Representation & Writing: Who Gets To Tell Whose Story?

Feb 7, 2020

The new novel American Dirt revolves around a mother and son fleeing cartel violence in Mexico and attempting to cross into the U.S. But some critics argue the author doesn't have the right to tell this story. The book's publication has stirred controversy, launched the #DignidadLiteraria hashtag and led to discussion on diversity in the publishing world.

We're talking with Vermont authors about representation, cultural appropriation and diversity in storytelling.

Our guests are Rita Banerjee, poet and writer and director of the Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA in Writing and Publishing.

And Jess Row, author and professor at the College of New Jersey whose also taught at VCFA and with the Middlebury Bread Loaf's Writers' Conference.

Banerjee offered suggestions for reading related to Mexico, on being undocumented, on migration and "decolonizing the mind."

  • Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father by Richard Rodriguez: "In this essay collection, Richard Rodriguez tackles what it means to be a 'Mexican in California,' to be queer, and to inhabit both the space of colonizer and colonized in his life and work simultaneously. As a Mexican-American author, he is not afraid to write about other minority cultures or people of color or how participating in American society forces a kind of cultural amnesia and complicity."
  • Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz: "A dream-memoir or dreamoir by Wendy C. Ortiz, the author explores what it means to live in the borderlands of consciousness and desire, and between American self and other.  She recalls her trepidation and fear and not being able to re-enter the US from the Canadian border when 'The United States had closed all of its borders,' and explores how fraught being Latinx in the United States can be."
  • Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral: "In his poetry collection, Corral takes a candid look at the brutality and humanity of border narratives, exploring both the subversiveness and violence that comes with border crossings while also exploring the space of imagination, resilience, and the everyday that Mexican artists and citizens inhabit."
  • Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal: "A young adult speculative novel that follows a young group of teenage boys who carve out monetary success in Puerto Rico by selling drugs.  But their success and daring are short lived as an unseen monster comes to haunt them, and a young biracial woman must figure where myth and culture collide before more harm is done."
  • Driving Without a License by Janine Joseph: "In this autobiographical poetry collection, Joseph explores what it means to be a Filipina undocumented immigrant in the United States, how quickly personal and cultural memory can be erased, and the difficulties of communicating when one’s role in American society is stigmatized or otherized."
  • If They Come For Us by Fatima Asghar: "In this poetry collection,  Asghar explores the legacy of the horrific 1947 partition of India into India and Pakistan, and how contemporary South Asians confront this political and cultural trauma in their writing and their art. She explores how the legacy of India’s partition and continuously being othered haunts her as a queer Muslim woman in America today."
  • Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language by Eva Hoffman: "An enchanting and haunting memoir of a Jewish Polish woman who moves to Canada and then to the United States, and in doing so, loses her mother tongue and her ability to convey her cultural imagination, and the pleasures and traumas of her home country to Americans."
  • The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim: "This novel focuses on the Korean immigrant experience in the United States, a daughter trying to revive the cultural history of her mother who has recently passed, and the dangers of the American myth of reinvention."
  • She Tries Her Tongue: Her Silence Softly Breaks by Marlene Nourbese Philip: "In this poetry collection, which won the Casa de last Americas prize, Marlene Nourbese Philip explores how colonizing North American culture and English as a literary language can be to people of color."
  • Decolonising the Mind by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: "The Kenyan playwright, novelist, and theorist explores how writing within the framework of an English-language literary marketplace reaffirms histories of colonization and cultural supremacy. Writing in languages like English, French, and Spanish can be a form of self-colonization for writers of color, postcolonial authors, and writers from minor cultures and language."

Row's suggestions for alternative books about Mexico, migrants and the border include:

Editor's note: novelist Ann Dávila Cardinal was unable to join the program.

Broadcast live on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.