© 2023 by Amber Shockley. 

  • Amber Shockley

Excavating American Dirt: My anxiety as a white writer does not help.

Over the last several weeks, I have witnessed responses to two specific incidents of the publishing industry actively white-washing literature. Coats of paint numbered in the seven figures, for each. When you realize that the mainstream industry can afford that amount of paint, and that they keep buying the same shade, over and over again, you begin - just begin - to fathom the maddeningly ludicrous experiences of minority writers. It is important that white writers, that writers of any privilege, work beyond worry to become helpful in moving literature forward rather than remaining a stagnant part of the problem.

American Dirt and My Dark Vanessa

Critics mark American Dirt as an appropriative romance-thriller that was churned out in typical mass market style - without any detectable regard for or consideration of Latinx writers' talents to deftly, accurately tell migrant experience.

A more acute incident, Wendy C. Ortiz chronicles her experience trying to gain traction for Excavation, her memoir of sexual abuse perpetrated upon her by her teacher, which editors praised but didn't want to purchase until a white woman wrote it.

Anger and Anxiety

Learning about these incidents, and reading the righteously outraged responses from marginalized writers, activists and readers, I experienced the immediate, heated indignation that drives retweeting, but doesn't ultimately lead to the deep, personal change and growth needed to make a start toward dismantling then reassembling institutions so that they amplify not just my voice, but the voices of all peoples who share this earth.

To be an effective participant in that dismantling, I have to first get past my own anxieties. It is my responsibility, as a white writer, to identify and address those anxieties. It is not the responsibility of any marginalized person, group, or representative thereof to console me, inform me, or accept me.

Sins and Shouting

My chapbook, A Brief Catalog of Common People, is a collection of character story-poems. The only thing the characters have in common is that they are not me. I wrote completely, totally, utterly out of my lane. I tried to speak voices that were not my own, that were of a gender, age, sexual orientation, race, profession, ability, size, shape and/or religion that is not my lived experience. If I found that my poetry had hurt or offended someone who had lived those experiences, the temptation would be to cover myself with the shield of intention - I didn't mean to hurt anybody. In fact, I consciously attempted to rebuke stereotypes, to carefully craft presentations that provoke rather than rely on lazy narratives, as all cries for due diligence outline*. Still, care and due diligence isn't the be-all-and-end-all. There's no such thing as a permanent, earned pass that absolves me from listening to and validating people who really exist from and in points of view I've attempted to portray, even and especially if they offer criticism. There is no defense, there is no shield from that. Ever. It is my responsibility to hear it, without shield, without dagger, before beginning to write, while writing, and after publishing my work.

In light of this truth, some of us use knee-jerk extremism to justify our panic, declaring that our creativity is being stifled. This is a red herring. No one is stopping anyone from creating. The real fear is losing the privilege of having our particular creative offerings successfully published, either because we have not taken the suggested care* when writing about those who differ from us, or because we worry that there is no longer an appetite for stories of or from our own experience. It's the "illegals are taking our jobs" of the literary world, a scarcity mindset when the resource - interest in, and market for, carefully crafted narratives from all voices, of all voices - is as plentiful as air. We stand in shallow water shouting that we're drowning.

Writers of privilege - be it the privilege of color, coin, or creed - all have everything to gain, and nothing to lose, from increasing the care we take when writing outside of our own experience, from hearing and recognizing the importance of criticism from members of communities we portray in our writing, and from amplifying marginalized writers.

*Some resources:

Writing Outside Your Experience: Handle With Care

How to Write Across Difference

American Dirt Is A Problem. So What's The Solution?