As a white Anglo-Saxon protestant heterosexual male I understand that I am the oppressor. Being an unrepentant liberal, I therefore do my best to support non-white, LGBTQ people and women and try to be sensitive to the issues they face.

I do my best to be tolerant of all but the most intolerant, but I must confess I still occasionally have a problem with political correctness, especially as it pertains to art and the imagination.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

Back in 2016, for example, identity politics had the art world up in arms against painter Dana Schutz, a white artist who exhibited a painting of Emmett Till, the black child lynched in Mississippi back in 1955. She portrayed Till lying in his casket and some politically correct folks demanded that the Whitney Museum in New York remove and destroy the painting. How dare a white artist portray such an explosive moment in black history? The answer? The murder of Emmett Till was an explosive moment in American history.

This year we had a similar attack on Maine author Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive, Again,” the charge from Maine author Rhea Côté Robbins, director of the Franco-American Women’s Institute, being that “hatred of the French in Maine has moved to a more sophisticated, permission-given place, the fictions of Elizabeth Strout. The French in Maine are not presented in a sympathetic or empathetic portrayal but one that is laced with an egregiousness of the hatred of the regional ethnics identified as the ‘other.’”

Robbins’ complaint struck me as a protest in search of an issue. No one hates Franco-Americans anymore. These days they hate Somalis. The fact that a character in “Olive, Again” wrestles with having been called Frenchie growing up does not make Elizabeth Strout anti-Franco-American. Robbins doesn’t seem to be willing or able to make a distinction between the views of the author and the views of her characters. Olive Kittredge is not Elizabeth Strout.

Then there is the case of Mexican actress Salma Hayek, who was forced to apologize for promoting “American Dirt,” an Oprah’s Book Club selection by Jeanine Cummins, a white author who dared to write a novel about a Mexican woman coming to America.

Oprah, Stephen King and even Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros praised “American Dirt.” Cisneros called the novel “the international story of our times.” But Myriam Gurba, another Mexican-American writer, blasted the bestseller, writing, “A self-professed gabacha, Jeanine Cummins, wrote a book that sucks. Big time.”

Gabacha is a pejorative word Hispanics call white folks. So exactly who’s the prejudiced one here? And how does such a crude comment reflect on Gurba and her cause?

If we become so politically correct that only people who have had an experience are permitted to write about it, we become culturally impoverished. If only Franco-Americans can write about the Franco-American experience and only Mexicans can write about the Mexican experience, we are well on our way to the absurdity of only murderers writing murder mysteries.

“Olive, Again” and “American Dirt” are works of the imagination. Imagining the experience of “the other” is an empathetic act of art.

Novelist William Styron did not have to be a Jewish woman who was also a Holocaust survivor to write “Sophie’s Choice” or an African-American to write “The Confession of Nat Turner.” In fact, it was African-American writer James Baldwin who encouraged Styron to undertake the slave narrative.

“No one can tell a writer what he can and cannot write,” Baldwin argued, defending his buddy Styron.

No one should tell a writer what she can and cannot write, either.


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