Alexandra Duncan. Photo: Publishers Weekly.
Alexandra Duncan. Photo: Publishers Weekly.

Jeanine Cummins Syndrome

Writer Alexandra Duncan has canceled the publication of her next novel after being questioned on Twitter for writing about another race and culture.


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Ember Days, the new novel by young adult author Alexandra Duncan was scheduled to be published in March next year under the Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins) publishing label, but within an hour of the book's cover being shared, the writer decided to back out.

Apparently, another writer, Bethany C. Morrow, had questioned on Twitter the representation of racial minorities within the novel based solely on the book's description, and that concerned Duncan greatly, according to Publishers Weekly.

The Ember Days synopsis explained: 

“Naomi is the granddaughter of a powerful Gullah conjure woman, sent to Charleston to combat an evil force circling the city and hiding in plain sight as Deidre’s protégé.”

The Gullah are a community of African and Native American descendants known as the Gullah-Geechee Nation, who have their own culture and language, the 'Gullah', and have lived in isolation in a swamp that stretches from central North Carolina to southern Florida. It's a population that has been largely forgotten by history. 

That's why, because of the general lack of knowledge about such an underrepresented and "erased" group of people, she was concerned, Morrow said, that an "apparently white" author would not only write about a Gullah character, but also about a 'conjure' woman.

Duncan gladly accepted the blow and responded that she had made an effort "to know if it was okay for me to write about a culture that was alien to mine," and that her intention was to write from the perspective of a character with a Gullah Geechee heritage because she was interested in the magical traditions of this "southern area." 

A polite exchange of impressions that would have added to the richness of the book if it were not for Alexandra Duncan's taking it one step further and deciding that Ember Days would not see the light of day and that it had been a misguided attempt to write a book. The author argued that her "own limited view of the world as a white person" had led her to assume that she could responsibly represent this culture. 

"I am deeply ashamed that I made a mistake of this magnitude and I hope that my actions will not negatively affect the cause of bringing greater diversity to children's literature," she added.

Duncan continued to scourge herself further, claiming that this was not censorship, but by canceling the book, she intended to "mitigate the damage I have caused." She then continued her statement by encouraging readers to read Black authors.

Verisimilitude and Creative Freedom

Political correctness kills literature; this has been said and will be said by the most talented writers, many of whom have had to deal with the censoring finger of society. Duncan said that canceling the publication of the book was not an act of self-censorship, but to date we do not know how much and in what way she researched to credibly portray the Gullah community and its magic. Perhaps she did not do it very precisely, and that is she trembled at the slightest criticism. Perhaps she feared the same fate as Jeanine Cummins, the credibility of whose novel, American Dirt, borders on insult.

But a writer without freedom is not a writer. You can be an activist, a social educator or, at worst, a propagandist. Because good literature generates a fierce empathy, and in the exercise of imagining oneself within other lives, other cultures, and other races, we approach the sufferings, emotions, and stories of those we embody in a book. 

Shouldn't we let writers of any race, gender, and condition express themselves freely and, above all, responsibly? The same responsibility with which we should accuse others of cultural appropriation.


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