Not Latina enough: Is the requirement for #OwnVoices changing?

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Referring to my last blog: That is such a troubling statement about Latina heritage on File 770 that I think it needs another look. For anyone interested, here’s the full quote: “Macmillan f’ing up by publishing American Dirt, a novel rife with negative Mexican crime and drug stereotypes (which was written by a white American woman who says she has “Latina” heritage because she has a Puerto Rican grandmother), but not publishing books by actual Latinos.”

You’d think Cummins would be the new face of multiculturism: she’s of Irish and Latin American decent, was born in Spain and lives and works in the US. However, this particular File 770 poster says the publisher f’ed up because they published her, but not actual Latinos, indicating that Cummins has, instead, lost her claim on Latin heritage. One might consider this contradiction a mental glitch, but seeing that the perception is widely shared, I have to assume it really is an expression of the current climate surrounding #OwnVoices writing—the “current climate” does seem to be something the File 770 regulars are on top of. Apparently Cummins, at 1/4 Puerto Rican, isn’t considered Latina enough to have written this book, or even to qualify for minority status in Macmillan’s stable of writers.

So, there are a few conclusions that I can draw from this situation. First, Cummins, secure in her belief she is Latina, and her publisher Macmillan, apparently never thought about being challenged on this book. Next, you’re not a Latina, African American, Native American, disabled, LGBTQ, or anything-else writer, unless you’re out; plus, coming out after you’ve been Twitter mobbed won’t help your case with the mob. And last, the requirements for #OwnVoices writing may have actually tightened so that 1) descendants of first generation ethnic minorities may no longer count, especially if they don’t retain ethnic names 2) an ethnic minority can only write within the narrow limits of their own background and/or 3) an ethnic minority can’t be successful enough to get a seven-figure advance.

These possibilities have repercussions, of course. Should minority writers now consider whether they’re “brown enough” to write something ethnic? Specifically, can only Mexican Latinas now write about Mexico? Cummins isn’t the only minority to fall into this trap recently. About the same time as this controversy, Isabel Fall withdrew her publication at Clarkesworld because of similar criticism. Certainly Fall never questioned her own credentials to write the story, but should her trans status have been publicized in advance to head off criticism? Does the response to both Fall’s story and Cummins’ novel suggest that authors need to publish any minority status they might qualify for on their books/websites/blogs?

This has been a growing trend, of course, but is it now required? Or is that obligation actually an invasion of privacy? Should writers be required to put their ethnic heritage, their gender identity, their age or their medical status out there for a discussion about whether they’re qualified to write their particular story? Should publishers request proof of minority status before going to press so they can post it and head off criticism? And last, is this minority status automatically cancelled when a writer becomes financially successful?

Since Cummins is judged not-Latina-enough to write about a Mexican Latina character, maybe we should now have another look at who’s publishing as an #OwnVoices minority. For example, should we question Native American writer Stephen Graham Jones, who grew up in Texas and has a white name? Or Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims African and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo heritage but writes about Navajo characters? Should we maybe question the light-skinned Nisi Shawl about her qualifications to represent the black experience?

And last, that question about financial success is still hanging there. Cummins has obviously hit the mainstream taste with this novel. It is sitting pretty securely atop the New York Times Bestseller List. So, why doesn’t the Latinx writing community support her?

Review of The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

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This is the debut novel for Rivera. It runs about 500 pages and was published by Tor in October 2017. Rivera is Puerto Rican and currently lives in New York City.

Qorin tribeswoman and warrior Shefali Arsalayaa writes a letter to her friend and previous lover O-Shizuka, Empress of Hokkaro. In this letter, Shefali details their childhood together beginning at age three, and follows Shizuka’s growing conviction that the two of them are divine, favored by the gods and destined for great deeds. Shizuka becomes an accomplished swordswoman while Shefali favors a bow. The two of them slay a tiger at a young age and then move on to tackle the demons that are sucking life out of the kingdom. This is a difficult and dangerous task, and they both suffer for it. They become lovers, but are separated when Shefali is exiled by Shizuka’s uncle, then Emperor of Hokkaro. Can the two of them find one another again?

Tor’s announcement bills this as Mongolian inspired, and Shefali might be, but Shizuka and her culture come across as heavily Japanese. This generated knee-jerk complaints on Tor’s website about a “white” woman appropriating Asian culture, which degenerated into something of a mess when others pointed out that Rivera isn’t white and others questioned whether non-whites can appropriate culture. Certainly Rivera hasn’t written the book about her own cultural heritage.

Good points: The Tor editor described this as “stunning,” and the prose is very well done. The imagery, especially Shefali’s descriptions of her lover, is sometimes striking. Characterization of the two main protagonists is also well-done, as the two of them have depth and substance. There’s a suggestion of power plays in the court, but the intrigues aren’t the main story.

Not so good points: I like women’s adventure, but the literary device of the letter made this primarily about the love story. It also removed all immediacy from the action and events. Who writes a 500 page letter detailing whole lives and mooning about the attributes of their lover? The result was that I got bored about 1/3 of the way through and had a hard time finishing. Despite the imagery, the world isn’t well defined, and I had a hard time integrating the steppes and the kingdom. Characters other than Shefali and Shizuka tend to be flat and don’t always ring true. There’s a huge gap of years here, and no indication of how Shizuka displaced her uncle to become Empress. Did he die childless? Did she off him in some way? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Three stars.

Review of They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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This book is near future science fiction and was published by Harper Teen in 2017. It runs about 384 pages. Silvera is of Puerto Rican heritage and lives in New York City.

Mateo Torrez is eighteen. He’s reading the CountDowners blog at 12:22 a.m. when he receives his final alert from Death-Cast. His dad is in the hospital in a coma and Mateo doesn’t want to spend his End Day alone, so he brings up the Last Friend app and looks for someone to spend the day with. Rufus Emeterio is seventeen. He’s beating up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend Peck when his phone sounds the Death-Cast alert. His gang the Plutos plans a great funeral for him, but Peck spoils it by calling the police. Rufus escapes and looks on the Last Friend app to find someone to spend his End Day with. The two boys find each other and set out to live adventures they’ve not tried before. Is there a way they can escape death at the end?

Good points: This story is very positive and life-affirming. Mateo is shy and reclusive and Rufus is assertive and slipping into bad behavior. The two boys influence each other to change in a single day, where Mateo comes out of his shell and Rufus takes up a lot of his new friend’s kindness. They end up with a relationship that’s more than just “friends” by the time evening rolls around. The story also touches other people’s lives on their End Day that cross the boys’ path. Of course, there’s a philosophical thread to all this, about how we should live our lives every day, but Silvera spends most of his time with the characters, leaving the philosophy subtle.

Not so good points: Silvera is very focused on the characters and their interactions and tends to neglects the action line. I can’t really complain about the plotting. There’s a sequence of events, subplots that include other characters, and a suitable finale. These provide little peaks of interest, but without the rising action line, the story fails to develop much drama. Slivera may be working to make the story gentle and encouraging for teens instead, but some authors would have made this a real heart-breaker.

Silvera gets extra points for having such fresh ideas.

Three and a half stars.

Review of More Happy than Not by Adam Silvera

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This novel is near future science fiction and published by Soho Teen in 2015. It runs 306 pages. Silvera is a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. This was his debut novel.

Aaron Soto is pretty happy. He lives in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with his mother and brother. He had a tough time after his dad committed suicide a while back, and tried it himself but he’s over the depression now. He’s got a great group of friends and a girlfriend that loves him. He runs into a new guy named Thomas in the neighborhood and the two become best friends. However, things start to go a little weird when Aaron begins to feel this friendship could be something more. He admits his interest to Thomas, but is rejected. When his friends find out Aaron is gay, they jump him and beat him up. He wakes in the hospital with two sets of memories because the beating has reversed his memory suppression procedure. Will he ever be able to get his life back on track?

The best thing about Silvera’s work is his entertaining humor. He also has a knack for writing dialog that takes the abject terror out of teen experiences and leaves the reader thinking everything is going to be okay, after all. Also on the positive side, Aaron provides a consistently positive role model for teens, even when things start to go really wrong.

On the negative side, there wasn’t any clear action line in this novel. This left it sagging badly in the second quarter, and Silvera’s long description of street games left me bored. Things picked up about half way through when Aaron recalls the memory procedure, but the plot still didn’t rise to the usual climax. This left the structure sort of muddled.

The most striking thing about this novel is the awful experiences Aaron goes through, mainly because of his sexual orientation. Is this standard for the Bronx?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

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This is an urban fantasy novel published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books. It falls into the young adult category. A second in the series is available called Shadowhouse Fall, published in 2017. Older is a multi-award winner.

Sierra Maria Santiago is out of school for the summer and expecting to use the time to paint a mural on the stark concrete tower that overshadows her Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn. There she meets Robbie, who is of Haitian ancestry and also very talented in art. The two strike up a romance, and Robbie tells Sierra about a secret society of shadowshapers. This is a kind of traditional sorcery that Sierra’s family has been hiding from her, but during this summer a new power has risen to stamp out the shadowshapers. Can Sierra, Robbie and their friends take up the mantle of power and fight back?

Good points: This book hits on several teen issues including racism, body image and self-esteem problems, offering an inclusive message that everyone is okay and valued for who they are. It reaches out to black and Hispanic teens often overlooked in young adult literature, providing powerful characters that they can identify with. It supports the view that teens need to stand up against the traditional discrimination against persons with darker skin. There are also lesbian characters, included like everyone else.

Not so good points: I thought there were fairly serious logical failings in this book, and I wouldn’t have finished it if I weren’t reading to review it. With very little evidence, Sierra assumes who is behind the mayhem going on the neighborhood. Once she knows about the secret shadowshaper tradition, she blabs to all her friends on the train where random strangers can overhear the conversation. Without any kind of caution, she leads her friends in a war against demons, armed only with shovels and broomsticks. This plot just doesn’t hold water. Also, I don’t think it sets a good example for how budding sorcerers ought to conduct themselves.

We get glimpses of the neighborhood and quite a bit of street language, but not much of Puerto Rican or Haitian culture, or what it’s like to live in Brooklyn. The characters are fairly flat, and there’s also not much in the way of depth. I’d like to have seen the book investigate Sierra’s relationship with her mother, for example, or why her mother is so unsupportive.

I’ll give it a little for the teen issues.

Three stars.

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