American Vurp

I’m not about to give a certain book releasing today any amount of exposure (instead I’ll share Myriam Gurba’s brilliant take down of the book in question).

I struggle with this little rant because I don’t like the idea of making controversy about me, but this latest controversy does have me thinking a lot about my identity, experiences, and my place within my literary sphere in those regards.

I’m multi-ethnic. This means that while I am white and American, I also have Latinx, Italian, and Irish roots. Growing up, I was raised as a Nuyorican and soon exposed to the Irish side quite a bit. This varied background extends to my family as well. I joke a lot about being the lightest person on my mom’s side and the darkest on my father’s, but this is insanely true. On top of it all, my parents divorced when I was super young. This means I’ve got a half brother who is black and a stepsister who is Korean.

That said, if you look at my books, you realize I’ve taken advantage of a lot of the perspective and relationships I have in my life to help inform some of my writing and characters. There’s nothing wrong with that since, hell, 99% of writers use their lives as the foundational basis for many of their stories. That’s the definition of inspiration.

What I’ve never done, though, is speak for anyone that isn’t me, and I think folks really have a hard time with identifying the line between writing diverse characters and speaking for diverse people. I don’t write my characters with the idea in mind that I am giving a voice or face to some conglomerated mass. That’s not my place because that is not my voice. I like to think whenever I write, I’m providing a voice for Nuyoricans like me who are rarely acknowledged and rarely heard. That’s it. If reading me helps expose someone to other writers like me, that’s a fucking bonus.

Now, Americans, we love us some monolithing. We take whatever looks or sounds alike and try to jam it together in a fruitless effort to make a single, understandable concept that removes any and all effort or thought. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans speak the same language? Cool, they’re the same. Let’s just run some copy through Google Translate and that should be authentic enough, right? What are even dialects and slang and regional shifts in language, lulz?

OK, great. Folks from Texas and folks from New York speak English. Same thing, right? I’m 100% sure not a soul would be offended if I said that, right? I heard a white person call soda “pop” once. All white people must do that.

Pretty fucking dumb way to think.

Anyway, so the monolith. It allows our shitty system to clump us into the same room and exploit us equally. It allows a publisher the freedom to take a writer who has absolutely nothing too do with a culture and make them the “voice for the voiceless” while dumping a shit ton of money into one pocket when they could have distributed that money a little more and received a dozen phenomenal stories – a callous and extremely damaging thing to do to a marginalized community that is constantly vilified and ridiculed. It could have been easy enough to have the writer produce this content without espousing some nonsense noble cause. I would never say a topic is out of bounds for a writer when they feel they have a story to tell, but I would say it’s never in the best interest of those whose story you’re telling that you have positioned yourself as their representative (ironically removing any spotlight for them and muting them entirely).

As the kind of writer who does tackle various people and perspectives in his writing, I’d argue I’m a tertiary source for anything in regards to a leading voice on a people. Want some nonsense fun with diverse casts? I’m your man. Need to understand classism in an Asian country? Maybe try creators like Bong Joon-ho (sorry, he’s relevant and the first to come to mind because Parasite was amazing). Want to read about the border from an actual Mexican writer? Try Yuri Herrera. His works are powerful, excellently translated, and shocker of shocks, pretty authentic. Hell, Myriam Gurba’s MEAN will fucking knock your socks off.

You can also read the literal legion of books by white writers about these subjects too (and there’s nothing wrong with that)! I know for a fact there’s a book releasing this year from a writer about some of these topics and it is excellent. I also know the writer isn’t playing any games about who they are and what they’re trying to do with their story. All I think is maybe, just maybe, if you go to a primary source, you might get a little more out of it than you would by trusting someone who is going to actively speak for that source (while reveling in it on a level that feels oddly fetishistic) and be paid an exorbitant amount of money to do so.

We are not a monolith. Anyone who says so and says so for money should never be trusted. Anyone screaming that they are the voice of the voiceless while they drown out the whispers of the marginalized is the oppressor, not the savior.

One response to “American Vurp”

  1. I’ve been thinking about monoliths quite a bit lately and have come to a similar conclusion. I confess I’ve been guilty of it myself, and I can see why people do it. Life is complicated, people are complicated, and we’re all busy with finite levels of energy. Assuming monolithic behavior is a way of categorizing things so we don’t have to take everything that comes along and look at it as fresh and unique.

    The problem is, most things are fresh and unique and we do everyone a disservice by assuming all African-Americans/Puerto Ricans/ Mexicans/Asians/Irish/German/gays/tall people/short people/college graduates/suburban moms/Michigan voters feel the same way about anything just because they fit into a group.

    My stories are set in a predominantly white small town in Pennsylvania. That works for me because I grew up in a predominantly white small town in Pennsylvania. I get these people. I also populate the stories with blacks, LGBTQ characters, and an American Indian. Some of them are good guys and some aren’t. What I try to do when I write any of them is not to imply everyone in that group feels or thinks or acts the same way by finding the things we all have in common and basing as much of the character as I can on that. Do I always succeed? Probably not. No one is perfect. But I’ll keep trying.

    Thanks for writing these. They’re always thought-provoking and I always learn something.

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