The problem with "universality"

I read Myriam Gurba’s review of “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins. It is a book about migration, and it has been met with severe backlash from latinxs. They are calling it brown trauma porn. However, Oprah, recommended it on her monthly book club.

“American Dirt” is a story about a Mexican mother and son that flee Acapulco after a violent, assassin-filled quinceañera party.

Myriam’s critique focuses on the fact that the story is not an accurate representation of migrant lives, and that Jeanine has no place (geographically and metaphorically) on the telling of such stories (especially since she is now claiming her right to voice stories of people of color because of a Puerto-Rican great-grandmother). The book is filled with stereotypes about Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and migrants, and does no justice to their actual experiences. It’s not that she doesn’t have a right per se, but rather she does it so wrong, it does a disservice.

Myriam Gurba

Authors definitely have the right to write outside of their identity. An absolute legal right. No one disputes that. But there’s homework to be done. Questions to be asked.

David Bowles: “American Dirt”, Dignity and Equity.

The text made me question my initial thesis about wanting to find a universality in the migrant experience. It made me realize that I am also too far away from even considering to represent this supposed universality or to even suppose such universality in the first place.

It made me realize that -right now- the only story I can tell truthfully is from my own perspective, and to do that I have to be aware of the privilege that my own experience entails. Mine is a story about migration, about leaving homes constantly, about not being in one place long enough to make a home, about missing my mom and sister because of the distance and my dad because he passed away. It is about grief, about where to place it and how to carry it and about its weight and about the suitcases I need to take it with me. It is also about buying too many plants and caring for them even though I can never take them with me. It is also about missing green tomatoes.

This is why I have decided to make the narrative for this project more personal, but not necessarily autobiographical. Like what visual artist Shirin Neshat talks about in a podcast (30:05) when asked about boundaries and truthfulness in her work:

The way I do it is I make very personal work. I don’t just choose a subject and say oh, that’s a hard political subject, I’m going to make a work about it. I make work that relates directly to my own personal life that I have felt the pain. You know, you can’t fake pain. You can’t fake the anxiety of being an immigrant, f or example, or political injustice or anxiety of different kinds. So I think my methodology is I make the work as personal as possible but not autobiographical because that doesn’t interest me. And when you’re personal, people believe you because there’s a lot of transparency, there’s a lot of emotion, and I think that’s my approach. I don’t know how other artists do it.

Shirin Neshat

I can’t talk about a universality in the migrant stories because I can’t account for everyone’s experience, but right now I can talk about what I am closer to, from where I am standing, which is what I am living here.

More about pigeonholing POCs in the creative industry: here.

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