Rants and raves, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Think twice before painting a whole nation with broad strokes, avoid the ‘single story’ trap

am-dirtThe last thing I’m going to do is review a book I’ve not read.

Plenty of people are pouncing all over “American Dirt,” especially Latino writers. They don’t need another old white guy to wade in.

The major complaints seem to be around author Jeanine Cummins’ tone-deaf characterizations of immigrants, Mexicans mostly. Her characters could have been more nuanced, more richly detailed, less stereotypical, the critics say.

Some also resent that she made an extraordinary amount of money for writing this story, as though her seven-figure payoff sucked the oxygen right out of the cultural-literary writing room — money that maybe could have gone to authentic Latin/Mexican writers.

To be honest, a lot of people simply seem to resent a white woman writing about another culture.

You know what? I have no idea.

I do know that cultural appropriation — where authors of one race write authoritatively about people of another race in their works of fiction — is becoming an important discussion.

But I also know that people who write things like “what white people don’t understand …” are as guilty of the same sins as culturally tone-deaf fiction authors.

All races are complex, multi-layered, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical, filled with unique people, each bearing a unique story that only sometimes overlaps with others.

There is no one definitive story of a people, or a culture, of a race.

There is a saying in Belize, where I lived for nearly five years: “For every one story, there are three stories.”

This usually refers to gossip, but you can apply that to whole cultures and races, too. Within the borders of a single country, there are many many different people. There is no one word that defines all Mexicans, or all immigrants, or all Nigerians, or all Americans.

Don’t take my word for it.

Listen to an actual author who knows what she is talking about.

In this Ted Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses “the danger of the single story.”  When one story about a people is told over and over, that eventually becomes the definitive story.

Lazy writers fall back on stereotypes, let’s say describing a whole culture as “savages,” or “docile” or “lazy” or calls them the “brown skin” people in story after story — then that will be how they are perceived by the outside world  — because the outside world will likely know little else.

Adichie, a Nigerian, describes her own shock in first visiting Guadalajara, where her own preconceptions of Mexicans were upended by the diversity of the people she met. “I was ashamed of myself,” she says.

Adichie is revelatory, brilliant.

Every person who attempts to write something of value and authenticity about their own culture or another — fiction or otherwise — should heed the wisdom of this speaker.

Every person with an opinion on “American Dirt” ought to listen to Adichie first:


3 thoughts on “Think twice before painting a whole nation with broad strokes, avoid the ‘single story’ trap

  1. Pingback: Think twice before painting a whole nation with broad strokes, avoid the ‘single story’ trap « Bound for Belize

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