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American Dirt: Oprah book club pick suffers Latino backlash

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In an author’s note for hit new novel American Dirt, author Jeanine Cummins says she wished “someone slightly browner than me” had written it.

“But,” continued Ms Cummins, a white writer with Puerto Rican forbearers, “then I thought, if you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?”

The book, which tells the story of a family fleeing Mexico for the US, was greeted with rave reviews from Oprah Winfrey, among others.

However, the plaudits were quickly followed by outrage from members of the Hispanic community, who complained that the novel misrepresents the Latin-American experience.

The row has rekindled a debate over prejudice in the publishing industry and over who, exactly, is allowed to tell the stories of others.

American Dirt follows a middle-class Mexican woman who escapes the country with her son after her husband, a journalist, is killed by a drug cartel. The story traces their often violent journey as migrants to the US border.

The novel was highly anticipated and Ms Cummins received a reported seven-figure book deal for a first print run of half a million copies. She was interviewed by the New York Times, which published an excerpt of the book.

Positive reviews came from beloved authors, including Stephen King. Ms Winfrey selected American Dirt for her book club this week, all but assuring a boost in sales. “I love it so much,” she said.

Others were less favourably disposed. A scathing review by the Hispanic-American writer Myriam Gurba called it a “Trumpian fantasy of what Mexico is”.

Outrage over the novel’s depictions of migrants soon spilled forth on social media. Critics tweeted out mock-stereotyped stories with the hashtag “Writing my latino novel”.

Adding to the controversy were claims that American Dirt had borrowed from other novels about Mexico, while at the same time misconstruing key nuances, like the use of Mexican phrases in Spanish.

“When writing about a community to which one does not belong, authors have an obligation to think about the social and cultural politics of what they are doing,” Domino Perez, a professor of English at the University of Austin’s Center for Mexican American Studies, told the BBC. “Asking whether or not you are the right person to tell a story means that sometimes the answer is no.”

Maricela Becerra, an assistant adjunct professor at UCLA, told the BBC: “We have been talking about these issues for many, many years as Latinxs and immigrants, and the problem is that we have not been heard. Suddenly a non-immigrant person tells our story, and people seem to be interested.”

But the book has found defenders in the Latino community. Sandra Cisneros, a famous Mexican-American author, said American Dirt was “not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel!”

Rigoberto González, an English professor at Rutgers-Newark University, called the book “highly original”, albeit with “moments of pandering to social justice language”.

In 2016, Ms Cummins said in a New York Times opinion piece that she did not want to write about race out of fear of “striking the wrong chord, of being vulnerable, of uncovering shameful ignorance in my psyche”. She said she identified as white “in every practical way”.

“I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story,” she told the Times. “I do think that the conversation about cultural appropriation is incredibly important, but I also think that there is a danger sometimes of going too far toward silencing people,” she said.

According to 2018 data from Publisher’s Weekly, 84% of the publishing workforce is white, 5% is Asian, 3% Hispanic and 2% black.

At the executive level, 86% of the industry is white, according to a 2015 survey by Lee and Low Books, as are 89% of book reviewers.



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Tensions mount between EU members ahead of budget talks | World news

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European Union leaders are preparing for acrimonious talks on the bloc’s seven-year budget, amid deepening divisions between the self-styled “frugal” club versus a larger number of countries fighting cuts.

The EU’s 27 leaders will attempt to agree a budget for 2021-27 at a special summit on Thursday, the first such exercise since Brexit blew a €70bn (£58bn) hole in the finances. “It is an exercise in the division of loss, a bit like Brexit,” a senior EU diplomat said.

European council president Charles Michel has taken the high-risk strategy of calling the special one-day summit, which could drag into the weekend if there is a chance of a deal. “We don’t have the intention to keep them imprisoned,” an EU official said. “They are there for the time it will take.”

Brussels budget squabbles are nothing new, but Thursday’s summit threatens to be the most difficult yet. The EU is seeking to spend more on tackling the climate emergency, research and border security, while facing demands to maintain spending on farmers and infrastructure for poorer member states, and dealing with the Brexit black hole. “The facts are the facts,” said the EU official. “We face a €60-75bn gap [over 2021-7] because of Brexit, we are facing new challenges and demands for which money is needed and … the member states have a tight budgetary situation. So realism is needed.”

Adding another layer of division, western countries want better oversight of EU funds, so governments that flout the rule of law, by weakening independent courts, would lose EU funds. Some claim that Michel has gone too far in weakening an original mechanism to ensure that recipients of cohesion funds act in accordance with the rule of law.

The budget battle pits the self-styled “frugal four” – net payers Austria, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands – against “the friends of cohesion”, 15 southern and eastern European countries that seek at least to preserve current agricultural and infrastructure spending.

The two largest net payers (by size of contribution) are outside both camps. France wants to maintain agricultural spending and boost EU defence funds. Germany wants a speedy agreement, to avoid having to solve the budget during EU presidency in the final six months of the year. “The Germans face a dilemma,” said the senior EU diplomat. “They don’t want to own this hot potato. But will they pay up just to avoid it?”

As well as the Brexit gap, the UK leaves another poisonous legacy: the rebate. After Margaret Thatcher secured the British rebate in 1984, some other countries were granted one, effectively a discount on their EU membership fee. While the European commission proposed sweeping away all “corrections”, Michel has proposed that five net payers should keep their rebates. “The rebate is not there just for fun. It is there, because otherwise, things would really get out of hand and off the scale,” said a diplomat from one country that gets a rebate.

Other countries, including net payers such as France, think the rebate has had its day. “Why these five countries? Just because they already had one [a rebate],” said another diplomat. “It is very unfortunate that we continued with this tinkering.”

Although the arguments are big, the sums are relatively small. The “frugal four” want to limit the EU budget to 1% of the EU’s economy, as measured by gross national income (GNI). The European commission proposed 1.11% GNI, while Michel has almost split the difference with his 1.07% compromise plan.

“We have a plan”, said an EU diplomat from one of the self-styled frugal member states. “Plan A is the 1% and the rebate. And we have a plan B which is 1% and the rebate”. The “frugal four” argue that while content to be net payers to the seven-year budget the additional contributions being sought by Michel put an intolerable burden on their taxpayers. The Dutch estimate that the proposals put forward would increase their contribution by 20%.

The battle threatens to be even more ferocious than 2013, when David Cameron helped force through the first-ever cut in the EU’s budget. EU diplomats, outside the frugal camp, argue the previous austerity budget means a low starting point. “Is there really a collective will to act?” asked one diplomat. “We are facing a failure of collective ambition.”

The diplomat said 22 countries think the Michel compromise is not enough, while five find it too much, adding: “the balance is not necessarily in the middle.”

But the frugal four insist they won’t compromise, despite being a minority: “Whose money are you going to spend? In any negotiation you need the investors on board otherwise you won’t get an agreement,” said one frugal diplomat.

Hours ahead of the summit, few EU insiders are banking on a deal. Michel has warned EU leaders in private meetings that failure to find agreement imperils current and new EU programmes due to start in 2021.

“It looks like quite a big gap to reach,” said one of the frugal diplomats. “If not, then we will have to come back a second time, which is not something special because it’s quite normal to not manage it.”

Another diplomat, worried about “unpleasant” media headlines, asked: “Do we want such a fiasco when the numbers are going to be the same in March and April?”

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The Ugandan village devastated by elephantiasis

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A woman sits in front of her houseImage copyright
BBC/Allan Atulinda

Despite sitting down as she shells bright-pink beans, Margaret Tindimutuma’s swollen feet are in pain. The Ugandan matriarch has a rare type of elephantiasis that has caused her family untold suffering.

“I have always had allergies since I was young. So when my legs started to develop little swellings, like boils, I didn’t think much of it,” the octogenarian says as she sits on a papyrus mat in the centre of a compound of mud houses.

“But the pain became so intense, I would feel pinpricks all over. The skin in between the toes broke out in sores. Then my sons started to fall sick. I wondered if they had inherited my illness.”

Her two grown-up sons both died after sores caused by the disease became infected, one in 2017 and the other last year.

Hope Amooti

BBC

When we could afford painkillers, my husband would walk around. But by the time he died, he couldn’t even leave his bed”

We sit on a wooden bench in the yard, as Hope Amooti, the widow to one of them, shows me photographs of happier times. Her husband of 18 years was a tall man and in one picture he has a broad smile and shyly looks at the ground.

“When the pain in his legs overwhelmed him, his back grew permanently arched.

“When we could afford painkillers, he would walk around. But by the time he died, he couldn’t even leave his bed,” Mrs Amooti says, shielding her welling eyes from the morning sun.

Image copyright
BBC/ALLAN ATULINDA

Image caption

The family remembering happier times

In another photograph, Mr Amooti’s younger brother sits with his sisters in a decorated tent. He has no shoes on, and you can see that his feet are slightly puffy, the skin between the toes broken and peeling.

‘Rejected by in-laws’

Enid Twasiima, one of Mrs Tindimutuma’s daughters who had been married in another village, fell sick too. Her arm grew into an ashen, swollen log.

The disease then moved to her legs. Her husband’s family rejected her, and she returned to Kyakatoma village with her children.

Image copyright
BBC/Allan Atulinda

Image caption

Enid Twasiima uses a handkerchief to keep away flies

“I used to grow enough food for my family. For five years now, I have been stuck at home,” Mrs Tindimutuma says.

Ms Twasiima, sitting on a stool nearby, listens pensively. She covers the worst of the wounds with a dirty chequered handkerchief, tied around the leg, to keep away the buzzing flies.

As we speak, a neighbour joins us. The lower part of his leg has a deep, oozing ulcer. Out of politeness, I stop short of covering my nose from the putrid smell.

In 2015, a team of scientists visited the village searching for clues about this rare illness – classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a neglected tropical disease.

They took samples of the soil, and tested those who were sick.

Image copyright
BBC/Allan Atulinda

Image caption

Scientists have advised the villagers to wash their arms and legs after doing farm work

Their results showed that the elephantiasis that has devastated dozens of families in Uganda’s western district of Kamwenge, is a rare type known as podoconiosis.

While the most common form of elephantiasis is caused by worms, microfilaria, transmitted by mosquitoes, podoconiosis results from exposure to minerals in the area’s volcanic soils.

“There are minerals such as silicon, iron and aluminium, really small particles which penetrate the skin,” says senior epidemiologist Christine Kihembo, who led the study while working at the ministry of health.

“They affect the normal flow of fluid in the limbs, causing the pain and inflammation. The condition manifests after years of exposure to the soil.”

A leg affected by elephantiasis

Getty Images

Elephantiasis

A neglected tropical disease

  • Lymphatic filariasisis the medical name for the commonest form

  • Symptomsinclude the abnormal enlargement of body parts, causing pain

  • 893 millionpeople in 49 countries threatened by lymphatic filariasis

  • 120 millioninfected in 2000, 40 million disfigured or incapacitated

  • Transmittedmost commonly by mosquitoes

  • Podoconiosis is a rare type caused by some minerals in volcanic soil

Source: WHO

Some reports indicate that more than 300 people might be affected in the district of Kamwenge alone. A few cases have been seen further south in Kisoro.

Podoconiosis has also been recorded in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Cameroon. This type of elephantiasis is thought to affect about four million people globally, according to WHO estimates.

‘Gumboots prized’

Families in Kamwenge derive their livelihood from the land. The locals work the rich soil with basic tools, and their bare hands.

After the findings of the study were published, the scientists advised the villagers to wear protective gear, and wash their arms and legs shortly after farm work. Gumboots became a prized possession, for those who could afford them.

In the neighbouring village, 39-year-old Provia Arinaitwe whimpers as she rises from a mat in front of her small house. She is down with a bout of malaria, which has meant days of not caring for her legs. And now the pains are back.

Her calloused legs are covered in dark marks, but Ms Arinaitwe does not have any festering wounds. She is in a better condition than anyone else I have met. And she shows me why.

Provia Arinaitwe

BBC

When I use salt three times a day, it gives me great relief… But sometimes I have no money to buy the salt”

After washing her feet in a plastic basin of water, she measures out three scoops of table salt in her palm, throwing it into in the clean basin, where her daughter pours mugfuls of water. She soaks her feet in the water for 15 minutes.

“When I do this, three times a day, it gives me great relief. I am able to go about my work. But sometimes I have no money to buy the salt, and the blisters and pain return,” she says, wincing as she slips the feet into a pair of slippers.

Dr Kihembo says that during the study, it was noted that people who washed their feet within at least two hours of finishing work on the farm were 11 times less likely to have symptoms of podoconiosis than those who cleaned up much later or not at all.

There are drugs available in Uganda that can treat the more common form of elephantiasis, but sufferers from podoconiosis can only get symptomatic relief through painkillers, which are hard to afford.

Shunned

Everest Beyanga is a local volunteer who, in the absence of a government intervention, has made it his job to document this misery.

He carries around a sheaf of papers in a blue folder.

Everest Beyanga

BBC

No-one was visiting these people. Everyone avoids them because their wounds stink”

Written on them are names, ages, villages: every single person suffering from this debilitating disease in his sub-county. On a separate sheet is a list of 30 who have died since he started doing his rounds.

He sighs with hopelessness: “No-one was visiting these people. Everyone avoids them because their wounds stink.

“I thought, ‘This is my village too.’ If the disease is indeed in the soil, we will all probably catch it.

“Sometimes, all one needs is for you to drop in and greet them. But sometimes I do not even want to come, because I don’t even have a pack of salt to offer them.”

At our last stop, the woman we have come to see asks after three people she knew, who had podoconiosis.

They have all died since he last visited, Mr Beyanga tells her.

She had not heard the news because she was not well enough to leave her home and no-one had come to see her.

Her brow furrows in response and she hobbles away to prune her banana trees with a machete.

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Coronavirus news and live updates: Death toll rises to 2,000

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People on a deck of the Westerdam cruise ship watch a helicopter take off in Sihanoukville on Tuesday, February 18.
People on a deck of the Westerdam cruise ship watch a helicopter take off in Sihanoukville on Tuesday, February 18. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

A total of 781 passengers from the Westerdam cruise ship are one step closer to returning home after Cambodian health authorities said they had tested negative for the novel coronavirus.

After being unable to find a port for days, the Westerdam finally was able to berth in Cambodia on February 13.

At the time, no cases of the virus had been reported aboard the ship.

However, an 83-year-old American passenger tested positive for the virus in Malaysia while she was on transit home after disembarking the ship. That left hundreds of passengers either stuck on board the vessel or in hotels in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh as authorities scrambled to investigate the infection.

A ship in limbo: On board the ship when it docked were 1,455 passengers from several countries and more than 700 crew. As of Tuesday, only 1,000 people were left onboard the Westerdam, while another 500 or so were in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian government said the negative test results were from both passengers on the ship and in the city.

No quarantine: Those still awaiting testing are not being held under any strict quarantine measures, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Dr. Or Vandline said.

She added that the passengers in Phnom Penh still awaiting their test results are being allowed to move around the city if they need to as long as they “exercise precaution.” The ministry has also advised passengers still in Cambodia to contact health officials if they are feeling unwell.

Both Malaysia and Thailand have said they will not allow Westerdam passengers to pass through their countries on their way home.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the quarantine measures imposed on Westerdam passengers waiting for test results.

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