Last week, the Moorishgirl blog posted a link to an article by Margaret Drabble entitled Only Correct. The article provided a history of the road to publication of Drabble's novel, The Red Queen, and the author's defense of her book against "accusations of Orientalism and cultural appropriation, of ignorance, cynicism and plagiarism."
Drabble's essay got me to thinking about cultural appropriation in Chicana/o Literature, and that thinking eventually led me to reading again about the strange and sad cases of Danny Santiago and Amado Muro.
Here's what Joyce Carol Oates wrote about the Danny Santiago affair in "Success and the Pseudonymous Writer: Turning Over A New Self" in the New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1987:
"In 1984 the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded one of its distinguished fiction prizes to a new and presumably young Chicano writer named Danny Santiago, for his first novel, Famous All Over Town. Subsequent to the award it was revealed, with some embarrassment, that the newly discovered Chicano writer was not Chicano at all: 'Danny Santiago' turned out to be the pseudonym of seventy-three-year-old Daniel James, author of several previously published books, and better known as a playwright and screenwriter; and a former Communist Party member who had been blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s. By his account, James wrote Famous All Over Town as a consequence of his experience doing volunteer social work in Mexican-American districts of Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, and chose to publish it under a Hispanic pseudonym because he had lost confidence in his own writing ability. Yet it is plausible to assume that he chose 'Santiago' over 'James' because, while writing the novel which is narrated by the fourteen-year-old Chicano boy he felt closer to 'Santiago' than to 'James.'
(Though Famous All Over Town alone should have been the issue, and not its author's identity, the awards committee confessed that they might have had second thoughts about giving the novel their prize, had they known its author was 'Anglo' and not 'Chicano.')"
The Simon & Schuster editor who bought Santiago's book stated that the author had hidden his identity and masqueraded as a Chicano (using Chicano slang in his letters to the editor) and, even after his identity had been exposed, expressed his intention to continue writing as Danny Santiago. He died before he completed another book.
Famous All Over Town is still in print and still for sale.
Amado Muro presents a slightly different situation. Muro was really Chester Seltzer, Kenyon College educated and son of Louis B. Seltzer, editor of the Cleveland Press for a number of years. When Seltzer was not riding the rails, he lived in El Paso with his Mexican wife and his two sons, where he died suddenly in 1971. It was not until 1977 that The Collected Stories of Amado Muro was published.
Muro incurred the wrath of Chicano poet/icon Ricardo Sánchez. He wrote at least two articles that blasted Muro and Muro's pretense. In fairness, Sánchez delivered a good deal of criticism at "Chicano academics" who had embraced Muro as a shining star of Chicano Lit, when, according to Sánchez, it was obvious Muro was not a Chicano. Here's a bit of what Sánchez wrote:
"Chicano literature can only be written by Chicanos, for only Chicanos understand the nuance of the Chicano way of life from a living/feeling/existential/experiential perspective-others can write about how they observe us, but they cannot possibly know why and how we valuate life, for that is a cultural/linguistic process. Muro made cultural/ linguistic mistakes that any Chicano from the barrio-or even from academe should have heuristically picked up and exposed: in one of his better known short stories about Chihuahuita sitting down at breakfast to eat mondongo, which he alludes to as being a traditional breakfast for them. Any Chicano who knows something about Raza foods and regionalizations in regards to customs, language, etc., would immediately recognize that cultural fallacy-for mondongo is not Mexican nor Chicano, IT IS PUERTORICAN! Having traveled among Boricuas in New England in 1970, I had been introduced to mondongo, which is a stew. Now Seltzer née Muro (whose wife was Amada Muro, which is where he acquired the name) probably meant to talk about menudo, but figured that mondongo and menudo being stews and both had Spanish names, why no one would know the difference. Not too many in academia, which is the only place where he was widely read, realized that the great short story writer from El Paso was really another rip off artist passing himself as brown and trying to be just as greasy as us regular meskins. That was a real trip, a quemada maxima; the kind of trick that coyote/pícaro types can appreciate."
Drabble certainly never hid her identity, nor did she pretend that she was Korean. In today's publishing world, the accusation of appropriation usually is not aimed at such blatant examples as Santiago and Muro. Now we are confronted with authors of all races and ethnicities who openly write characters from other races and ethnicities, often with some claim to sensitivity and accuracy, and, occasionally, as Drabble has done, as part of the fight against "American political correctness" and the "multicultural censor." Excellent and not so excellent writers have circumvented Dr. Sánchez's rules that "Chicano literature can only be written by Chicanos" and that "only Chicanos understand the nuance of the Chicano way of life."
My own view is that anyone can write anything he or she wants. Go ahead and include that ethnic character in your book so that it has the feel of authenticity. Throw in a couple of Spanish swear words and a bit of Caló. Make your protagonist a single, Latina female because your agent assures you that is what the NY editors are looking for - but be ready for heat if you get it wrong. Stereotypes, subtle racism, paternalism, and naiveté are products of bad writing. If one prefers, call the bad writing cultural appropriation or exploitation or simply "another rip off artist passing himself as brown and trying to be just as greasy as us regular meskins." Just don't call it Chicano Literature.