Latina or white? Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt

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This is another case of author bullying. I’m running a little late on it, but after a recent comment on File 770 that someone with a Puerto Rican grandmother isn’t a real Latina, I’m going to check in. I would have questioned the comment on File 770, but I’ve been censored by Mike Glyer again. Presumably this means he supports the statement and doesn’t want it challenged.

The controversy is about the novel American Dirt, written by Jeanine Cummins. This is what Oprah Winfrey called a “heart-wrenching” novel about a Mexican family’s efforts to escape from a drug cartel and cross the US border. The novel was recommended by Oprah for her book club and then promptly met by trashing on social media as “brownface” and cultural appropriation by a “white” woman. Cummins revelation that her grandmother was Latina did nothing to stop the furor. This generates some interesting questions. First, what is the definition of Latina? Second, why is someone ¼ Puerto Rican identifying as white? And last, is the issue of #OwnVoices and/or cultural appropriation valid in this case?

First, the definition of Latina: Jim Crow laws would define anyone with a drop of Latin blood as Latina, but these laws are now (supposedly) defunct. However, Native Americans currently use a definition called blood quantum to assess eligibility for tribal membership. According to this principle, someone with ¼ ancestry is considered fairly close, and therefore would be eligible for membership in all but the pickiest tribes. So, a similar analysis suggests that having a Puerto Rican grandmother should definitely qualify Cummins as Latina.

Okay next, why hasn’t she been embracing her heritage and marketing herself as a Latina writer? Research suggests that certain ethnic groups embrace separatism and victim politics, while others opt to work within the system as it is. The US has a long history of immigrants that assimilate into the “white” race. This is, of course, easier for more-or-less light-skinned European types. Although Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants faced initial racism, they fairly quickly assimilated into the white structure of the US. Trying to force other groups to assimilate (i.e. Native Americans) gave the process a bad name in the 19th century, but this remains a highly successful method of “becoming white.” US residents have a very flexible attitude toward culture and skin tone, and as it turns out, Latin immigrants expect to become white within two to three generations. According to Pew, about half of US Hispanic/LatinX residents mark the “white” box, stepping up to assume white privilege. Plus, the number changing their response from LatinX to white has been increasing lately, presumably as the benefits of minority status drop off and family affluence increases. So, does her identification as white erase Cummins’ Latina ancestry? How do you erase something like that, anyway?

And last, is this a case of “brownface” and/or cultural appropriation? One of the problems with knee-jerk, mob-action bullying campaigns is that they don’t investigate the facts before exploding on social media. Presumably Cummins feels a real connection to the Latin immigrant story, or she wouldn’t have felt compelled to write a heart-wrenching novel about the issue. Everyone might have considered shutting up and apologizing when she announced her Latina heritage, but instead they opted to double down and disparage her credentials as a real Latina. Cultural appropriation? Well okay, maybe, because her heritage isn’t Mexican, but you could easily make a case that being Latina is qualification enough; discuss the crime and drug trafficking problem in Puerto Rico, and count the number of Puerto Ricans that migrated to the mainland US after the last weather and corruption disaster. How closely are we going to split hairs on this issue?

Review of “You Have Arrived at Your Destination” by Amor Towles

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Towles is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. The story runs 46 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

Sam and his wife Annie are investigating the possibility of conceiving a child with the help of Vitek, a fertility lab. Sam has an appointment with Dr. Gerhardt, who explains how the firm’s genetic engineering options might influence the life of the couple’s projected son. With the help of Sam’s wife, Gerhardt’s staff has prepared three possible scenarios of how their child might live out his life. Disturbed after the appointment, Sam begins to reconsider the way he’s lived his own life. Instead of meeting Annie, he stops at a bar, The Glass Half Full, where he gets drunk and confides what’s going on to the bartender Nick and his new friend Beezer. Beezer thinks Vitek is a division of Raytheon (the defense contractor). Sam has already provided a sample for Vitek, and he’s two hours late and now he’s really in trouble. He tries to reach Annie, but he can’t, so he goes back to Vitek and bangs on the door. Can he get his sample back?

There’s a certain amount of symbolism in this work, and some social commentary. It jumps around quite a bit, like it doesn’t know quite what it wants to accomplish, from Gerhardt explaining how conforming to societal expectations is so important, to the disturbing life scenarios, to Sam looking back and rating his own and his father’s lives, to his growing remoteness from Annie, and finally to the revelation that Vitek might not be just a fertility clinic. The story has been marking time to get to that point, but when it gets there, it feels profound.

The plot is a bit jumbled, and I didn’t get a good feel for either the setting or the characters—but, the whole thing seems to be about ideas. When we start trusting some corporation to genetically engineer our children, what are we really going to end up with?

Four stars.

Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Review of “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis

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This is a speculative fiction novelette released by Subterranean Press in April of 2018. It runs 88 pages. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Connie Willis, she is an old hand at SFF, a multi-award winner and New York Times Bestseller. This review contains spoilers.

Jim is in New York City to make contacts for a book about the uselessness of nostalgia for obsolete technology. He does a radio interview where he gets in an argument with the host about how this applies to books. On the way to a meeting with a Random House editor, Jim is caught in a terrible rainstorm and ducks into a shop for rare books called Ozymandias Books. Although the store seems small, it opens into a storage area where Jim looks through the collection and eventually gets lost. He is rescued by a busy clerk and hurriedly catches a taxi for his appointment. When he tries to find the shop again later, he can’t.

“Ozymandias” is a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet from 1817 about great works that crumble and disappear. That states the story’s theme pretty clearly, about how we’re in danger of losing the body of knowledge contained in out-of-print books, now generally dumped in the landfill because they’re replaced by electronic media. Willis is excellent at creating entertaining characters and making things go wrong, and her work is always entertaining to read.

On the not so great side, nothing happens here. Jim leaves his interview, walks around, ducks into the store, looks at the books, leaves, and then can’t find the shop again. That’s it. It could have been a piece of flash fiction, but instead it’s been padded out to 88 pages. I was left feeling this is pretty empty.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published in Apex magazine in February of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

A librarian watches as a skinny black child discovers the library. The boy clearly loves escapist fantasies and chooses books like The Runaway Prince. He turns out to be a foster child. The librarian feeds him a compendium of fantasy books, but keeps away the book that he really needs. When he tries to hide in the library overnight, she decided not to notice. When he starts to smell of futility and the death of yearning, she begins to wonder: What should she do?

This is another character-driven story without anything much in the way of plot. The boy comes into the library over a period of time and the witchy librarian watches him. This is an allegory, I expect, of what actual librarians see in rural counties when disadvantaged children come in and discover a different world outside their own circumscribed place. It has an upbeat feel at the end, as we can assume the boy uses the magic book to build a successful life somewhere else.

On the negative side, this feels long and relies on mechanics that are a little too visible. It’s clearly aimed at avid fantasy readers who will love the books the boy reads. It uses pity to make an emotional impact as the poor kid spirals deeper into depression. The story has a couple of digressions about other disadvantaged children that make the social justice topic clear, but I thought this detracted some from this particular boy’s story. The narrator doesn’t tell us what the magic book is that she gives the boy to rescue him. Of course, this is symbolic, but it leaves something of a gap in the narrative. Actually, why aren’t they passing out magic books for everybody?

Three and a half stars.

Bio of LGBTQ SFF pioneer Sheridan Le Fanu

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Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin, Ireland, to parents Thomas Philip Le Fanu and Emma Dobbin. This was a literary family, and Sheridan had an elder sister and a younger brother. In 1826 the family moved to Abington, County Limerick, where his father worked as a rector. Although the children had a tutor, Le Fanu mostly educated himself in his father’s library and was writing poetry by age 15. He studied law at Trinity College in Dublin, but never practiced law and instead took up journalism. In 1838 Le Fanu began contributing stories to the Dublin University Magazine, including his first ghost story “The Ghost and the Bone-Setter” (1838). He became owner of several newspapers after 1840, including the Dublin Evening Mail and the Warder.

On 18 December 1844 Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett and the couple had four children. Susanna died suddenly in 1858, and Le Fanu gave up writing for a while but later picked it up again, publishing short stories and novels with folklore themes. Although Le Fanu was apparently straight, his lesbian vampire novel Carmilla is notable as an influence on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.

This information is from Le Fanu’s article at Wikipedia. You can read more here.

Bio of Hispanic SFF pioneer Jorge Luis Borges

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Jorge Borges (1899-1986) was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the son of Jorge Guillermo Borges Haslam and Leonor Acevedo Suárez. The family was middle class, though not wealthy. Borges was home-schooled until age 11, and soon afterward the family moved to Switzerland because of political unrest in Argentina. Borges graduated from the Collège de Genève in 1918, and after World War I the family moved to Spain for a while and in 1921 returned to Argentina.

Borges published his first book of poetry Fervor de Buenos Aires in 1923 and by the mid-1930s was writing existential fiction in a style called “irreality.” In 1938 he nearly died after a head injury, and after recovering began to write in a different style. In his 1941 story “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (The Garden of Forking Paths), he wrote a combination of book and maze that can be read many ways, arguably the first example of a hypertext novel.

In his later years, Borges lost his eyesight, but continued to work with his mother as his secretary. In 1961 he came to international attention when he received the Prix International prize, and in 1971 the Jerusalem Prize. In 1967 Borges began a collaboration with the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni that made his work available to English-speakers. In 1967 Borges married the recently widowed Elsa Astete Millán, but the marriage failed after three years. In 1986 he married his personal assistant María Kodama, an Argentine woman of Japanese and German ancestry. Borges died of liver cancer on 13 June 1986 in Geneva.

Borges’ works include philosophical and political themes, and he is recognized as a pioneer in magical realism, with some critics considering him to be the originator of this type literature with the release of his “Historia universal de la infamia” (Universal History of Infamy). Regardless of his marriages, he was rumored never to have had sex. The philosophical term “Borgesian conundrum” is named after him, which is the question of whether the writer writes a story, or it writes him/her.

This information is from Borges’ article at Wikipedia. You can read more here.

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