Friday, February 23, 2018
American Heart is a fine YA novel - Jules Older writes...
But, 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.
On 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.
Late 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.”
Hold 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.
The 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.”
It’s 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.
But 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.
Though 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!”
Plus, a lot of unprintable vitriol which fair shouts that the seething reviewers have not actually read the book.
Then, 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.
How rare is this? As far as I can tell, it never happens.
At 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 their culture.”
Lord, give me the strength to respond without RESORTING TO ALL CAPS AND !!!s.
First, 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 Dust?
Next, 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 from Brooklyn?
Fourth, unintended 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.”
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“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?
These 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 people.
I 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.
Jules Older email@example.com 415 754-3103