-called democracy has failed the Negro. And all these white liberals have definitely failed the Negro.

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