Melinda Henneberger

Kansas novelist Laura Moriarty’s ‘American Heart’ is no white savior story

Laura Moriarty signs copies of her controversial new novel “American Heart” at Watermark Books in Wichita on Tuesday.
Laura Moriarty signs copies of her controversial new novel “American Heart” at Watermark Books in Wichita on Tuesday. The Star

By the time Kansas novelist Laura Moriarty’s latest effort, “American Heart,” finally hit bookstores this week, it had been almost a year since it started getting knocked all over the internet by people who had not read it. They couldn’t have, since even the galleys weren’t out yet.

Still, the word was out that Moriarty had written a “white savior narrative” in which the main character is a 15-year-old white girl from Hannibal, Missouri — yes, Mark Twain’s hometown, and the model for St. Petersburg, Missouri in his n-word-studded 1884 satire, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Moriarty’s protagonist, Sarah-Mary, does wind up accompanying an Iranian engineering professor named Sadaf as she flees to Canada to avoid being sent to the Nevada internment camp where all Muslims are being held.

But she’s no one’s “savior,” and that’s not how the book’s first reviewer, herself Muslim, read it, either. She gave it the highest possible rating, a starred review in Kirkus.

But then, in response to criticism from “Our Voices” — advocates for more diverse voices in literature — Kirkus asked that same reviewer to take another look and see if she was positive she liked it all that much. (So much for diverse voices; asking her to think again strikes me as incredibly disrespectful.)

On second thought, the reviewer decided she didn’t like it as much as she’d said she did, and the star was removed from the review.

Score one for diversity? Hardly. Promoting new voices is important, but trying to do that by silencing other voices is becoming what you hate.

When I met Moriarty in Wichita for coffee on the day her book came out, she said her publisher, Harper Collins, had almost pulled out of the project after Kirkus cowered.

Even after she talked them out of “giving in to bullying,” they invited in a team of “sensitivity readers” to comb the book for potential offenses to right-thinking. “Harper’s didn’t make me take every suggestion” of the 60 or 70 they came back with. But irony seemed to have eluded these readers, she said.

I don’t know what was in the book before this squad of correctness got hold of it, but its main character is a not particularly bright or kind kid whose only real skill is lying. Until, that is, she learns about life, love and Islam from motherly, PhD-holding Sadaf.

In a few places, it’s a little too educational. But a “white savior narrative” it’s not; it’s Sadaf who’s the Atticus Finch of “American Heart.” There are aspiring “white saviors,” too, among Moriarty’s new-left critics, very few of whom seem to be Muslim themselves. Given all the very real threats against American Muslims, it’s hard to see Moriarty as one. And if writers are supposed to create only characters who are exactly like themselves, that’s not art, but autobiography.

Has she also had criticism from the right, in red, red Kansas? A little, she says — including a package left on her doorstep, warning her against “misrepresenting the true nature of Islam.”

But in liberal Lawrence, where she teaches at KU, the charge of racism has made recent months noticeably chillier. “Most of my colleagues have been great, but not all of them.”

There’s to be no book tour, and few bookstores around here have invited her to read from “American Heart,” either. “I’m not reading at Rainy Day,” in Kansas City, “and they’ve had me for every other book.”

One of the few who has dared to stick by her, Sarah Bagby, who owns Wichita’s Watermark Books, said she’d been advised to hire security for Moriarty’s reading there. She didn’t, and it was hardly necessary. The place was packed, but everybody was smiling.

Well, except me, maybe. Because after Bagby introduced her guest as “the Bard of Kansas,” she asked the crowd not to ask Moriarty anything about the controversy.

She was only trying to protect a writer she loves, but wound up answering silencing with more silencing. Moriarty tried to walk the admonition back: “Ask me anything,’’ she told the crowd, and one guy took her up on it.

“There are some detractors,” he called from the back. “Do you care to give an apology?” She didn’t. “I’m happy with it, and nobody has to read it.”

If they did, however, read only one sentence, I’d suggest the tagline on the cover: “Fear is the quickest path to obedience.”