Is authenticity a white people’s illusion?

That’s LGM blogger Erik Loomis’s argument in a response to a WaPo article by Mexican American John Paul Bremmer on why people should stop expecting him to eat “authentic” food. Bremmer jokes that he’s from a Mexican family that can’t cook (“I had already discussed all the recipes in our family tree after just two essays.”). His family’s Mexican food in childhood came from Taco Bell.

Bremmer looks at white folks craving “authenticity” in their Mexican food and concludes “it assures the visitor that whatever they’re experiencing, be it a meal or a poem or a human being, is rarefied and exotic, something they can’t get anywhere else. People going about their ordinary lives, whatever their ordinary lives look like, don’t have to think about authenticity any more than my mother has to think about whether her microwaved eggs and bacon in bread is ‘Mexican.’ At that point, calling something authentic can help you sell it.”

Conversely, Mexican food that doesn’t fit what people expect is dubbed inauthentic (CityLab discusses whether “authentic” means anything other than ‘customers like it.’). “Heritage and tradition are important, there’s no doubt. But it’s also important to free our imaginations from the tyranny of authenticity … Our culture — any culture — isn’t static. It is a living thing. It pulls from its surroundings to adapt in a world that in equal turns marginalizes and fetishizes it. The truth is, I see myself more in Taco Bueno, in my abuela sacking the salsa bar, in the Parmesan crispy taco, than I do in whatever Yelpers think is authentic.”

Which reminded me a lot of Michal Wojcik’s recent post about children of immigrants being told drawing on their homeland culture is inauthentic: they’re not part of it, they can’t claim it. So they only “authentic” thing they can write is immigrant fiction.

I don’t think authenticity is all about the outside view. Preeti Chhibber at Book Riot expresses her fondness for books about Indian characters by Indian authors who know the culture. In An Offer We Can’t Refuse, George di Stefano wrote about how much of The Godfather connected with him for being so very Italian (no, not the part where Italians are all mobbed up).

But at the same time, I do think Bremmer and Loomis raise good points. Most importantly, Loomis argues that whether food is “authentic” has nothing to do with whether it’s good; I’d say the same is often true of fiction. I could certainly write a more authentic story of being an English ex-pat in America than NK Jemisin but the odds are she’d write a better story; that’s why she won all those Hugos.

And authenticity really is subjective when we judge a culture we don’t know. Daniel José Elder’s Shadowshaper felt authentic when I read it, but as I said at the time “if he were pulling it all out of his butt, I wouldn’t have a clue.”

It is important to get it right, whatever “it” is, but if that required “authentic” writing then we’d have nothing to draw on but personal experience. Take CL Moore’s Doomsday Morning, which I just finished. The story involves a theatrical troupe caught up in a government plot and the stage details are just perfect. Struggling to come up with stage business to fill a slow expository scene. Adapting to theater in the round when you only know conventional staging. Rehearsing your lines until they feel absolutely canned, then finally feeling them sound spontaneous again.

Did Moore have a lot of theater experience? I can’t find any reference to it, which doesn’t prove anything (if it was community or college, biographers might not know); maybe she talked to someone who does have experience and listened. But I don’t care whether it’s her authentic experience or not, because she got it right.

#SFWApro. Shadowshaper cover photo by Michael Frost, cover design by Christopher Stengel; all rights to images remain with current holder.


Filed under Reading, Writing

2 responses to “Is authenticity a white people’s illusion?

  1. Pingback: Doomsday Times Two, and more: books read. | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: That notorious letter and the free speech debate | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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