Thursday, November 30, 2017

Political Correctness Strikes Again-- Literature


Sonia Levitin is a German American novelist, artist, producer, Holocaust survivor, and author of dozens of books. Her books Incident at Loring Groves” won the Edgar Allan Poe Award and The Return received the American Library Association's Best Book for Young Adults. Sonia was born in Nazi Germany. Being of Jewish descent her family managed to escape. Levitin wrote several novels as an immigrant in the U.S., including Journey to America and Silver Days, recounting the story of German Jewish refugees who fled the horrors of the Holocaust. Over the course of the last year, I spoke with her on and off about a book she was working on that involved two subjects I had some experience with-- Afghanistan and late 1970's San Francisco punk rock. Her book was about Afghan refugees living in the Bay Area at that time. But the book hasn't been published. She told me why and I asked her to write a guest post today because there's an important message in her experience.

Cultural Appropriation?
-by Sonia Levitin

Strange things, indecent things happen when boundaries become blurred and almost obliterated. Everyone is free to broadcast any criticism, however damning it might be, without providing any source, without reasoned argument or civil discourse.

Thus, the phrase “cultural appropriation” was hurled at me by an editor as she rejected my new novel, Comes The Morning. The main characters are refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Malaysia. The problem is, they are Muslims and I’m a Jew. Furthermore, I’m white. The editor liked the book very much. But she explained that she could not publish it because all hell would break loose. She and I would be accused of “cultural appropriation.”

I had to look it up. Cultural appropriation is the use of elements of a culture (ethnic or religious) different from one’s own. The implication is that I cannot possibly understand or portray the life experiences of a Muslim, an Asian or African person. Furthermore, how dare I enrich myself by telling their story, exploiting their misery?

Whereas in the past decade or two, editors and educators were soliciting books of cultural diversity, today’s requirement is different. Books of cultural diversity are fine, but they must be written by a member of that group, usually a minority in the Western world. Most assuredly, the author should not be white.

Somehow this notion has pervaded the political arena on both sides and reached the daily newspaper, albeit on the back pages like a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, In Defense of Cultural Appropriation. (June 14, 2017; reprinted below)

When I read this piece it confirmed what my editor had told me. I was crushed and heartsick. My response in a letter to the editor was published the following week. It gave me some sense of satisfaction until several weeks later at a luncheon with friends, when someone asked what I am working on now. I spoke about my novel in progress, about refugees from the Middle East, their terrible journeys and the difficult adjustment to life in America.

A woman I had just met spoke up. “If you write that book,” she said, “of course you can’t make any money on it. It would have to be non-profit.”

Earlier she had told me that she was working for a non-profit group in support of the beleaguered Yazidis. I presume she was drawing a salary, just as the surgeon who operated on me for breast cancer was incidentally making money on “my misery.” I assured the woman that novelists don’t usually make much money, unless their novel becomes a popular movie. But it wasn’t really about money. It was about the idea that a white person cannot really understand the feelings of a person of color, or one who prays differently, one whose culture invites or prohibits different behaviors.

The key lies in that word, “different.” This new, encroaching pattern of censorship demands that each of us must remain in the tight cocoon of our own kind. If that were true, how many books would be lost to us, how many that changed our thinking and therefore changed the world? Harriet Beecher Stowe would not have dared to write Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel that, according to President Lincoln, was instrumental in abolishing slavery. It is said that when Lincoln met Mrs. Stowe he bent down and gently asked, “Are you the little lady who caused this great war?”

I don’t think Mrs. Stowe planned to start a war. She just wanted to inform and sensitize people to the evils of slavery. Just so, hundreds, thousands of books have been written about social evils, and many have changed the world. Moreover, most of them are fiction, not text books with dates and statistics. Non-fiction books provide valuable information. But they do not touch the heart. And it is from the heart, the deep empathy that the novel provokes, that people are made to reflect, even to change.

If I cannot write a novel about modern day refugees from the Middle East, who will speak for them? “Let them write their own novels,” the detractors shout. I have read several wonderful books written by people born and raised in Afghanistan, Iran, Iran and parts of Africa. But they are few in number. Most, like the refugees I interviewed, couldn’t possibly write about their experiences. Having recently arrived in the U.S., they are overcome by grief and traumatic stress. They have to eke out a living. When would they have the time or the will to write about their experiences? Such novels usually appear at least a decade after the catastrophe, as after WWII and beyond, when desperation has been replaced by a kind of acceptance and broader understanding. Today’s refugees include engineers, doctors and attorneys from large cities, with university education. But they also include a vast number of people who were simple vendors or shop keepers or factory workers. Nearly half the women, as well as many of the men, are illiterate. How can they write a novel?

Beyond this, many of the refugees I interviewed were afraid of reprisals. All had relatives still living in the old country, under the harsh and dehumanizing conditions of powerful militias and dictators. As with any group of immigrants, they want to keep a low profile. Best not to advertise the abuses of our own culture. “They” will come after us all the more. “They” will conclude that we are all alike, especially in the ways that threaten the dominant the community.

For my novel I interviewed many recent refugees. Of course, all were alike is some ways, yet again, each was different. Two of the women wore the hijab. One mother urged her little girls to come out to greet me with kisses. One woman wore jeans and boots and drove a shining white Toyota. An older lady did not leave her home without her husband or a son. She spoke no English.

In some ways all my visits were alike. The entire family greeted me. The world refugee agencies made the initial contact and usually provided an interpreter. I was seated on the sofa, with everyone gathered around expectantly. Smiles and nods are a universal language. And I began with my own true story. “I was born in Germany during the Nazi time. We are Jews, and we were persecuted and driven out. Most of my family were murdered.”

I told them, “I want to tell your story, the real story, because most people only know what they see on television, soldiers armed with automatic rifles, bombed out houses, hundreds of people fleeing with bundles on their back. I want to make it personal. Because when it’s personal, people can feel the pain. They understand the loss. They know what it took for you to come here, and what it means for you to live in a land where you are a stranger.”

I promised them that I would not reveal their names. “I’ll create composite characters, weaving together the true stories that you tell me. I won’t put anybody in danger.”

Somehow, an exchange of glances among the family settled it. And they began to talk, usually the younger ones, already familiar with this new language. I heard more stories than I can possibly render in a single book, but they filled me with amazement at man’s inner strength and resilience. One woman’s brother had been publicly hanged with a wire cable. Another told of a cousin whose son’s severed head was delivered to his doorstep, a punishment and a warning for those who dare to work with the enemy. (The father went insane and never recovered.) One boy, age seventeen, who I’ll call Haji, had never revealed his story to his foster family, and they were told not to ask questions. Haji’s foster sister sat with us for several hours. And gradually the story came out. To repay his father’s gambling debt, the boy had been sold at the age of twelve as a “dancing boy,” a prostitute. He did not have to tell me the particulars. I had done research about this now illegal tradition, which is still being practiced. The boys are costumed to look like women, an invitation to rape. Haji finally escaped, returned home to look for his family. They had all vanished.

Could I possibly understand and convey such a narrative? Of course I could and I would do it now, not years from now, because it’s happening now and the story needs to be told.

Amid all the different stories there were similarities, a stoicism that did not allow tears. An in-bred sense of hospitality always included refreshment served on the best china by the woman of the house. I was given a lavish breakfast of eggs, cheese, olives and pita bread. One woman served both Turkish coffee and tea, along with home-made pistachio tarts. Another provided large hunks of cake infused with cherries.

We talked about the present and the future. Those who were able were working two or three jobs. Haji was enrolled in a special English class besides being tutored every day. He was elated that he had just gotten a job at Taco Bell, and he was on the soccer team, their “secret weapon.” I asked Haji how he time for all this. He said, “It is better to stay busy, not to think.”

After each interview, we parted with more than just smiles. Handshakes all around. Sometimes a hug. A non-verbal understanding. They asked to receive a copy of the book when it is published. Of course I would send them.

But the critics, who have not yet read a word of my book, and the agents and editors who are sorely afraid for their positions, won’t let it be published.

There is a recent case in point, a raging controversy over a book that hasn’t been published yet. I obtained a copy when I became aware of the sudden frenzy over the book, criticisms by people who had not even read it. The Young Adult book, American Heart, is written by Laura Moriarty, a prize winning author. The story is an action adventure set in a future time, with the U.S. rounding up and incarcerating all Muslims in detention camps in the Nevada desert. (Sounds familiar?) In the story a 15 year old girl, through personal circumstance, is moved to help a fugitive Muslim woman professor trying to escape and join her husband and child in Toronto. The Muslim woman, Sadaf, has a bounty on her head. As they travel through many obstacles, the reader gains some perspective on Muslim culture vs. the political scene, rendered without preaching but in the context of the story.

American Heart is due out in January 2018. Before publication, publishers customarily send out many bound galleys to review media, including the very prestigious Kirkus Review magazine. A starred review from Kirkus is cause for celebration. Kirkus gave American Heart a starred, glowing review written by a young Muslim woman. Almost immediately came the outcry. GOOD READS, an on-line review site, began to display comments and ratings from among its thousands of subscribers, condemning the book in vicious terms. Their rants are on line for everyone to savor.

“Fuck your white savior bullshit!”

“You’re profiting off people’s pain.”

“No, I haven’t read this, but I’m giving it one star…because the idea of a fiction where Muslims are in concentration camps and a couple are saved by a 15 year old white girl is completely revolting to me.”

“Fuck this book and fuck everyone who thought it would be a good fucking idea.”

So much for literary criticism.

Here’s an opposite reaction. “I haven’t read this book, but I’m giving it five stars to piss off the people who gave this book one star without having read it.”

Now, back to the glowing Kirkus review with the star. The objection and arguments about the book became so widespread and vicious that Kirkus decided to pull the review, to erase the star, and to prevail upon the reviewer to produce an alternate review, less favorable, problematic, perhaps a turn-off for the potential reader.

Editors took note. Agents shivered over their new, unsold manuscripts. For all concerned, it is easier, less problematic, to file them in a drawer, preferably in a locked cabinet. Because words matter. Indeed, they do. Let’s wait, they say, until the publishing world comes to its senses. It’s just a phase. It will blow over, you’ll see.

Blow over?

The assault on writers and publishers is an assault on our democracy, which can only flourish in an atmosphere of open debate. Every voice needs to be heard. Every experience needs to be shared. The task of the writer is to tell the truth as he sees it, to appraise the society and render the possible consequences of its present day excesses. But warnings of danger are uncomfortable and often unprofitable. So books with unpopular or controversial themes are banned. Or they are aborted. Story tellers are silenced, even when their protagonists cry out against injustice and blind hatred.

The message from the detractors is clear. If you are white, outside the Judeo-Christian faiths, don’t intervene. Don’t try to “save” anyone but your own. Even if your intentions are good, wait for them to tell their own stories. Wait until….?

New York Times, Letter to the Editor
June 24, 2017

As an author of numerous books that deal with people from cultures different from my own, I am appalled at the suggestion that one can write only from one’s own specific experience. This defies the idea that there is a basis for mutual understanding, that we can bridge our difference, that we can and must approach one another as possessing the same fears, desires and loves.

Isn’t my human perspective broad enough and compassionate enough to enable me to express the grief of a Sudanese slave? Do I have to be black to render the experience of a black African teenager who risks her life to return to her Jewish roots in Israel?

I have written about Chinese people, Danes, the French, Swiss and Russians, trying to tear down the walls between us. Now my heart aches at the realization that in this “cultural appropriation” phase we are once again building walls between peoples.

We are censoring all artistic works that derive from the creative mind and the soul of the artist, whose race and culture happen to be different from her subject, while the very impetus and purpose of art is to reveal, to be a bridge, to depict our common humanity.

As a writer, I urge other writers and artists not to go gentle into this abyss.

Sonia Levitin, Los Angeles

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At 3:38 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

First, neither that rejecting editor nor whatever website provided Ms. Levitin with the definition has a clue about cultural appropriation. That's because the corporate media and the establishment liberals, in their inimitable fashion, quickly leaped on it and corroded it so it could be used as an identity politics weapon.

Cultural appropriation occurs when someone disrespectfully uses some element of another culture. As editor and website defined it, just singing "Kumbaya" would be cultural appropriation. Blackface is racist, but when it's used by someone singing spirituals, the latter is cultural appropriation. Dressing up as a mini-skirted Native American for Halloween is cultural appropriation.

And yes, thanks to the aforementioned corrosion, a whole lot of people haven't a clue what it is, either; and some of them are like pit bulls who think the mailman is a burglar. And when one of the vocal ones launches a tirade, it's a given the mob will start shouting "amen." Nature of the beast.

Second, this kind of story is why 20 years ago I jumped on the ebook bandwagon and never regretted it. Over and over, I heard stories from talented writers with terrific books who had been rejected by the trads over and over for no other reason than that their books refused to politely slide into one pigeonhole. I was publishing diversity when nobody even knew it was a thing just because I was tired of reading about white people. And I are one.

Ms. Levitin's book sounds wonderful. I hope she finds someone with enough common sense to publish it.

At 4:06 PM, Anonymous Hone said...

Interesting and distressing.

In psychology what you are referring to is called "face validity" - the notion that one has to have the appropriate trait to be able to talk about issues or have expertise in an area. However, it is only one dimension and can be skin deep.

During my internship, a much older social worker who was mentoring me and had wonderful clinical experience was put on the carpet by a client. The client, a mother who was having problems with her children, felt that since the social worker did not have children of her own, she could not possibly relate to the woman's problems and be helpful. This was clearly not the case. Being a mother in and of itself is not a substitute for professional knowledge and experience. Therapists work with all kinds of people and they could not possibly share their traits in order to help them. Face validity gives you immediate value and can be important in the very beginning of an interaction, as at first glance that is all you see and the only measure you have to judge the person by. While it can be meaningful initially and perhaps even important over time in some ways, it is superficial and can have little or no relation to knowledge or expertise.

Ex drug addicts who help drug addicts have high face validity and this is important in their work; however, it is their experience with counseling and other personal qualities that make them successful in this role. Being a drug addict per se would hardly qualify you to be a drug counselor. Professionals who never were drug addicts have a tremendous amount to offer.

Can a male therapist help a female? Can an older person help a younger one? Can a doctor who has not had cancer provide support to someone with cancer? Yes, they can once you get past the face validity issue.

Certainly a male writer can narrate the role of a female in a novel and vice versa.

Certainly you as a writer can write about the experiences of those from different cultures. What is crucial is your writing ability, not personally being part of the culture. That is only face validity, purely superficial and irrelevant to the quality of what you produce. From reading your book, the reader would never be able to tell your personal background.

At 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This story is incredibly sad and tragic. For these high-paid editors and publishers to be so ignorant as to believe that a writer has to only write about what and who she knows is just unbelievable! The above two comments about this ridiculous practice are very encouraging and I will be looking for the books the author has written and those she has discussed. Thank you for sharing this story with us.


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