We don’t give voice to anyone

Last week there was this whole fiasco about the novel American Dirt, a novel about the Mexican migrant experience who received flak from the Latinx community due to the tones of appropriation and the dehumanisation of the Mexican experience as portrayed in the book. It was written by Jeanine Cummins who isn’t Mexican and whose lines in the book include, “Lydia notices that her arms are as tan as childhood. Luca, too, is a shade browner than usual…” and whose personal anecdotes include “I don’t want to write about race“, and that her wish that “someone slightly browner than me would write it”. A NYTimes reviewer called the book ‘determinedly apolitical‘ — how could it when all reading is political and it is especially a book of which theme revolves around the subject of border crisis? It was made worse when the book made it for Oprah book club, of whose book party presents the guests with barbed wire adornment on their table, “to evoke ‘border chic’.”

One of the most valuable things I learned from joining academia and especially social sciences was the opportunity to interrogate my own previous uninformedness and biases, as well as learning how to re-centre the voices of those who needed to be heard. This is why I found that I could not read ‘fluff’ materials anymore, or if there is such thing as ‘fluff’ or ‘lowbrow’ subjects, as I would tend to analyse these materials and place it in the various contexts of when, where, and whom the materials were created for. I felt like if the publishing team (and the author) made an effort to ask a set of questions especially ones regarding identity, representation, exploitation, and the potentials of harm — among many others — before deciding to write and publish this book, or any book, both the author and the readers would have had the opportunity to be introduced to a more sensitive, inclusive, and respectful work.

William Lopez, a PhD holder whose interests include the issues of immigration, wrote an excellent Medium post on the responsibility of social scientists to be mindful of positioning our work in a respectful, honest, authentic, and powerful ways (emphasis mine):

As social scientists, our work is meant to counter systems of injustice and inequity, and addressing issues of identity, representation, commodification, and authenticity are fundamental parts of this work.

Own your identity in your writing, whether as an insider, an outsider, or something in between. This also means that you must acknowledge your privilege and actively work to articulate and address how it impacts your data collection, your interpretation, and your dissemination.

We don’t “give voice” to anyone. Claiming to “give voice” belies an assumption that those on behalf of whom we work have no voice themselves. The problem, then, is not that these voices don’t exist, it’s that society either actively chooses to ignore them, or, worse, actively silences them.

We must bring discussions of violence and trauma into the foreground with respect, reverence, and responsibility.

Also related, Alexander Chee’s three questions as answers to questions posed to him from an audience during a writers’ conference, “Do you have any advice for writing about people who do not look like you?”

  • Why do you want to write from this characters’ point of view?
  • Do you read writers from this community currently?
  • Why do you want to tell this story?

Also, time to revamp our bookshelves so they no longer contain stories about people who only look like us, or predominantly white. Time to read widely.

Currently reading (and thinking):


  • Reading: Mark Fisher’s Capitalism Realism, “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”
  • Viewing: This documentary on Netflix called Don’t F**k with Cats, which is, even though originating from the subject of animal abuse, much to my relief did not depict the abuse at all, but then… it was about something else. Watch it.
  • Listening: Rachel’s, a chamber group from Louisville, Kentucky.
  • Food & Drink: Went to have my favourite bihun sup (vermicelli noodle soup) and ais kacang (shaved ice), 20 minutes drive away from home.

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  1. Pingback: Dinosaurs in love – Two Kinds of Intelligence

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