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¿Quién tiene el derecho? Grandmas, American Dirt, and who has the right to write?

Whenever my grandmother and I get together, we talk about books. Of course, our conversation sometimes wanders to food, politics, or children, but it always goes back to books. She is a former teacher and librarian of decades and an avid reader. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree here, folks.

I've been spending my quarantine time in northern Minnesota at my dad's with the rest of my family, and grandma came to visit for a few days. (We've literally been in the middle of the woods for the past few months, so no chance of giving COVID to grandma.) I mentioned that I had purchased a load of #OwnVoices books from Birchbark Books and had been writing some pieces about these Ojibwe/Anishinaabe authors and their books.

Our conversation then led to a book called Canoeing with the Cree, which both my brother and grandmother had read, about two boys that decided to canoe from Minneapolis all the way to the Hudson Bay in the summer of 1930. I quickly added the book to my Amazon cart while simultaneously my dad brought it out from his office, having had his own copy of the book too. (I devoured it in two days - while certainly the way Native peoples were portrayed in the book can and should be critiqued, the story is certainly an #OwnVoices piece, written as a journalistic first-person narrative.)

Grandma then mentioned that she had left a book on her nightstand with only twenty pages left to read. "But I already flipped to the end, because I just had to know if they made it... and they did," she shared. We both expressed that anguished feeling of leaving just a few pages left to read, and she went on to tell me how much she had enjoyed this book, American Dirt. I admitted that I hadn't read the book, not wanting to support it after the controversy sparked by Myriam Gurba's critique and the #dignidadliteraria campaign.

"What was the controversy again?" she said.

We then launched into a dialogue about the #OwnVoices movement, and questioned who has the right to write certain stories?

We posed lots of questions. What if the author does extensive research? What about historical fiction? What about just fiction, not claiming any historical or social accuracy? What if the other is of that ethnicity/culture/religion, but hasn't had that experience? What if the author doesn't want to come out as LGBTQ+? What if publishers, then, pigeonholed writers that held marginalized identities into only writing #OwnVoices narratives, and wouldn't consider them for any other kind of work? What if authors donate royalties?

Our conversation aligned with a conversation and open debate I had just had in class at Teacher's College. We dove into thinking from Wolf, Ballentine, and Hill, and discussed not only the importance of a piece of work coming from an #OwnVoices author, but also the importance of respect, political consciousness instead of political correctness, and aesthetic heat - the power of the author and/or illustrator to shape language and art to engage the reader's mind and heart - in short, it should be written well.

I don't have a clear answer, and I don't think there is one. "While the question of the right to write seems fairly straightforward, it is not. Instead, it zigzags with dizzying complexity and stretches far beyond university walls." (Wolf, Ballentine, & Hill, 1999, p.132) However, I do know, that as a young writer, and teacher of young writers, this discussion isn't happening early enough. At least it didn't for me.

The only time I participated in creative writing was as a very young child, and then in a creative writing course I took during interim in January during my undergrad studies, over a decade ago, where I essentially wrote my own short version of American Dirt. My ex-husband and other family members had crossed the border a few years earlier, and my house had been recently raided by ICE. We were a multilingual household. I heard my family members' and friends' vastly diverse stories about immigrating to the U.S. I was obsessed with immigration issues and politics (and still am), and for my short-story fiction piece in class, I decided to write a third-person fictional narrative about a girl crossing the border. WHY in the world that was the perspective I chose, I still don't fully know. Did I want to understand the experience even more, by putting myself in those shoes through writing? Did I want to process my feelings through writing? Did I want my family members' stories to be told through writing so that others could empathize? Or maybe I do know. White supremacist society had shaped my thinking in a way that had me believing that I could tell any story that I wanted.

I know now that I had no right to tell that story. It wasn't my story to tell, even if it was entirely fiction (but is there really such thing as 'pure' fiction - I would debate no). I was naive. And I was also in college, where I was still being formed and shaped into the teacher and writer I am today. Why had my professor allowed me to continue working on the piece without giving me the feedback that I should have gotten? #OwnVoices wasn't a hashtag back then, but it certainly was a conversation in the literary world. I keep this in the back of my mind as a reminder as an educator myself.

Grandma and I never came to a conclusion about American Dirt, or the #OwnVoices movement. I'm sure we'll both come back to thinking about it time and time again. Join me in continuing the conversation with some of the links below.

My college journals, including the journal with my short story.


Continuing the conversation...

Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story?

Are the #OwnVoices Movement & Cancel Culture Toxic?

When Google Translate Gives You Arroz con Mango: Erroneous Español and the Need for #ownvoices

The Problem With #OWNVOICES LGBTQ Lit

Inclusivity That Doesn't Pigeonhole Own Voices Writers


Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature

The Right to Write


Today's Pairing: Recipe

My grandmother's side of the family is Norwegian. This is a rough recipe she wrote down and had in her purse for the coffee cake we shared together during our conversations about books.

It's kind of like a kringle, kind of like a pastry or danish... she drizzles a powdered sugar frosting over the top.

Bake in a cake pan or sheet pan with sides.


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