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Who can tell stories?

February 17, 2020

Members of ASU's humanities faculty weigh in on controversial fiction

Artistic expression has always been a catalyst for discussion in society. It can open up talks about fears, hopes, passions, identity, politics and race, and these are some of the topics circulating around the controversial new novel "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins. 

The novel follows a mother and son who are fleeing to America, escaping a drug cartel in Mexico that killed the rest of their family. Over 18 days, the two of them dodge enemies who are part of the cartel and make their way to the very dangerous “La Bestia,” a train that travels the length of Mexico. 

When the book is boiled down, it depicts a perilous journey to find safety in the U.S., but the author describes a bigger purpose in her four-page author’s note at the end of the book — and that's where the controversy begins. 

Cummins writes how she doesn’t like to see migrants coming to the U.S. depicted as “an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep.” Her hope, she writes, was to bring a face to those people and to help her readers see them as human. She also wrote she wished someone “browner” had written the story. 

While the novel has garnered much praise — a seven-figure bidding battle between publishing houses, a movie option prior to the book’s release and a place in Oprah Winfrey's book club — it has come under attack by many for the way it depicts the migrant experience.

So who gets to write these stories? And why is there so much backlash for this particular book?

Articles in the Atlantic and NPR criticize the way the book fetishizes migrants’ struggles while disregarding the true trauma migrants face on their way to the U.S., when they arrive and once they are granted access. They also point out how the characters come from a well-off, middle-class family, which could make the audience question the migrant journey the mother and son take. 

“A middle-class woman with the economic resources to both fly and obtain a tourist visa to the U.S. would definitely not have crossed the entirety of Mexico — from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast — to ride ‘La Bestia,’” said Arizona State University history Associate Professor Alexander Aviña. “The migrants braving the Sonoran Desert or 'La Bestia’ are the poorest, from the Mexican and Central American working classes, who can generally only afford to pay ‘coyotes’ or smugglers who will take them into the U.S.”

Aviña, whose research in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies focuses on Latin American history, points out the vast majority of Central American migrants in recent years are asylum seekers and refugees who didn’t try to avoid Border Patrol. This is also true of Mexican migrants who are increasingly seeking asylum as a result of drug violence.

Another point of contention from the book's critics is that Cummins specifically uses Mexican migrants to drive her narrative, when in recent years there has been an increase of Central American migrants. Aviña sees this as a minor criticism for the novel. Instead, he sees a bigger issue in how the author of "American Dirt" peddles a romanticized version of trauma to cater to a white American audience that crosses political lines.

"[Cummins] uses Trumpian depictions of Mexico that appeal even to white liberal Americans who may know little to nothing about Mexico but feel pangs of guilt for the atrocities we've seen at the border in the last six to eight years — caging of children, separation of families, deaths of children while under ICE and Border Patrol custody,” said Aviña. “The ‘white gaze’ that operates in the novel essentially works off of Trumpian depictions of Mexico and Mexicans.”

One of the main arguments against the novel is that by not accurately portraying the political and historical intricacies that come along with migration, the author further pushes a false narrative about those coming to the U.S.

Along with heavier criticisms, such as romanticizing the trauma of her characters, others have focused on Cummins’ writing style and execution. 

New York Times review of the book describes the novel as having awkward sentences, predictable plotlines and characters who are “thin creations.” It also poses the question, does the shallowness of the book garner as much attention as the larger themes?

Claudia Sadowski-Smith is a professor in the Department of English. She specializes in late 20th- and 21st-century multiethnic U.S. literature, immigration studies, border studies and fiction of the U.S. Southwest. 

“To me, the problem with 'American Dirt' is not so much that an author of Puerto Rican heritage wrote about Mexican migration or that the novel is formally not perfect and that better work is not being published,” Sadowski-Smith said. “The novel has been marketed and blurbed as though other cultural productions about U.S.-Mexico migration, both by Latinx and by non-Latinx authors, do not really exist.”

She points out there are many novels written by non-Chicanx authors that have not received the same level of attention or scrutiny, such as T. Coraghessan Boyle’s "The Tortilla Curtain," Susan Straight’s "Highwire Moon" and John Vaillant's "The Jaguar’s Children."  

“Maybe that is also key to the controversy surrounding 'American Dirt,' but it has not yet been articulated in this way,” said Sadowksi-Smith. “Aside from this, 'American Dirt' is, to me, most problematic because of its content. The novel links Mexican migration primarily to Mexican drug cartels and in this way absolves U.S. economic and immigration policy of its role in contributing to Mexican migration.”

This doesn’t mean Sadowski-Smith thinks authors who write about situations and groups of people they are not fully immersed in shouldn’t write those stories. She says, as long as those authors conduct sufficient research and write those experiences with respect and knowledge, authors can have the creative freedom to write what they like. 

“To my mind, the best creative work also uses artistic and plot devices that clearly mark the writers’ relationship to their subject matter, as an outsider, for example, rather than ignoring the particularity of that position,” said Sadowski-Smith. 

Many people see fiction as a way to gain insight into the lives of others or to understand situations they are far removed from. So when people read about different circumstances, even in fiction, they expect to be provided with accurate information. When it doesn’t, they are let down. 

But fiction requires a suspension of disbelief, and readers could allow for inaccuracies in stories. But how many mistakes are too many?

Michelle Saint, a philosophy lecturer in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies who specializes in the philosophy of fiction, argues that these mistakes may be purely an aesthetic flaw, but sometimes inaccurate portrayals can be a moral flaw as well.

“This is particularly the case when authors present inaccurate portrayals of socially oppressed individuals,” said Saint. “We aren’t confronted with nonwhite perspectives as often as white ones, or transgender perspectives as often as cisgenderPeople whose gender identity matches the sex they were identified as having at birth. ones, etc. So there are substantial social forces that encourage us to see oppressed groups as stereotyped objects, rather than living, complex people.

“We have to acknowledge that having good intentions doesn’t protect you from harming others, and it doesn’t protect you from being morally criticized for the harm that you have done.”

According to Saint, artistic expression is presented within specific social and political contexts, but not everyone in our society has the same opportunity to participate in these conversations. 

“The moral wrong Cummins committed, I believe, wasn’t really in her telling of stories but instead in her listening,” said Saint. “She was an insufficient listener, and that is what led to the problems in her novel. And if you want to tell stories about those whose voices are different from your own, and especially if you intend to tell stories about those who have less power in society than you yourself have, you have to start by being a good story-listener.”

Saint says it’s important that authors trust the voices of those who are affected by their narratives and actively seek out the voices that are often ignored. 

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator , School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

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'Choose your own adventure' approach trains new ambassadors for tricky decisions

February 17, 2020

Imagine you are a U.S. ambassador, and a new government has been installed in your host country. Your job is to help ensure free and fair elections, which are under threat. Should you send your staff if they might be in danger? What risks do you take to protect the elections?

This situation is one of five that new ambassadors will face in a training program developed by ASU Decision Theater and the American Academy of Diplomacy, in partnership with the Una Chapman Cox Foundation.

Though the scenario is fictional, real diplomatic work is filled with similar dilemmas — precrisis situations that have the potential to escalate. However, most ambassador training focuses on how to handle a situation only after it becomes a crisis, rather than how to prevent a crisis altogether.

The new training program aims to fill this gap and better equip our country’s foreign service leaders.

It brings new ambassadors together with seasoned mentors to go through simulations of precrisis situations, which ask the trainees to make decisions and prompt discussion.

“What’s different about it is it’s an experiential learning, highly engaged training session to get ambassadors to think about solving problems before they become a crisis,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, executive director of the Decision Theater.

DT provides data visualization, analytics and interactive models that drive informed discussion. It brings together researchers, policymakers and community members of different perspectives to work through complex societal issues.

The American Academy of Diplomacy is an organization dedicated to improving American diplomacy and educating the public about its importance.

“A lot of the work overseas is about how you balance risk with what you’re trying to do, and how you make those kinds of decisions, which may go on for a very long time,” said retired Ambassador Ronald Neumann, president of the AAD.

Freakley was the commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, during which time Neumann was the ambassador to Afghanistan, so the two already knew each other before teaming up to tackle the ambassador training program.

Ask the experts

“When AAD first conceived the training and suggested partnering with ASU, there were a lot of straightforward, yes-or-no questions along the way," said Keren Hirsch, Decision Theater’s project manager, who worked closely with the team that developed the training. "One of the pieces of feedback we got when we presented it to retired ambassadors was that an ambassador is unlikely to make a big decision by themselves; they would factor in a lot of other information and recommendations. So it became more of a nuanced training. What are the conversations you have? Who do you ask for help?” 

“The biggest challenge was that we were not subject-matter experts,” said Professor Erik Johnston of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, who was ASU’s academic lead on the project and developed the team of experts who worked on the program.

Fortunately, the AAD was able to recruit more than 15 former ambassadors and top diplomatic security officers who had navigated many crises. This group of seasoned experts advised Johnston and the team on the training’s design.

“This led to one of the most innovative and useful parts of this program, which was designing it in a way that facilitated conversation between those with previous expertise and those being trained,” Johnston said.

It also helped the team with the challenge of creating scenarios that walked the line between risk and outright chaos, so that trainees remained in a true precrisis situation.

"They are immersed in the challenges of making these decisions." 
— retired Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley

In addition, the team wanted the training to be engaging enough that participants would not lose interest as it went on — an important factor, since it was designed to take about eight hours.

Besides crafting captivating scenarios and promoting lively discussion, part of the training program’s success in this area is due to the unique environment in which it takes place. DT’s round, central hub with seven surrounding screens, known as “the Drum,” helps trainees get in the mindset of actually being in each scenario.

“By having a simulation in there, it brings very impactful images and information to the ambassadors. They are immersed in the challenges of making these decisions,” Freakley said.

A group talks through one of the program's simulations

(From left) Holly Smith, Ana Hernandez and Michael Bennett talk through a simulation from the ambassador training program at Decision Theater. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Instructions not included

The goal of the training program is not to prescribe a set of steps for ambassadors to follow, but rather to help them practice thinking through tricky decisions that may not have a clear-cut answer.

“We’re teaching people how to think about dealing with a situation. We’re not teaching them how to do it in a specific way,” Neumann said.

The full-day training takes a small group of newly appointed ambassadors through five increasingly difficult scenarios. Each scenario begins by presenting the trainees with a situation, and their goal is to make decisions that help mitigate it as much as possible. Much like a “choose your own adventure” novel, each decision they make leads to a unique result and a new set of choices.

One scenario, an embassy in Yemen being stormed during a protest, is a recounting of actual events as they unfolded. The other scenarios — such as children being harmed by a U.S. landmine left over from a previous conflict, or a deepfake video of the deputy chief of mission siding with a host country’s adversaries — are fictional.

The deepfake scenario is the final level in the training, and arguably the most complex.

“There’s no right answer. Every possible path that trainees take has both positive and negative consequences to it,” Johnston said.

“Sometimes you do everything right and the crisis still happens, and sometimes you make all the wrong decisions and it just kind of fizzles out.” 
— Keren Hirsch, Decision Theater project manager 

He and the ASU team worked closely with ambassadors from the AAD to determine which kinds of scenarios would be most useful for the training. The ambassadors, Johnston says, identified deepfakes as an issue that new ambassadors will contend with in the future.

All of the scenarios are based on real stories from ambassadors, though four of the five were fictionalized for the training. This ensures that the program’s game-based methods can deliver practical experience in thinking through the types of situations trainees could face in reality.

“I don’t really like to call it a game, because it’s real work, helping them understand how to use their team, how to critically think about an emerging problem,” Freakley said.

The trainees are guided through the process by a facilitator, who narrates the scenarios and the results of trainees’ decisions, and a mentor, a former ambassador who can weigh in on the discussion and provide insight. Each simulation ends with a reflection, where trainees can review the decisions they made and discuss the outcomes. They can even go back to different points in the simulation to see the results of alternate decisions.

“Sometimes you do everything right and the crisis still happens, and sometimes you make all the wrong decisions and it just kind of fizzles out,” Hirsch said. “Introducing that uncertainty is really important.”

Flexibility for the future

In total, Hirsch says, it took the team about a year and a half to build the training. Team members also included Kenneth Eklund, a game designer who was an artist in residence with ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society; Lauren Withycombe Keeler and Michael Bennett, both faculty in SFIS; Kaylin Ayotte, a graduate student worker; Vikash Bajaj, the lead developer; and Ana Hernandez, the graphic designer.

DT also built PowerPoint versions of a few of the simulations so that, even if trainees are in a place with no internet connection, they can still go through a portion of the training. And though the training is most impressive when viewed on the Drum’s seven screens, Hirsch adds, it’s also easily transferred to a laptop, so that it can travel the world along with the ambassadors.

The framework of the training itself — the software based on branching pathways and the structured discussion — is also versatile enough that DT could apply it to other areas outside of foreign service.

“People who need to plan cities, respond to disasters or address public health crises need to be able to think in terms of systems and understand how others might be thinking in that environment, so that they can make the best choice possible with the given information,” Johnston said.             

“We can hang almost anything on this framework to put people in a simulation to help them make decisions and work through complicated environments,” Freakley said.

The ambassador training program is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 800 patents, 280 new startup companies and hands-on training for approximately 33,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Additional support came from Carol Sisco, the Replogle Foundation, the Delavan Foundation and GardaWorld Federal Services.

Top photo: (From left) Michael Bennett, Ana Hernandez, Ashish Amresh and Holly Smith go through one of the training simulations. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise