Cultural Appropriation: A Trou-De-Loup for Authors

I had just turned the last page of Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, kicked the imagined Mexican dust off my walking shoes and was able to end, with the author’s conclusion, the continuing search for a grove of rosewood for her protagonist’s relief from unrelenting sun and dry wind. In her “Author’s Notes” Ms. Cummins worried that as a non-Mexican and a nonimmigrant she had no business writing about a culture to which she did not belong. Fortunately, she shrugged that off and recognized that her work may be a bridge between cultures, rather than an appropriation of one of them.

Page Lambert[1] in a recent blog compared Ms. Cummins’ concerns and the criticism that was heaped on her and her publisher for cultural appropriation, with the laudatory treatment of Pearl S. Buck and her venture into the lives and culture of Chinese peasants in The Good Earth published in 1931. Those were the days, I guess, when a reader reveled in the story told and its textured prose rather than a search for unintended injury.

Which leads me to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (Harper Collins, 2009). One could ride the culture appropriation horse through the pages of her novel looking for violations and reach the end regretting that more time had not been spent enjoying, for example, her grasp of true Mexican humor within the fictional journal of a writer caught between two worlds — Mexico and the United States during the 1930s through 1950s. Perhaps she escaped criticism because her protagonist was of mixed heritage, and perceptions of Mexican culture could be attributable simply to the observations of the gringo side of his cultural makeup and not expressions of a Mexican as perceived by an outlier.

One might ask whether this vignette from Kingsolver’s novel denigrates the Catholic faith or perpetuates a stereotype that a non-Mexican is not entitled to express:

Independence Day, the town boiling with parades for the Revolution. At school the cretins performed in costume: traditional dances, impaired by the absence of girls. The teachers made a Patriotism Banquet: rice in the colors of the flag, red and green salsa. Cups of rice water, sugared almonds, a little of everything, and of nothing quite enough. At the head of the table by the bowl of pomegranates, Señora Bartolome had put a note: Take only one, our Lord Jesus is watching!

A second note appeared at the foot of the table beside the sugared almonds: Take all you want, Jesus is looking at the pomegranates.

I find it to constitute a joyful acknowledge of Jesus’ presence directed to children who have been reared to accept him, expressed in a light-hearted way so common among the faithful in Mexico. Only the most cynical, in my view, would condemn that as appropriation rather than appreciation.

A careless, uninformed venture into another culture should be condemned, but the carefully researched work of the authors mentioned provide us with a greater understanding of these cultures and should be applauded.

Sound, please.

[1] Page Lambert at dirt-and-pearl-s-bucks.html. Lambert in 1999 ventured into the Lakota Sioux culture in Shifting Stars, an elegant novel grounded in the 1850s, and to my knowledge has emerged unscathed by culture appropriation critics.

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