Why I think you should read Laura Moriarty’s American Heart

Why I think you should read Laura Moriarty’s American Heart

Because I’m a fan of the Laura Moriarty’s novel The Chaperone, I “liked” her author page. That’s how I entered a drawing and got my hands on an ARC of American Heart; Moriarity asked if anyone wanted to take a look at her new novel, and I said, sure, why not? Please note that I’ve never met the author. We’re not even Facebook friends.

I glanced at the jacket copy:

A powerful and thought-provoking YA debut from New York Times bestselling author Laura Moriarty.

Imagine a United States in which registries and detainment camps for Muslim-Americans are a reality.

Fifteen-year-old Sarah-Mary Williams of Hannibal, Missouri, lives in this world, and though she has strong opinions on almost everything, she isn’t concerned with the internments because she doesn’t know any Muslims. She assumes that everything she reads and sees in the news is true, and that these plans are better for everyone’s safety.

But when she happens upon Sadaf, a Muslim fugitive determined to reach freedom in Canada, Sarah-Mary at first believes she must turn her in. But Sadaf challenges Sarah-Mary’s perceptions of right and wrong, and instead Sarah-Mary decides, with growing conviction, to do all she can to help Sadaf escape.

The two set off on a desperate journey, hitchhiking through the heart of an America that is at times courageous and kind, but always full of tension and danger for anyone deemed suspicious.

Eventually, I started reading and did what I always do: logged into Goodreads to update my reading progress. That’s when I saw what was happening.

I was immediately reminded of Kat Rosenfield’s recent Vulture article, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter.” 

Disclaimer

I’m a 49-year old white, cis-het, Midwestern woman. I’m a writer, a teacher of writing, an academic–much like the author herself. I think of myself as progressive–certainly more “woke” than most of the people with whom I grew up, but maybe not as much as others. Staying woke is why I write and why I teach. I want to learn, I want to do better, I want to be the best human being I can be.

And I really do want to understand the point of view of anyone *who has read this book* and believes that it is racist. And I hope you will try to understand my point of view as someone who has read the book and believes that it is not racist, although the main character is.

Sarah Mary as Huckleberry

Moriarty wants us to read American Heart as a novel that’s in conversation with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The main character Sarah Mary lives in Hannibal, MO, and her name rhymes with “Huckleberry.”Her best friend is Tess/Tom, and she’s got a crap parent, too. There are plenty of other parallels, too, and and at times, Sarah Mary’s voice even has the cadence of Huck’s.

I taught Huck Finn in my American literature classes for many years because I believe that it gets at the heart of the American problem: institutionalized racism and white privilege, systems that are so woven into the fabric of our society that they’ve completely warped our sense of what’s right and wrong.

Twain once described Huckleberry Finn as a book in which “a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers a defeat.”

Huck believes that turning in his friend Jim (what his conscience says) is what’s right, and that helping him escape (what his heart says) is what’s wrong–so wrong that he honestly believes he will go to hell for it. Hence that famous, satirical, so-sad-you-have-to-laugh line, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”

There are plenty of things wrong with Huck Finn, most egregiously the use of the n-word, Jim’s depiction and dialect, and the crappy ending, but there are things right with it, too. It always got my students talking and thinking about their own warped consciences. I know that in at least a few instances, Huck Finn gave my students courage to follow their hearts.

(How did my African-American students feel about Huck Finn? No one ever refused to read it, but I know it made them uncomfortable. And honestly, if I ever get to teach American lit again, I don’t know if I’d assign this book. I’m torn about that.)

Sarah Mary conscience has been warped by the Islamophobia of her family and her culture, and yes, it’s hard to read the first third of the book from the point of view of someone who is hateful in the same clueless and callous way as so many Americans. What I *hope* happens when young people and adults read this book is a shock of recognition: Sarah Mary’s “casual” Islamophobia is their own.

Other Dystopian Fiction

I also think of this book in conversation with the TV adaptations of The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale.

While I love the “resistance” subplots of these shows, I also find myself fascinated by the hateful, authoritarian characters who are in power. How do authoritarians think, how do they rationalize their actions, and how does that thinking make its way into the culture and the hearts and minds of the people?

Because man oh man, we need to try to understand that so that we can be agents of change.

“People Like That”

I remember in graduate school, I wrote a story about a character who believes that abortion is sin. She learns that her daughter has had an abortion and is trying to figure out how to respond. Now, I’m firmly pro-choice, but my character was not, just like so many people I knew growing up, and it felt important to me for that sake of that story to try to understand that point of view.

I remember a woman in my workshop saying, “I’m sure that there are people like this in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about them.” That was 25 years ago, but I’ve never forgotten that moment.

Did she mean that:

A.) Should the story be published, she’d opt not to read it?

B.) The story should never be published?

C.) The story should never even be written at all?

Those are the questions I think we’re asking ourselves re: American Heart.

If your answer is B or C, then I please, help me understand that point of view, because personally, I think that’s censorship and very, very un-American.

If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine. Let’s talk about why.

But, like Colonel Sherburn in Huck Finn, I’m not going to engage with a mob. That’s the “pitifulest thing” because they don’t “fight with the courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass.”

Further Reading, Further Doing

Follow Up

I’m writing this on Sunday morning, the day after I first posted. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the responses I’ve been getting and seeing on Moriarty’s FB page.

I don’t believe that the “YA Twitter” community is nothing but “toxic drama.” They accomplished this!

I’m do care that Muslim readers have said how deeply this book offended them. I care about that lot. This is why I included my disclaimer–I can’t know what it’s like to read this book as someone else, and we must listen to their concerns.

Frequently these days, college instructors assign novels that students say they don’t want to read. Is there a difference between a religious student balking at this LGBTQ novel and an African-American student balking at that novel about slavery? There shouldn’t be. We say to these students, “This is an important book. I’m sorry that it makes you uncomfortable, but I need you to read it.”

So is American Heart an important book? Maybe.

These months before a book comes out are so crucial. The book gets made somewhere in a book bindery, but it’s moving down a different kind of conveyer belt, too, not the physical book, but rather how people feel about the book. And that is also very much a made thing.

Critical reviews play an important role in how we “pass sentence” on a book, but these days, community reviews matter a whole lot, too. Publishers want to create as much good buzz as they can. Heck, I teach literary citizenship and show my students how to participate in this vetting process! I show them how to join a digital community and make the world a better place for books.

But this situation with American Heart is something else. This is activism. This is getting involved in the vetting process as early as possible. This is not letting the cultural gatekeepers have the final say on what’s good literature and what’s not. Kirkus, for example, is one of the most respected pre-publication review venues; their reviews help libraries, bookstores, and media outlets decide what to pay attention to. The fact that Kirkus removed its starred review of American Heart demonstrates that the online activism against this book has done its job–it’s blown up the conveyor belt and disrupted the usual channels through which books are vetted.

Michael Cader said that “publishing is a tiny industry perched atop a massive hobby.” And these days, everyone in that massive hobby is connected in ways they’ve never been before. They have power to disrupt the tiny industry. Heck, they have the power to bypass the tiny industry altogether and create their own tiny industry and vet and buy their own damn books if they want. I think that’s really exciting, and I want my students to be a part of that.

But I also want really good reviewers at Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly to weigh in and tell me what they think, too. I don’t have time to read every book for myself. I barely had time to read American Heart! I need people I trust to tell me what I should pay attention to. I certainly pay attention to what an online community says, but I also need good book reviewers, too.

The fact that Kirkus–one of my most trusted outlets–has removed their review chills me to the bone.

So is American Heart an important book? How will we ever figure this out now?

Free Speech

This post started off as my Goodreads review of American Heart, but it’s also written in the spirit of a new writing initiative in my department, “What to Write About.” Last week, the prompt was “free speech,” and I think this book and the controversy surrounding it speaks directly to that topic. Here’s an article about why freedom of expression on college campuses is important, and here’s the other side of that argument about restricting hate speech.

Writing

14 comments

  1. Kiersi Burkhart says:

    Consider that most of the people speaking out against this book ARE women of color who have read it. Many are young Muslim women on Twitter. They are already out there talking about how it hurt them and why, like you’re asking about—just tune in and listen to them.

    For example, Justina Ireland has a great post about this book after reading it: https://medium.com/@justinaireland/american-heart-huck-finn-and-the-trap-of-white-supremacy-f7e132b2430b

    To start out by saying “I’m a cis white middle-aged Midwestern woman,” and then to call the people of color on Twitter who find the book dehumanizing a “mob”… maybe consider how dismissive that is? You are standing on one side of this—I found your post through someone who is a friend of the author. Consider that she, too, is a cis, white, middle-aged woman who is feeling attacked by people’s opposition to her book. White people, when feeling attacked by people of color, have a very powerful, knee-jerk reaction. I see it over and over every time there’s a dust-up like this: white woman writes book she has no business writing, people of color are upset and hurt, white woman plays victim.

    I am a white woman myself. We ALL need to get better about our hyper-sensitive reactions to receiving criticism from people of color. It is up to us to manage our feelings, not them.

    As to your “please explain to me” question: People of color are clearly explaining, on Twitter, why they object to this book. And instead of listening to them, they are called a “toxic drama mob.” (All very common accusations levied against women of color who speak out.)

    There is no mob there, by the way. Just people—mostly marginalized people—who have voices, and have decided to use them to make positive change. It is not “censorship” for educated, well-read people to object to a book because it pushes harmful narratives. “Censorship” is official government action intended to redact or silence.

    People are free to write bad books, and other people are free to object to them. To shout censorship whenever people object to a book is disingenuous, and minimizes what real censorship is, and is almost always used to silence people of color speaking out against narratives that harm them and their communities.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thank you. I will keep thinking about this. And for what it’s worth, civil disagreement, like yours, isn’t what I meant by “mob.” Rather, I mean something more like dragging.

      • Kiersi Burkhart says:

        That’s fair. And thank you for listening to what I have to say, Cathy.

        However, I still think that what white women generally perceive as “dragging” or “bullying” is rarely that. It’s hard existing in the internet age, as you point out in your update this morning; lots of normal people having normal conversations about your work in such a public sphere can feel like a full frontal attack.

        But that isn’t the fault of the readers having the discussion. As readers, that’s their right—to discuss the merits of books. It is certainly not up to authors to barge in and police what readers say and do in regards to their books.

        But when white women’s feelings are hurt, the claws come out. I see it daily on Twitter.

        I’m an author of four published novels, and two upcoming novels. I know that once I’ve put it out there, it’s done, and I have to accept responsibility for whatever I’ve written and put out in the world. Authors should not be injecting themselves into the reader conversation; I find that doing so is incredibly “chilling” of discussion. (In fact, whenever white authors have meltdowns like this, it seems that it only attracts even more negative attention to them and their work.)

        If an author is feeling “dragged,” that is *not the reader’s problem.* The author should log off if they can’t keep themselves away. The old wisdom among us writers used to be, “Don’t engage! Don’t engage!” But for some reason, white authors can’t seem to help themselves from engaging. Right when they should be taking a step back and thinking about what’s being said and why, they are throwing tantrums because the people they are supposedly writing for have said they didn’t like how they were written about.

        If a writer can’t handle readers having responses to their books, maybe that person should reconsider publishing books at all.

        In regards to feeling “chilled” by Kirkus taking down their star: I find it quite heartening that for once, Kirkus has listened to marginalized people. Kirkus has demonstrated a number of times that they are overwhelmingly white and generally oblivious to cultural issues. I have stored up a laundry list of glowing reviews and stars that Kirkus has given to overtly racist and sexist books. They are not well-known in the marginalized community for their sensitivity or knowledge. (Recently, they called a feminist book about a teen girl activist as “sexist towards men”—if that’s not tone deaf, I don’t know what is.)

        Kirkus is not infallible, and again, they are entrenched in whiteness. The fact that they reconsidered their review rather than digging their heels into their whiteness gives me hope.

        I encourage our literary institutions to listen and learn and improve, rather than upholding whiteness; and to acknowledge when they have made mistakes.

        • James Logan says:

          Fair enough on the defensiveness of white women, but it was also a Muslim WoC who gave the Krikus review. Do you know if any of these other books went through the same process and were reviewed by marginalized people, or is this a somewhat new thing for them? I’m honestly curious.

          • I would love to hear the reader’s *genuine* opinion for myself. It is a new thing at Kirkus to have marginalized reviewers reading content about them. Booklist is also doing it. (e.g. recently, a Latinx reviewer slammed Maggie Stiefvater’s new book about Latinx people for its racist tropes and her obvious lack of knowledge about the language and culture, and I appreciated a Latinx person getting to weigh in.)

            It’s impossible to know what happened from the outside, but it’s important to stress just how white-dominated the literary establishment—like Kirkus—is. And the pressure when you’re the “token” voice (which likely this reviewer was, being that it was Kirkus) to go with the flow and not upset the white establishment that keeps you employed is quite strong.

            Generally when POC, particularly POC women, make an objection to something everyone else (white) likes, it doesn’t go well for them. In the literary industry, with such tight publication timelines, there’s always a below-the-surface pressure to nod and give problematic things the pass because it’s easier and less likely to lose you your job. I fought editors and marketing people the entire way while writing my latest book just for characters that weren’t all straight and white.

            I definitely think that Kirkus reviews are getting better since they started being aware of diversity issues and getting reviewers affected by the content to read that content.

            I doubt that their revoking of the positive review was done without consulting the original reviewer.

          • Mary Brennan says:

            So which review was this anonymous reviewer pressured to write out of tokenism? The original review or the revised one after the entrenched whiteness over at the reviewers reviewed her review?

            Not everyone was going to agree with her, and not everyone has to. But if we’re going to stand up and say that marginalized populations deserve a voice and that we need more reviewers of color, we can’t also say that we can override their opinions once given. Marginalized groups are not monolithic.

        • I agree 100% with Kiersi.

          I refused to read the book on the basis of these reviews, but also on personal reasons. I nearly converted several years ago, and studied Islam profusely. So when I see specific comments about the book from readers regarding generic character design, lack of world-building, etc, I already have a good feeling of what’s there. Because I’ve been there before. Some of the basic character elements mentioned, for example, being an ambiguous “Persian” immigrant and lack of distinctive character makes me wonder about the amount of research, canvassing, etc, put in prior to writing. And even if she wanted to stick with the “work camp” concept, there are many ways she could have given Muslim characters agency in the story. In fact, she could have gone far more in depth.

          She shouldn’t be engaging or deleting comments from her public FB post. She should be promoting Muslim authors work. That would probably end 98% of “dragging” and people would see her as honest/authentic. She’s handling the situation poorly as it is. And the fact that she didn’t anticipate this shows how disconnected she is from her book’s content. When you write a Muslim character in the US in regards to islamophobia, you are entering a traumatized and politicized space. A critical eye from Muslims should be expected.

          I understand her good intentions. But there are many concrete objections to this book. We all use reviews to help use decide what to read or what not to read. The fact that others are being condemned for avoiding the book/voicing concerns based on reviews is ridiculous.

          • “She should be promoting Muslim authors’ work.”

            THIS. This this this this. Any goodwill Moriarty might have earned if she had just said, “I’m sorry” was completely lost when she started attacking and blocking the same people she claims this book is FOR.

            The good intentions she claimed when she chose to wrote this book disappear under the weight of how she has responded to criticism.

  2. Adiba Jaigirdar says:

    “But I also want really good reviewers at Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly to weigh in and tell me what they think, too. I don’t have time to read every book for myself.”

    Have you ever considered that there is a serious lack of reviewers of colour within the book industry? That this isn’t the first time a book that is hurtful and harmful has passed under the radar (in recent times) and been hailed as ‘important’ or what have you? And nor will it be the last time?
    That people in book community who have come up against this over and over again. The fact that you put so much faith and trust in – by the way – an anonymous Kirkus review is telling of this flawed industry, but also the fact that people buy into this with little to no thought for those who are constantly getting the short end of the stick. There are people who have read, and have been talking about why American Heart (and other books) are harmful, but they don’t get spaces in Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly. Maybe people need to reconsider who they ‘trust’ when they want to read a book because marginalised reviewers are out there. You just have to watch out for them.

    Second, I would sincerely love to ask what you think you are contributing to this topic. Why you think you can read posts by women of colour about why you shouldn’t read American Heart, and why it’s hurtful, but write this post entitled why you should read American Heart directly countering women of colour (and specifically Muslim women) with no engagement with them at all. You say that you want to understand our point of view. Our views are out there. You just have to find them, read them, engage with them. It seems you are more inclined to put your point of view out there, with little consideration of ours.

    Lastly, I’ve been hearing a lot about how this is an ‘important book’ and I’d like to ask – for whom? For racist, white Americans who need to be spoonfed about how they should view Muslim as human? Or for actual Muslims who are living in a world where they see/face discrimination on almost a daily basis? As a Muslim, I can already tell you that it’s not for the latter.

  3. Cathy Day says:

    I want to thank everyone for their comments here. I’m really sorry that I haven’t responded. I’m an administrator in my department, and it’s been very busy (unexpectedly so) these last few days. I want to make sure I give a meaningful response, and that might not happen until this weekend. I didn’t want you to think I was ignoring a conversation that I started! Thank you for your patience.

  4. Sharon says:

    Wow American Heart has certainly brought up some strong, diverse opinions. As a bookseller I’m keen to read this one as I wouldn’t want to recommend it to anyone it may offend and to have my own opinion on it.

    Thank you for the review and to those who took the time to comment.

    It’s certainly bumped American Heart up my list of to read books.

    BTW I’m a white British woman who has spent some time (5 years) living in a Muslim country.

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