Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Friday, February 23, 2018
American Heart is a fine YA novel - Jules Older writes...
October 19, Jeanne Brousse died. She was 96. When she was a young woman in
Nazi-occupied France, Jeanne saved the lives of her Jewish neighbors, who,
without her secret aid, would have been murdered in death camps. She repeatedly
risked her own life to do it.
in life, Jeanne Brousse said, “Our first duty consists in overcoming our
self-centeredness — to inconvenience oneself, to deprive oneself — when one of
our human brethren is in danger.”
that ever-important thought. Now, let’s talk about a book that’s being
denounced and condemned, ‘buked and scorned, even though it’s not yet out.
book is American Heart by Laura
Moriarty, professor of creative writing at the University of Kansas. She sets American Heart, appropriately enough, in
the American Midwest. The tale is told through the voice of a Midwestern American
teen, Sarah Mary Williams, who is pretty much unaware that the government is rounding
up Muslims “for their own safety.”
a long but satisfying read. Were I reviewing it — which I'm not — I'd conclude
with this: American Heart is a fine
YA novel. It has all-important grip, a likeable narrator from an unlikeable
family, an occasional slip into un-teen speech and un-small-town-teen
knowledge, and a strong and satisfying ending. I highly recommend it.
I'm not here to review the book. I'm here to review the reviewers of the book.
More accurately, its detractors and their enabling collaborators.
publication date isn't till January 30, 2018, the attacks on American Heart began last April. In
language unprintable here, they body-slammed Moriarty, accusing her of committing
the sins of: writing a “white savior narrative,” “perpetuating the idea that marginalized
people need to suffer in order to be worthy of humanity,” and “aim[ing] to
undermine white supremacy and yet … clumsily reinforcing it.” They screamed, “CANNOT FATHOM A MUSLIM
WOMAN AS A COLLEGE PROFESSOR,” “RACIST!”
a lot of unprintable vitriol which fair shouts that the seething reviewers have
not actually read the book.
on October 5, Kirkus Reviews gave the
novel something publishers yearn for, a glowing, starred review. When the
review was posted online, that incited still more rage from horrified citizens,
most of whom had almost certainly not read the book. Three days later, Kirkus retracted its review, and shortly
after that, dulled the glow and took away the star.
rare is this? As far as I can tell, it never happens.
the heart of the mob fury and the retracted review is the “white-savior
narrative.” It maintains that a white American shouldn't write about
nonwhite/foreign/oppressed peoples from a white American perspective. And,
lurking just beneath that viewpoint, if said ugly American did write from the perspective of the oppressed, she would be “appropriating
give me the strength to respond without RESORTING TO ALL CAPS AND !!!s.
I hold this truth most dear: Writers should write about whatever they want to
write about. Ditto, other creatives —sculptors, musicians, poets, playwrights. Ask
yourself this: Would the world be better off without E. Annie Proulx’s insights on
men and Newfoundland? Without Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur S. Golden
and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro? Without Vermonter Karen Hesse’s depiction
of the Oklahoma dustbowl in Out of the
there's this. I am well used to rightwing censors demanding that books they've
never read be banned. That's a deep, dark vein running through America’s
Reflexive Puritanism mine. We've seen it many times before. But when the same hogswallop
comes from the academic left, it leaves me furious. Must we be as dumb as they
are? Spoiler alert: Apparently so. Don't we, in the words of the American
philosopher Brad Paisley, “Have bigger fish to fry?”
Third. The creatives
— authors, painters, song writers — most hurt by accusations of appropriation
will be minorities. Can a gay novelist really not write about straight
nobility? Should a Black poet be limited to rhyming about folks of the same
hue? Must a Jewish New Yorker really confine her characters to Hasidic women
irony. American Heart is about mob
mentality. American Heart is a victim
of mob mentality.
And then, consider
this. In Huck Finn, Chapter 32, Huck
says to Aunt Sally, “We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
“No’m. Killed a
“Well, it’s lucky;
because sometimes people do get hurt.”
Now, I ask you — in our age of outraged
literary correctness, could this most profound commentary on American racism
ever make it into print? And, if it did not, would we be elevated by its
exclusion? Or simply buried deeper in denial?
pernicious as all this is, there's something worse. Much worse. Instead of
inspiring brave acts of goodness — exemplified by young Jeanne Brousse — the No
White Savior doctrine discourages the
majority from coming to the aid of the oppressed minority. In Girl in the Blue Coat, Monica Hesse’s Dutch teenager helps save another
teen, a Dutch Jew, from the Nazis. To
Kill a Mockingbird is about a Southern white who saves a Southern Black
from the lynch mob. Huck Finn declares, “All right then, I’ll go to hell”
rather than let Jim be sold into slavery. And American Heart creates a motherless Midwest kid who saves a Muslim mom
from wrongful internment.
tales are about good deeds in the face of terrible pressure not to do them.
They're about virtue in a time of evil, an individual standing up to the
government and the mob. They all model exactly the kind of behavior that makes
the world a better, kinder place; that makes its inhabitants better, braver
ask you — I ask the host of critics — what is so awful about that?
American Heart is a do-good book by
a stand-up woman. I highly recommend it.