American Dirt

I’ve been waiting for the controversy to die down before writing about it, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to, so here’s my two cents about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. In the book, Lydia, a bookstore owner, is forced to flee Mexico with her son after her husband and family are killed by a local cartel boss (at a quinceanera). She joins the migrants moving north, hoping to find refuge, but also learning about the people she travels with.

The book received high honors and praise; and was chosen to be the next pick for Oprah’s Book Club. Ms. Cummins also secured a film deal out of it. So with all that, American Dirt must be great, right? 

Not according to Myriam Gurba, an American author of Mexican descent. She was asked to review the book and had some choice words about it … none of which were good (her review, Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature, is worth the read). This is her best line:

“The nicest thing I can say about Dirt is that its pages ought to be upcycled as toilet paper.”

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but this seems to be the general consensus amongst Latino writers, who say that despite the author’s claims that she spent five years researching the book, Ms. Cummins’ depiction of Mexico/Mexicans is insensitive, flawed and stereotypical; perpetuating the ignorance around ‘the faceless brown mass at the border’ she claims she is trying to serve. Also complicating the issue is Cummins’ ethnicity: she identified as white in an op-ed for The New York Times in 2016, but now (conveniently) has Puerto Rican ancestry.

The internet, of course, exploded with offense (because the internet does that). The arguments went something like this: if the book brings attention to the immigration issue and gives a face to the people trying to find refuge in the United States, isn’t it worth the flaws? Also it’s just a book, a fictional story with no bearing on real life … what’s the big deal? The other authors are probably just hating because they didn’t get a book/film deal. Or they didn’t get picked for Oprah’s book club.

This, however, was the argument that hit home: only people of color can write stories of color. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I think people of color can probably tell their stories better than someone who hasn’t had the same experience. But I don’t know that I agree with that wholeheartedly. I think conditions have to be met. Actually, let me rephrase that: an investment by the author has to be made, an investment that includes research, but also a lot of blood, sweat and tears. You have to live that life, in the same way Jane Goodall lived amongst the apes she later became a conservationist for. If you can’t make that level of investment, you can’t represent the people or cause you’re trying to present.

This made me think about the stories I plan to write. Most of my main characters are Latin women, because it’s my experience. But reading all this has made me question whether I have a right to tell any story from the standpoint of a character who is of another race, or culture. Even as a Latin woman: I am of Puerto Rican and Costa Rican descent – am I qualified to tell the story of someone who is Mexican? If I am not mindful of the stereotypes I might be perpetuating, and if I haven’t done my homework on the culture, then the answer is no. My representation would be irresponsible.

That’s something I think is lacking in this book. Research doesn’t equal experience. And sometimes it’s better to walk away than hurt someone else with the pictures we paint.

I’m not one to tell anyone else what to read or what not to read, but I’m happy to recommend books: here, here and here are a few lists of great books to read instead of or in addition to American Dirt.

Hope For Something Better

I decided to give the ‘classics’ a break (see my previous post to understand why My ‘Wokeness’ Has Ruined The Classics For Me) and listen to something altogether different on my daily commute – The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin.

I first read the book in the late eighties. My stepdad must have owned a copy of it, because it wasn’t something I would have picked up from the library. I also must have been bored, because I was about fourteen at the time, and though I was a reader, it wasn’t the coolest thing to do at that age. But I read it anyway and I remember being enthralled by the subject matter – the Holocaust/WWII. Now that I think about it, it may have been the catalyst for my lifelong interest into this topic (along with a history teacher who was a WWII veteran). Of course, saying the Holocaust is my favorite subject feels like the very worst thing to say, but some of my favorite books, and certainly the most inspiring books I’ve read, are Holocaust diaries and novels. They have become my go-to, hence, why I opted to add this book to my audiobook playlist. 

For those who haven’t read it, The Boys From Brazil is about a Nazi hunter who discovers a sinister and bizarre plot to rekindle the Third Reich. I won’t add anything to that description because it’s worth the suspense to discover what that plot was (yes, no spoilers, even though the book is almost fifty years old). And here too, like the other classics I’ve been reading, the book was quite dated. Written in 1972, well before the advent of the internet and cell phones, Yakov Liebermann, the Nazi hunter (a conflation of Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal and Serge Klarsfeld), relies on newspaper clippings and returned phone calls to gather and disseminate information. It’s interesting and certainly makes you wonder what would happen if the story took place today. But since I remember those days (though I was born two years after the publication), it wasn’t such a stretch to set my natural desire to see the story through twenty-first century eyes and go with the flow. 

It was different reading the book this time around though. It was less about the thrill, the science fiction, the story and more about the reality we face today. That’s the mark of a good author – they leave you thinking about what they wrote, even days after you finished the book. And I had a lot to think about this time. At one point, the Nazi hunter was faced with ethical dilemma that mirrors the actions of the Third Reich. His response to this (and to the person trying to persuade him otherwise) was:

“I say in my talks it takes two things to make [the resurgence of Nazism] happen again, a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: the Hitler, the conditions…and the people to follow the Hitler.”

“And don’t you think he’d find them?”

“No, not enough of them. I really think people are better and smarter now, not so much thinking their leaders are God. The television makes a big difference. And history, knowing…Some he’d find, yes; but no more, I think—I hope—”

This passage made me stop and think, more so than it did when I read it the first time. The author, Ira Levin, was optimistic enough to write the last part (‘no, not enough of them’), but that was almost fifty years ago. Would he say the same now if he were still alive? And would I agree with him? Because sadly, I don’t think I do. I think we are dangerously close to his criteria for this social order. You take news stories these days with a grain of salt, as most of them are about ratings, but when you actually consider the current political climate and the social conditions, you can’t help but wonder where it’s all heading. You want to hope there are enough people out there to stand up for what’s right, to stand up for their neighbors, to fight for one another…but you wonder.

My husband and I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC several years ago and the exhibit that remains etched in my mind is one about the people who gave up their Jewish neighbors, though they had lived side-by-side for many years. Was it jealousy, the narrator asked. Was it hatred? They didn’t stand up, they didn’t fight. They just let them go. Is that where we are today? We can hope otherwise. After all, that’s the note that Mr. Levin left us with – Some, he’d find, yes; but no more, I think-I hope – even as he left the possibility for more open in the final chapter. But that’s life, isn’t it? The possibility for good and evil exist in all things. The possibility of a Fourth Reich exists (God forbid). But so does one of a united people, a united world open to fighting for one another. We just need to work towards it. We can’t just let things happen, we have to be intentional in our actions. We have to love and act and continue hoping, because ultimately, that’s what’s going to get us through times like the ones we currently live in – hope for something better.

And that, I think, was the true message of the book. It was a science fiction thriller that was heavy on the science fiction fifty years go, not so much today. But it was also a social commentary, a vision of hope that the atrocities of a past generation could never happen again.

* * *

Hello everyone! I am trying my hand at something new: a weekly newsletter. I will be packing it full with news about my projects, tips on writing and publishing and updates on the new streaming show, Authors Up, that I am co-hosting with Andrea Hines and Victoria Henderson Poole. I will be posting the main article on my blog, but the extra content will be available by newsletter only. You can add your name to the mailing list here.

My ‘Wokeness’ Has Ruined The Classics For Me

I’m not sure which word I dislike more – woke or classic. The former implies being aware of racial and gender disparities I was previously unaware of (which, as a woman of Latin descent, I really don’t think I was), while the latter suggests something worth venerating by virtue of its age alone (which is not always the case). You can’t really apply both words to any one book, much less make a blog post about it, yet here we are. Because that’s what I found myself contemplating recently.

I’ve mentioned my love of classical novels (the adventurous types) before. Forget Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte and give me Mark Twain, Bram Stoker and Edgar Rice Burroughs books (we’ll save the obvious imbalance in the sexes for another post). Well, I have been making the most of my three-hour daily commute by listening to audiobooks; and a few weeks ago I decided to reread Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I first read the book about twenty years ago and was amazed then at how much I enjoyed the story (this seems to my default reaction to these older novels). I never got to read the first sequel, nor the subsequent ones (twenty four total). But I enjoyed the book enough to start on Mr. Burrough’s Barsoom series, John Carter of Mars (I may be one of the few people who enjoyed the Disney adaption with Taylor Kitsch). Yes, both novels had their issues, but nothing so jarring that I couldn’t enjoy them.

Ah, what a difference two decades makes.

Image result for tarzan of the apesFor those who haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes or have somehow missed the hundreds of adaptations throughout the years, Tarzan was the son of a British Lord, who along with his wife was shipwrecked on an African coast. They died in Tarzan’s infancy, leaving him to be raised by apes. As he grew, he began to see himself as something other than the hairless ape of the tribe, but he didn’t understand what he was until he found the cabin his father built; and in it, the books his father brought with him from England. There, Tarzan learned he was a man.

A white man.

A white man who was supposed to be culturally superior–to animals, to everyone who wasn’t British, but especially to the blacks who shared the land with the ape tribe.

So at this point into the book, I reminded myself that you have to suspend your natural desire to read the classical books through the lenses of the twenty-first century to truly appreciate the story as the author wrote it. And more than that, I firmly believe EVERYONE should have a voice. Each writer, each person is entitled to their own opinion and each vantage point is important. I continued reading (or in this case, listening), stuck on the irony that even as Mr. Burroughs described the blacks as savage, primitive and violent, Tarzan was taunting and killing members of the tribe to appropriate their jewelry, dress and weapons.

You didn’t see that in the Disney adaptation.

Then Jane Porter entered the story with her servant Esmeralda, who was described as a large negress from Maryland. The two end up on the same coast as Tarzan and seek refuge in the cabin. And while Jane bravely steels herself against the circumstances, Esmeralda, a two-dimensional, secondary character who has no bearing on the story, is portrayed as infantile, easily given to hysterics, almost like she is mentally incapable of understanding or bravery.

I had forgotten about that. And to be honest, it didn’t sit well with me. Yes, this book was was a reflection of the day and age it was written in, but because racial stereotypes and gender disparities still permeate every aspect of our society, listening to something that reinforces them is difficult. I don’t want to diminish anyone’s voice, because even if their view point is marred, there’s still a wealth of cultural information to be gained. But to what degree do we continue venerating these older books? Tarzan of the Apes is a classic story, written by a prolific author who changed the world (he popularized serials, went to Mars before we got to the moon, and revolutionized the science fiction genre. AND who doesn’t know Tarzan?), but at what cost? This is why the debate continues about whether Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain should be banned by schools, or why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were stripped of a children books award over her depiction of Native Americans. Are we being too sensitive? Or are we finally waking up to the reality that what we believe to be traditional or trivial may be hurting someone else? Is it possible to overlook these stereotypes and not be affected by them?

No book is perfect, none. And to be honest, I don’t have ‘the’ answer to any of these questions. Like I said, even the classics are valuable, if only as a window into our past. But whether we continue reading them or not, that’s a decision we have to make for ourselves. Just like everything else. I enjoyed Tarzan of the Apes once, and I am grateful for the impact it and Edgar Rice Burroughs have had on society, on me. But beyond that, maybe it’s time to put the book back on the shelf and give another author a chance.

Brewster’s Millions

126188A.999I want to assume everyone has seen the 1985 classic, Brewster’s Millions, with Richard Pryor and John Candy. If you haven’t, by all means, do so; it’s a great film. But I have to confess: even though I’ve seen this film numerous times in the last thirty years, I never read the credits, until a month ago, when I discovered the story was based on the 1902 book by George Barr McCutcheon.

As a fan of films adapted from books, I had to look it up. It was late when I saw this, so I reminded myself to look it up the next day when I got up and I went to bed. I promptly forgot and it was another couple of days before I remembered that there was something I wanted to remember. Then it was another couple of days before I remembered what I was trying to remember. I bought the audiobook and listened to it and was pleasantly surprised. For a book that was written over one hundred years ago, it was really entertaining. Obviously the 1985 film was updated to reflect the time in which it was set, but even in the original story, where Monty has to spend only $1,000,000 to inherit $7,000,000, a paltry sum by today’s standards, the challenges were thoughtful and the characters likeable.

The book wasn’t without its issues: it had one instance of the n-word, a reference to black people as ‘darkies’, and the heroine of the story was a little annoying with her ‘weaker sex’ dependence on the hero, but all that is a reflection of the time it was written. Overall, it was a charming and enjoyable book. And I think that’s the part that surprises me most: I love the gothic horror novels of yore (Frankenstein, Dracula, Carmilla, etc.) but I was never a fan of classics as a whole (you know, for my generation, all the old books they made you read in school). There were some authors I enjoyed reading, like Jules Verne, Mark Twain and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I never really liked others like Laura Ingalls, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austin or Charlotte Bronte. Seeing this, I’ve come to realize that my tastes weren’t what I thought they were: it’s not the classics I had an aversion to, I just prefer adventure books, stories of epic proportions, with characters and stories that are larger than life.

You’ll notice that my list is decidedly testosterone-heavy, but again, I think that too is a reflection of the times. Maybe women didn’t write adventures, but what they knew: family and love. Or maybe I need to get out more and expand my reading list from the late 1800s to early 1900s to include women writers – suggestions are welcome. Regardless, I’m an avid believer that we can’t write off the old books just because they’re old. Their stories may be dated, but there’s value in them now just as there was back then.

Stay With Me (Review)

I’ve been posting snippets from my book, Stay With Me, these last few Sundays. I’ll be starting on a new book tomorrow, but I wanted to share this review with you from Daria White for Reqders’ Favorite. I’m not gonna lie, it’s my favorite.

SWM

“Stay With Me by Ruth E. Griffin tells the story of shy, kind, and gentle Noah. He works at a bookstore and is content with his life. He doesn’t think he needs to change to be happy. He’s fine the way he is, but when free spirited Alma shows up, his world turns upside down. She walked into the bookstore and kissed him randomly. Not only does it surprise Noah, he likes it. He likes her. He wants to pursue and get to know her. Alma, on the other hand, objects to Noah’s advances. For her, the kiss was a once in a lifetime thrill. She has other plans for her life, and a relationship with Noah doesn’t fit into them. Will Noah leave her alone or is she worth fighting for? Noah will find that there is a fine line that others advise him not to cross, but will he heed their advice?

“Stay With Me by Ruth E. Griffin took me on a serious roller-coaster ride. I was not expecting Griffin to have my emotions gripped from the beginning to the end. Noah’s life changing journey is not only entertaining, but heart wrenching. Recently, alpha male characters have become popular, so Noah’s gentle but strong spirit is touching and refreshing. I was rooting for him! I read this book literally in a day and a half. While the story has its humorous points, Griffin delves into some serious themes which take the story to another level. I was really touched by this book. It’s truly unforgettable, since both lead characters leave an impression on the reader. To the author, I say well done!”

Intrigued? The book is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleiBooks and Kobo. Get your copy today!

#StayWithMe #RuthEGriffin #AwardWinningAuthor #Romance #Love #WomensExperiences #WomensStories #InterracialLove #MentalHealth

What’s Ruth Reading: The Hitman Diaries

I just finished reading Danny King’s The Hitman Diaries. Like three hours ago. So, since this is still fresh in my mind, this is what we’re writing about. Then tomorrow we’re going to discuss why we (as authors) are mean to our characters.

Ready?

13171349-_uy200_Ian Bridges is looking for Miss Right. Never mind that he’s a hitman, who is very good at his job because he feels no remorse. If he can just find the right woman who will be grateful for all the love he has to offer, then his life will be complete. Of course, life is never that easy. Never.

I picked up this book after reading Danny King’s “The Henchmen’s Book Club” – I loved that book and was certain I’d love this one. Well….. I started the book and didn’t know quite what to think when the body count started adding up in the first chapter alone. I wasn’t sure if I liked the main character or not and was ready at one point to stop reading, but found I couldn’t, because I had to know what happened next. Then about midway through, I found myself caring for Ian and his quest for love, so that by the time I finished the book, I was heartbroken to have to leave Ian’s world so soon. That’s an amazing gift for any author – though I’m not sure what that says about you when you start rooting for the “bad guy”.

All-in-all, the characters were well-developed as was the world they live in. There were descriptions of killing and death, though nothing too graphic. Thoroughly enjoyable. My only complaint was that it ended.

Well-done, Mr. King.