You’ve heard about the controversy rocking the literary world, right? It’s hard to avoid, even if you try to keep a safe distance from the news while remaining informed. The 40-city book tour for “American Dirt,” by Jeanine Cummins, has been cancelled. Oprah was asked to rescind it as one of her picks. The question of the hour: Is Cummins villain or victim? 

Two op-ed writers lay it out pretty well in the Philadelphia Inquirer. From Jonathan Zimmerman:

Critics called the book “border chic” and “trauma porn,” claiming that author Jeanine Cummins – who identifies as white and Latina, having a Puerto Rican grandmother – had traded in harmful stereotypes and capitalized on Latino suffering. 

“American Dirt controversy scores another win for mob mentality,” reads the headline. 

But, says Zimmerman – 

To be fair, not every fan of American Dirt threw it under the bus after the Twitter-storm started. “I read the book and I loved it,” wrote novelist Ann Patchett, who had lauded the “moral compass” of American Dirt. “That experience can’t be changed by people who don’t like it.”

Helen Ubiñas, also in the Philadelphia Inquirer, approaches it from another point of view:

I’ve been mildly obsessed with watching the mess unfold, intrigued less with what many have called appropriation – and perhaps worse, not even well-done appropriation – and more intrigued with the marginalized voices of Latinx authors rising up to call out the book industry’s lack of diversity.

….[A]uthors whose stories are seared on their souls don’t get to tell those stories, while the publishing world gushes over a woman who dreamed hers up.

Ahhhh – who gets to tell what story? Whose stories are elevated? And by whom?

This kind of publicity is a publisher’s dream! Full disclosure: I haven’t yet read it. Though it is on my desk and has moved up in the queue.

Did Flatiron make the right decision to cancel the book tour after threats of violence? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem very courageous to me. If you’re truly concerned with violence, hire well-armed security. And be prepared for vigorous, spirited conversation. Which – thank God – we can have in this country. What do you think? “Town hall” style meetings are planned instead, which I think isn’t the worst idea ever. I’ll try to make it to one and report back, and please let me know if you go! No dates or locations have yet been announced.

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In other news: Parnassus Bookstore promises an intimate, engaging, and likely conflict-free event this Friday night February 7th from 6-8 pm. Debut author Georgia Hunter will be talking about her book “We Were The Lucky Ones,” a novel based on her own family’s experience in the Holocaust. Fellow UVA grads will gather to celebrate her and hear her. Non-UVA grads are welcome and encouraged to come!! Appetizers at 6 pm, book talk at 6:30, book signing 7:15.

Here are some excerpts from Elise Shiller’s interview with Georgia at Bookclubbabble:

From Elise: Georgia Hunter has written an epic novel, “We Were the Lucky Ones,” based on a true family story. Before World War II, her great-grandparents, Nechuma and Sol, owned a thriving business and with their five children, lived a comfortable life in Radom, Poland… Observant but not Orthodox Jews, they blended in with other upper-middle-class families, both Jewish and Polish, sending the children to private schools where most students were Catholic. But in 1939, as Nazi Germany is rising and the five children have begun their own families and careers, Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, and a short time later, by the Soviets from the east. Struggling to survive, the family is torn apart as each member responds as they must, fleeing, or hiding, or disguising themselves as non-Jews.

Georgia Hunter was unaware of this family history during her American childhood. She was close to her grandfather, who had renamed himself Eddy Courts (from Addy Kurc) when he arrived in the States. To her, he was a successful businessman, and a musician and composer. After his death in her mid-teens, Ms. Hunter was assigned a school project on family history, and interviewed her grandmother. This is when she discovered that her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. Five years later, she learned more at a family reunion, and the spark of this novel ignited.

Elise Schiller: Thank you for joining us. Can you describe the process of your research for “We Were the Lucky Ones”?

Georgia Hunter: Thank you for having me! The project of unearthing and writing my family’s Holocaust past has been a nine-year labor of love. It began in 2008 when I set off with a digital voice recorder to interview a relative in Paris. From there I flew to Rio de Janeiro and across the States, meeting with cousins and friends – anyone with a story to share. My family’s narrative took shape, at first, in the form of a timeline, which I peppered with historical details and color-coded by relative to help keep track of who was where/when.

Where there were gaps in my timeline, I looked to outside resources – to archives, museums, ministries, and magistrates around the world, in hopes of tracking down relevant information. Over time, and with the help of translators, I sent out queries in Polish, French, Russian, and German, little by little collecting details from organizations near and far, including a nine-page statement hand-written by one sibling, extensive military records for others, and (in perhaps my most treasured find) the first-hand accounts of three relatives who had since passed, captured on video by the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

ES: With so much truth underlying this novel, why did you make the decision to write this story as a novel rather than a work of non-fiction?

GH: My goal in writing “We Were the Lucky Ones” was not only to tell the story in a way that did the family justice, but that also allowed readers to step into my relatives’ shoes, to imagine for themselves what it meant to be a young Polish Jew on the run during the Second World War. And so while my narrative is based on actual people and real events, I decided in the end to allow myself the creative license to fictionalize it – to add those human, emotional details I wasn’t able to uncover in my research, such as what my characters were thinking and saying and feeling. I also opted to write the book in the present tense. These decisions, I hoped, would make the story feel less like a lesson in history, and more visceral, more relevant to today’s reader – and perhaps even bring the story even closer to the truth.

ES: You didn’t know that you were from a family of Holocaust survivors until you interviewed your grandmother in your mid-teens. Did she share why your grandfather hadn’t passed the stories on to his children?

GH: Yes, I was fifteen when, thanks to a high school English assignment, I sat down with my grandmother Caroline for an interview and discovered that I was a quarter Jewish, and that I came from a family of Holocaust survivors. I remember my grandmother explaining that my grandfather’s Polish/Jewish past wasn’t meant to be some big secret, but rather a chapter of his life he’d chosen to leave behind. He’d seen what his religion could have (should have, if left to the odds) done for his family – becoming an American, changing his name, and building a successful career, my grandmother said, were his ways of moving on, and of protecting his children.

ES: Were you raised as a Catholic?  How did finding out that you are a quarter Jewish impact you on a personal level?

GH: I was raised in the Unitarian Universalist church, although religion was never paramount in our home. I wonder often how knowing about my Jewish ancestry as a child might have shaped me as a person. I believe, however, that the shock of making the discovery later in life sparked an intense curiosity, and an insatiable thirst for answers – which in turn gave me the determination to commit myself (for the better part of a decade!) to the task of recording this chapter of my family history.

My grandfather opted not to talk openly about his religion or of the hardships he and his family endured, but I’m keenly aware today of those traits he did pass down. My grandfather taught me to be curious and resourceful; to never shy away from a challenge, no matter how insurmountable it may seem; to be a problem solver. He taught me to embrace the arts: language and music and culture. And perhaps most importantly, my grandfather taught me that nothing in the world is more important than family.

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