Let’s talk about American Heart by Laura Moriarty.
I was originally going to keep out of discussions about Laura Moriarty’s response to the pushback over American Heart, because:
- I’m still sick — norovirus takes forever to recover from, in case you were wondering,
- There are a lot of ongoing and time-sensitive political issues that I’m trying to address, e.g. CSR payments, and
- I have a number of writing and professional deadlines that I need to meet.
- Also, the last time I said something about the ongoing growing pains of the young adult community, I was harassed badly by Trump supporters and GamerGate bros. (See #3.)
In other words: I don’t have time to deal with her, or with this nonsense.
However, I haven’t been able to get these comments from one of Laura Moriarty’s defenders out of my mind:
Because this is where artistic intent collides with authorial intent and the real-world political climate, in a deeply ironic and paradoxical way. Given that the real-world political climate is pretty much all I deal in these days, I feel obliged to respond.
For those of you who are getting caught up to speed, American Heart is a YA book about a young white fifteen-year-old main character named Sarah-Mary, who lives in a world that is not dissimilar from our own. But in Sarah Mary’s reality, Muslims are now being forced to register with the government, and are being sent off to detention camps in Nevada for vague, unclear reasons that are never clarified throughout the book.
(More on the lack of substantive world-building, in a little bit.)
So when Sarah-Mary meets an older Iranian woman named Sadaf who is trying to find her way to the Canadian border, Sarah-Mary’s first instinct is to back away and keep minding her own business. But Sarah-Mary’s younger brother essentially guilt-trips her into helping Sadaf, and circumstances result in having Sarah-Mary going along for the duration of the journey.
If you’re thinking: “Wow, this sounds a little like our current political climate,” or “Huh, I guess she got this from Trump’s Muslim registry plans,” yes — author Laura Moriarty states that she wrote this book out of “concern” for our current political climate. The fictionalized Muslim registry is obviously based on Trump’s rumored registry, and the detention camps are like a creation that is a hybrid of actual American history, along with rumored plans for the future.
But because the foundations of the book are rooted in real-world events, coupled with the author stating that she wrote the book to encourage readers to examine our real-world political climate, it’s not unreasonable to say that it’s fair game for those who are most impacted by the actual political climate to have a say, particularly when they think the book does more harm than good. After all, isn’t that point of all of this in the first place? To create a much-needed dialogue?
Regrettably, the author has made the case (with support from her Facebook friends) that criticisms of American Heart, particularly criticisms directed toward the Kirkus star that was removed pending further discussion, is tantamount to censorship. As of this writing, the author is still on Facebook, encouraging friends and fans to attribute and expose those criticisms as being syptomatic of the “toxicity” that supposedly exists in the young adult (YA) community, as outlined in Kat Rosenfield’s infamous Vulture article. Comments similar to those by Jason Chapman as listed above, are being thanked by the author.
In terms of actual literary criticism: As someone who has read American Heart — I received an e-galley from HarperCollins in early September — it’s impossible to the escape the conclusion that Sarah-Mary’s journey is anything but a bildungsroman that uses the genuine fears of the Muslim-American community as a mechanism for Sarah-Mary to grow. It’s Sarah-Mary’s journey first and foremost, with Sadaf and the actual Muslim-American community’s challenges and concerns, coming in a firm second.
Sarah-Mary starts off the book as incredibly ignorant about Islam, routinely making the type of casually racist remarks that would make any discerning person cringe. She complains when Sadaf carefully explains when she can’t buy bacon for Sarah-Mary, and also wonders if Sadaf doesn’t have a husband, because she’s heard stories from her mom about Muslim men allegedly treating their wives badly.
My mother told me that when she was a teenager, she was in the mall in Springfield, and she saw an Arabic man walking around with this woman who was always a few steps behind him, wearing a black burqa with just her eyes peeking out. The wman even stood behind the man on the escalators, like she was his servant, but his mom said that the woman was wearing those designer shoes with the red on the bottom that cost about a million dollars, so she was likely his wife.
“I wouldn’t make a dog walk behind me like that,” she told me, and I’d agreed it sounded messed up.
While the obvious authorial intent is for Sarah-Mary to grow out of these racist assumptions vís-a-vís her continued interactions with Sadaf, there’s something profoundly awkward and frustrating over having to witness Sadaf constantly having to explain to Sarah-Mary just why she’s wrong about so many of her cultural and societal assumptions. Sarah-Mary doesn’t express independent thought or any sort of independent analysis; it’s always provoked by something Sadaf has said or done.
E.g. At one point, Sadaf states that they shouldn’t ask for rides from black people, because there is a higher probability of them being pulled over, a danger as Sadaf’s face is being broadcast nationwide.
I about spit out my coffee. Before I could swallow, I was already shaking my head, revving myself up to tell her right off. Who the hell did she think she was, of all people, saying racist stuff, when it was those nice black people, black Americans, thank you very much, who’d been the ones to help us out last night when we were out there freezing our butts off? Talk about being an ingrate.
“That’s racist,” I said. “Shame on you. You got a lot of nerve, considering everything-”
Sadaf reiterates that her concern is a valid one, and states there have been studies that black individuals are more likely to be pulled over.
First: this interaction is itself a clunky, poorly-written acknowledgment of the serious points of Black Lives Matters, with no depth or further exploration. The very fact that this conversation never comes up again, shows how lightly serious race issues are taken by this book, even in this purported journey of questioning racial assumptions.
Second, Sarah-Mary’s reaction again reinforces the fact that her changing world views are predicated on Sadaf educating her, verses her being willing to learn, and coming to the conclusion herself.
After Sadaf states there have been studies proving her point about black people being pulled over more often, Sarah-Mary muses to herself that Sadaf likely knows what she’s talking about, because Sadaf has a degree and leaves it at that. There’s no innate questionining as to why black people being pulled over is a problematic action, and just a presumption that it’s time to move on.
While no one necessarily expects Sarah-Mary to have well-rounded world views given her background and upbringing, her pure lack of intellectual interest in pursuing anything independently outside of what Sadaf is encouraging and challenging her to think, essentially defaults the weight and burden of her growth onto Sadaf, who is already dealing with plenty, narratively speaking.
Furthermore, Sarah-Mary goes on to muse, on the subject of Sadaf educating her:
“But I wasn’t done asking questions. I was thinking that this would be the last time I’d ever get to talk to a real live Muslim, face-to-face, and there were so many things about them… that I just didn’t get.”
While again reiterates that this is a bildungsroman, but at the expense of a person of color.
For the bulk of the book, the pattern continues:
- Sadaf exposes Sarah-Mary to the real-world
- Sarah-Mary pouts, but then realizes
- Hey, maybe Sadaf has a point.
But what’s concerning about narrative though, is that none of these experiences truly hits home for Sarah-Mary, until she sees a white veteran being shot for protecting Muslims around 57% into the book. It’s then that she starts realizing there are real-world ramifications for this journey, and panics.
There’s an obvious implication here that the stakes weren’t real for Sarah-Mary until a fellow white person has died, which again: undermines the importance of Sadaf’s story and renders Sadaf a convenient character device created for Sarah-Mary’s growth.
I’m not going to spoil the rest of the book, but suffice it to say: Moriarty concludes by strongly reinforcing the idea that this entire journey has been a good experience for Sarah-Mary.
Without spoilers (or specific context), the book ends with the following line:
“… because he was the one who made me promise to do the right thing, even when I thought I shouldn’t. It felt good to know he’d be proud of me too, for keeping that promise, and in the future, for whatever right thing I try next.”
It’s impossible to take away anything but the idea that this journey of helping a person in danger, has been a “thing” that Sarah-Mary has tried, and found that she has rather enjoyed — thereby undermining the impact of everything that Sadaf has suffered to get to this point.
Outside of Sarah-Mary’s core journey, the vagueness of Moriarty’s world-building does a substantial disservice to her story, and to any genuine politically-driven discussions that could have arisen from such a story, especially when juxtaposed with our real-world climate.
There is no logical explanation for why the nation has accelerated to a point of passing laws to round up Muslims — e.g. what kind of impetus could have driven our lawmakers, particularly the traditional left-leaning ones, to this point? Another 9/11? Moriarty doesn’t say — and it isn’t something that Sarah-Mary especially thinks hard about, either.
Instead, readers are supposed to just take the world-building at its word, which arguably undermines the very idea of any discussions about race and racism that Moriarty purportedly wanted to have. After all, if there is to be a thorough examination of racism, particularly in this climate, shouldn’t there be an analysis of the causation and eventual effect? Why isn’t there discussion as to to the incremental steps that led up to the world that Sarah-Mary and Sadaf currently live in?
Part of the reason why The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451 or even counterfactual books like Fatherland are so powerful, is because we see the cause — e.g. bombings; WWII — and how the lack of a reaction as a society, means that it eventually incrementally builds up to the dystopian present. That type of subtlety or analysis doesn’t exist in this book.
Bottom line: this is an example of an author telling a story that they were ill-equipped to tell, both intellectually and narratively.
Literary analysis aside, it should also be noted: there is also a certain degree of political privilege and entitlement in Moriarty’s response to the online pushback.
While I am sympathetic to Moriarty’s feelings about Kirkus removing the star and amending their review — and have no specific opinion on how they handled this situation, since I’m not familiar enough with their practices to speak with authority— I will point out that: Kirkus stuck to their positive review of The Black Witch, despite far more significant internet backlash. Logic dictates that if they truly didn’t think their American Heart review merited another look, Kirkus could have easily held firm, as they did with The Black Witch.
Also, like or not: Moriarty will be profiting off of a scenario that many people of color genuinely fear. (See: DACA.) She is in a position to have an impact and be a good ally, but her encouragement of white voices to defend her, and to scold and fight back against the POC voices that have legitimate cause to criticize her — defended by individuals like Jason Chapman, above — shows that there is a very specific irony over this entire debate about her book.
For someone who purportedly wants to be have a dialogue about our country, and claims to have written this book out of respect for diversity:
Moriarty is encouraging abuse and silencing the most diverse voices that are challenging her book, about a book that has been allegedly written to help talk about the very challenges they face. If that’s not symptomatic of our current climate, and quite Trumpian at that, I don’t know what is.
So my hope is: Ms. Moriarty will take a long, hard look at what she’s encouraging with her posts, encouragement of abuse and deletion of POC voices, and truly reflect why she wrote this book in the first place. If it’s to truly help to bridge the diversity divide in this country, then reach out to the voices that can help.