My Dark Vanessa and Excavation: Who Can Write (White) What?
By Ariane Dijckmeester
In the first half of 2020, Kate Elizabeth Russell made a splash in the literary scene, before her debut novel My Dark Vanessa had even been released. Russell’s novel, which depicts the disturbing and deeply psychological romance between a student and a teacher, was already set to be translated in twenty languages and big entertainment news outlets such as Buzzfeed, Amazon and even The New York Times couldn’t stop buzzing about it. Russell’s novel had been eighteen years in the making and she finally finished it as the dissertation for her PhD in creative writing. When Russell first got into contact with publishers about her work, she was mostly worried about coming across as a woman trying to ride the #MeToo wave. However, My Dark Vanessa would go on to get wrapped up in a much larger scandal involving appropriation and the question of who is allowed to tell which story.
Shortly before My Dark Vanessa’s publication, author Wendy Ortiz became vocal about the similarities of Russell’s debut with her memoir Excavation published in 2014. In Excavation, Ortiz accounts her own experience with abuse and grooming. Ortiz also made remarks about Russell’s lofty seven figure book deal and the fact that Russell is a white woman telling a story “eerily similar” to her own. Ortiz’s grievances were less about the possible plagiarism and rather had to do with the publishing industry as a whole. Even though both novels tell the story of an insecure, bookish teen falling for the charms of an older teacher that encourages them to write, Ortiz’s criticism centres around discrepancies by which white and minority writers are treated by the industry. When Ortiz was trying to get published, the feedback she kept receiving from editors was that her novel would not reach a very “wide audience” and that stories about sexual abuse were overdone. Russell’s novel had clearly been received in a very different and far more encouraging manner.
The discussion surrounding My Dark Vanessa (MDV), kickstarted by Ortiz, resulted in many people questioning Russell’s authority to write this story. The public picked and prodded at Russell, and she eventually revealed that she had her own experiences with sexual assault, like many women have, but that the story was ultimately fictional. In an interview with BBC radio Russell admits “it is interesting because I expected questions about this novel to come from a place of assuming it was autobiographical … and those questions are still coming, but they are also coming from the other angle of ‘are you the one to tell this story?’”.
Even though Russell is open about having used Excavation as research, among about eighty other works, and many critics have spoken out against the accusation of plagiarism, the scandal reached its zenith with Oprah Winfrey dropping MDV from her famous Book Club. The discussion surrounding MDV highlights the current climate regarding storytelling and the tensions that exists. Authors get critiqued when telling stories that are not their own, especially those from marginalized groups. However, there is also a push to make literature (and movies and TV-shows for that matter) more diverse and inclusive. Do we want diverse stories to be told or do we want authors to stick solely to their own experiences?
A phrase that can be heard all over social media, especially as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, is “I do not wish to speak for/over this group”. The consciousness of privilege, which voices are heard and which are silenced, is one that has been emerging for years. In our current time it seems to be more widespread than ever. Books that faced similar criticism showcase the prevalence of this debate in the current moment; it is almost impossible to discuss Russell’s scandal, without discussing Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt that came out shortly before MDV. Cummins’ novel got called out for cultural appropriation, for its flawed depiction of Mexican immigrants travelling to the US. The scandal surrounding American Dirt could also be seen as part of the reason why MDV encountered so much backlash since it had already stirred the pot so heavily.
Another recent example of a book facing criticism regarding appropriation is Colum McCann’s Apeirogon, which accounts the friendship of two fathers, one Palestinian and, one Israeli. Since McCann is an Irishman himself, obviously the topic of cultural appropriation came up, but McCann claims his intention was to celebrate, not to appropriate. This is of course not a recent issue. In 2018 Chris Morgan Jones had to justify his reasoning behind writing about a young Egyptian girl going to join ISIS in his novel The Good Sister, while being a white Englishman. And in 2019 Laura Lippman was asked who gave her the permission to write from the perspective of an African American in her novel Lady in the Lake.
The relationship of the author to the story they are telling has not always been of such great importance to the general public. In the sixties Roland Barthes popularized the notion of the death of the author and separating the art from the artist. It became widely understood that the author could only be criticised if their personal background and beliefs became noticeable in the text. Furthermore, a common way to justify books written about an experience not personal to the author was that it might not have happened to them, but it did happen to someone. Lastly, there was the argument that the emphasis on fact versus fiction was only a recent development in literature and that it only started to matter when it became common practice to put the writer’s name on the novel. Therefore “placing social value on concepts like authenticity is an invitation to manufacture them”. According to literary critic Louis Menand, authorial authenticity does not matter if the book feels authentic.
However, times have changed and authenticity is more important than ever. But the question of authenticity is not necessarily a recent thing. Authors like Jane Austen and Nathanial Hawthorne were already concerned with the topic of realism in their novels. Austen did not believe it was possible to write a good story if the author does not share the same background as its characters. Hawthorne sidesteps the question of authenticity in his novel set in Italy, by making it a complete fantasy, devoid of any factual representation. Still, in the past few years the debate has shifted from being solely about the ability to realistically portray a story that is not yours, to the ethics involved in doing so.
The argument about appropriation and who should tell which story is ongoing and opinions obviously differ greatly. A few years ago there seemed to be more resistance. In a 2016 article with The Guardian multiple authors shared their opinion, which varied from Lionel Shiver hoping it was a passing fad to Hari Kunzru viewing it as censorship. In a 2018 article with The New Yorker, Menand is of the opinion that writing about experiences different from one’s own is integral to what makes one a writer. Writer Chris Morgan Jones agrees, but stresses that in today’s climate it requires some good ground rules. On the other hand, more recently Jeannette Ng shared that white writers writing about an experience that is not theirs often betray themselves anyway, and it just reads awkwardly. It is clear however, that writers are currently very aware and considerate of this issue. For example, author Lydia Syson presumptuously geared up for a negative backlash when releasing her novel Mr Peacock’s Possessions because it was partly written from the perspective of a Pacific Islander.
Many weighing in on the topic seem to agree that what should be the most important question is if it is good writing, not if the book is appropriating. However, who decides if a book is good? Things aren’t considered valuable in a vacuum. This is decided by the culture and this culture is mostly decided by the gatekeepers of taste, namely the publishers, editors and critics. In 2015, children’s publisher Lee & Low Books did extensive research on the diversity of the publishing field in the US. Their data confirmed the suspicion of many: 79% of the industry was identified as white. In 2019 the data showed no significant change, and according to the survey’s author the field remains “just as white today as it was four years ago”. So, the issue lies not solely with the content of the books, but with which authors get selected to write about certain topics as well.
There is a movement to not speak for or over people, a push for authorial authenticity alongside a push towards diversity and inclusivity. This creates tension, because authors are asked to write inclusively yet also to not speak about an experience that is not theirs. Since the US publishing industry is still predominantly white, this would mean that there is a gap in representation. Therefore, only writing about one’s personal experience does not appear to be the answer.
The question is: how should writers navigate this issue? There is so much nuisance to a topic like this. In my opinion it should not be prohibited to write about another’s experience, but it is up to people of a dominant group, perhaps at this time, not to focus on their ability to tell a certain story but try and raise the voices of marginalized groups first. Writers of a dominant majority group might try to figure out how to lend a helping hand and check upon white privilege without feeling the need to give a voice to the “faceless brown mass”; that’s what Cummins claimed she wanted to achieve with American Dirt.
For too long minority voices have been restricted to their black or brown or gay experience only. While white, heterosexual writers have been free to write about any experience that suited their fancy. If writers do want to write about an experience that is not native to their own life, especially one that is sensitive, I believe it is best to follow the advice of author Kit de Waal, as set out in her article with The Irish Times. De Waal, who is half Irish and half Caribbean, describes which precautions a writer can take in order to not “dip your pen in somebody else’s blood”. Firstly, de Waal warns to be careful about blackface. Obviously in the most literal sense, but also figuratively. When writing about the other, one should stray away from using overdone and harmful stereotypes. Secondly, de Waal urges the writers to ask themselves what they are trying to accomplish with this piece of writing; why is their perspective necessary or relevant? Lastly, she highlights the tremendous importance of approaching these subjects with the utmost respect.
So, even though My Dark Vanessa is very well researched and objectively well written, it is understandable that in an environment made tender by the mess that was American Dirt, My Dark Vanessa caused outrage because Ortiz’s book was not given the same treatment by the industry, even though the content was similar. The dissimilarity between the reception of Excavation and My Dark Vanessa was yet another droplet in that ever overflowing cup of minority authors feeling invisible, passed-up and disrespected. However, the silver lining is that Wendy Ortiz has now experienced a resurgence of interest in her novel.
Ariane Dijckmeester is head of PR at RevUU and is currently pursuing a literary studies MA at Utrecht University. Ariane takes great interest in the children’s and young-adult genre, and specializes in viewing it through an intersectional feminist and post-colonial lens. Besides that, she is concerned with politics and current events and is part of the young Dutch socialists.
Author image by Lee Russell
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