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The Great Believers and writing across difference: Who gets to tell our stories?

Rebecca Makkai is masterful, balancing forces near perfectly: the sweep of history pulling everyone into its vortex; and the human dramas that play out all the same, “the messes we make on our own.”

I put down American Dirt after about 75 pages. This isn’t to say the book is not good. Many loved it, and stand by it even after the controversy. And besides, who am I to make that kind of pronouncement? For me, though, it quickly became very telenovela.

(‘Oh, the innocent bookstore owner is falling into a flirtatious friendship with the ruthless but charming cartel boss-cum-amateur poet? Of course.’)

In many ways, I view the controversy and backlash as a failure on the part of the book’s publisher rather than the author, Jeanine Cummins, herself. My read on the situation is that Flatiron may have been overeager to tap into a specific cultural zeitgeist to build hype for its hot acquisition, and so American Dirt was marketed as a “great novel of las Americas” rather than just an excellent and timely romance-thriller. Remember the barbed wire centerpieces?

In any case, I just couldn’t keep going.

Now that I have finished Rebecca Makkai’s breathtaking The Great Believers (and, prior to that, Colum McCann’s thought-provoking Apeirogon), I’m struck by the different discourse around each book. It begs the question:

Who gets to tell our stories?

Colum McCann is a white man, Irish-American, tackling the Israel-Palestine conflict in a sweeping novel based on actual events. Makkai is a straight woman taking on the AIDS crisis as it played out in Chicago — ravaging the vibrant, tight-knit Boystown community and leaving traumatized survivors in its wake. Cummins is a self-identifying white woman, of Puerto Rican descent, venturing into the immigrant experience as lived by people from Mexico and South/Central America.

I feel strongly that no story is automatically off limits.

Of course, authors need to show sensitivity when writing about communities and experiences outside of their own. A dash of self-awareness is also essential: Has someone in the community already told this story? What can my voice contribute? Am I equipped to do the story justice? Am I prepared to do the necessary legwork to get it right?

I will leave it to others to identify if or where Cummins may have fallen short. Instead, I want to comment on how — in my view — McCann and Makkai get it right.

In Apeirogon, McCann uses the fragmentary structure of the story as a vehicle to weave in historical, nonfiction vignettes. If Rami and Bassam fail to emerge as fully-formed characters, McCann still manages to do the story justice by building so much context around them. Rather than plumbing their deepest depths, he looks to the region (and the conflict) as a whole.

Makkai takes a different approach — even more successfully, I think — by engaging in masterful character development, and by grounding her story with the additional viewpoint of a person (a straight woman, Fiona) who does not contract the virus but is directly adjacent to the AIDS crisis through her brother and best friend.

It is that character, Fiona, who offers one of my favorite lines of The Great Believers:

“I hate that we have to live in the middle of history. We make enough mess on our own.”

Makkai balances these forces near perfectly: the sweep of history, the AIDS epidemic, pulling everyone into its vortex; and the very human dramas that continue to play out all the same — the struggling and failed relationships, the messes we make on our own.

The Great Believers is a stunning novel. Characters come to life, as does Chicago’s Boystown, a small neighborhood where the city’s gay community converged and flourished. We see beauty in that protective bubble — an LGBT community free to live openly — but we also see the tragedy of their isolation as the government and society at large leave them to die. The structure builds suspense as we wait for timelines (Yale in the 1980s, Fiona in the 2010s) to inevitably converge. And though I often dislike side plots, I loved every second spent with Nora and her works of art and her memories of cavorting in post-War Paris. Fiona’s relationship with her daughter also becomes more interesting as Makkai gradually reveals their history.

Makkai does justice to her characters and to the history she is exploring. Her thoughts on “writing across difference” are worth reading, whether you’re an admirer of her work or a writer yourself.

The Great Believers is gut-wrenching, contemplative and beautifully written. Quite easily one of my favorite novels of the last few years.

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