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Appropriate Appropriation?

In response to:

Fiction and Responsibility from the July 23, 2020 issue

To the Editors:

I was grateful for Esther Allen’s review of my novel The Gringa [NYR, July 23], which raises a number of ethical questions that were major concerns of mine in writing the book. That she comes to different conclusions is, of course, her prerogative, but her propensity for smears-by-association undermines the important discussions her review might otherwise have raised. Her invocation, for example, of American Dirt, surely the most despised novel of the past many years, without elaborating on what The Gringa does or doesn’t have to do with it, serves more as insinuation than criticism, an easy way to discredit The Gringa without actually analyzing it. In the same way, she condemns a number of writers who have written about other countries without ever having visited those countries, clearly intending for readers to see me as one of them. Why she would make that assumption is for her to know, but a responsible reviewer might at least have inquired. While having spent several years in Peru does not in any way make me an expert, Allen’s insinuation that I’m entirely ignorant of the country is both inaccurate and dishonest.

More centrally, I was surprised that she was so offended by the characterization of Leonora Gelb (whom Allen calls an “effigy” of Lori Berenson, which seems to be her synonym for “fictional version”). I’m willing to believe my attempts at evenhandedness fell short, but Allen seems strangely placid about the allegations against Berenson—who arrived in a foreign country and quickly mixed herself up with armed revolutionaries—and all but insists that Berenson’s personal suffering is of greater concern than the misery and trauma her associates visited upon the people of Peru. Allen’s reminder that the Movimiento Revolucionário Túpac Amaru (MRTA), upon which the fictional Cuarta Filosofía is based, accounted for only 1.5 percent of the 70,000 deaths in Peru’s dirty war (my emphasis) is shockingly breezy—by my math, that’s still over one thousand dead bodies, and it’s hard to understand how anyone would present such a history uncritically. Perhaps Allen, a scholar and translator of Cuban revolutionaries, felt that the MRTA’s professed Guevarist ideology exempts them from criticism, coming as it does rather close to her own sympathies. In this light, her review begins to seem more like an impassioned defense of the MRTA and Lori Berenson than a discussion of a novel and its fictional characters.

Maybe that’s why she is so upset at the thought that readers might confuse the CF/MRTA with the far less palatable Shining Path—and why she alleges, again without support, that I’ve somehow tried to fool readers into this conflation. Her proof of this is that the name I chose for the organization (“Cuarta Filosofía”) is “resonant” of Sendero Luminoso. I hear no such resonance—but more importantly, the novel repeatedly, firmly, and explicitly distinguishes the Cuarta Filosofía from the Shining Path, beginning on page 31 with a lengthy comparison of the two groups that starts, “The Cuarta Filosofía was not the Shining Path” (!), and including a pivotal moment of disillusionment when Leonora discovers that one of her comrades used to be in the Shining Path, indicating the low regard in which the characters hold that group. That Allen didn’t have the inclination (or space) to discuss any of this is fine—but if you aren’t going to cite the glaringly exculpatory evidence, it’s at best irresponsible to make the accusation, and at worst it’s bad faith.

But it’s Allen’s last flourish, in which she somehow contrives to align The Gringa with right-wing thought or even Trumpism, that’s the real head-scratcher. Here is a writer who clearly admires Lori Berenson, to the point of ignoring or excusing her actions in Peru; a writer who spends no time asking what a Peruvian might have felt upon seeing a privileged white foreigner screaming on television about the need for violent revolution, nor interests herself in the sections of The Gringa where I delve into exactly what Peruvians felt about it; who seems to feel that an American who gets involved with armed militants in a developing country is owed more of our sympathy than the citizens of that country—accusing me of an America First attitude?

The history of US interventions in Latin America goes back more than a century, from the Spanish-American War up through this May, when a group of mercenaries based in Florida tried to stage a coup against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. It stems from the same arrogance, self-righteousness, and racism that led to such imperialist atrocities as the Vietnam War and George W. Bush’s genocidal attempts to “export democracy” to the Arab world. Whether her politics were leftist or rightist, whether she “meant well” or not, Berenson’s alleged actions in Peru occur in this historical context and as such are more than fair game for investigation. To declare such investigation off limits, as Allen does, is to assert that Americans are above the law and may act as they please in other countries with no regard for those countries’ histories or cultures, or the lives of their people. I can’t imagine any line of thought more in keeping with Trumpism than that.

Andrew Altschul
Fort Collins, Colorado

Esther Allen replies:

In 2002, California congresswoman Maxine Waters read the following statement into the Congressional Record:

I am outraged and appalled by the continuing incarceration of Lori Berenson on charges of collaborating with terrorists in Peru. Lori Berenson is not a terrorist, nor has she ever collaborated with terrorists…. She has never had a trial that respected her rights or international standards of fairness and due process. Not only has Lori never wavered in her insistence that she is innocent of the charges against her, she was charged under the antiterrorist laws that the Inter-American Commission [on Human Rights] has deemed unacceptable.

Two years earlier, Congressman John Joseph Moakley of Massachusetts also placed Berenson’s case in the Record:

As a result of a conviction by a secret military tribunal, Lori has toiled in a Peruvian jail for more than 4 years now, and has endured severe health effects as a result. Throughout this ordeal, Lori has maintained her absolute innocence. Numerous international human rights organizations, the United Nations, and the Organization of American States have all called for her release and pointed to widespread corruption in the Peruvian courts.

Among the other US elected officials who expressed concern over Ms. Berenson’s plight in the same forum and denounced the injustices done to her are New York representatives Carolyn B. Maloney and Edolphus Towns, and the late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone.

Five years after the Peruvian authorities released Berenson from two decades of imprisonment, Mr. Altschul’s novel The Gringa has appropriated the broad outlines of her life, erasing Berenson and replacing her with an effigy, by which I mean a false, right-wing cliché. This effigy is repeatedly said to hate America and repeatedly confesses to being a terrorist. The Gringa not only abusively misrepresents Ms. Berenson, prolonging and compounding a trauma that should have ended decades ago, but also places her at risk—a risk it would seem to acknowledge by having its Lori Berenson character killed off by a protester whose imagination has been inflamed against her.

Mr. Altschul complains that I ignore the Peruvian perspective and says he has delved into “exactly” how Peruvians feel about Lori Berenson. I possess no unique knowledge of the Peruvian mind but would be interested in reading analyses of his novel by Peruvians. My essay does remind readers that in 2009 Peru jailed Alberto Fujimori, the former president who used Berenson’s arrest and trials to generate outrage against her for his political benefit. Fujimori remains in jail, convicted of corruption and human rights abuses.

By vilifying its Berenson character, The Gringa seeks to legitimize its appropriation and distortion of Ms. Berenson’s life story. In his letter, Mr. Altschul doubles down on this tactic and tries frantically to flood the zone with outrage against a vulnerable middle-aged woman who has endured and survived decades of punishment. Mr. Altschul concludes by accusing me of declaring “investigation” off limits. In fact, my essay calls for works of fiction to investigate, respect, and be responsible to the historical realities they purport to represent. In context, “investigation” must be read as Mr. Altschul’s synonym for writing and publishing whatever he wants, however false and abusive it is.