In 2015, a writer named Dawn Dorland donated a kidney to an anonymous donor. She should have received accolades. Instead, another writer named Sonya Larson wrote a short story about it, titled The Kindest. Not a story depicting Dorland as a heroine, but one questioning her narcissistic motivation and portraying her as the very definition of white privilege.
The title, it turns out, is satirical.
Is your jaw-dropping already?
In Sonya Larson’s fictional story, the kidney recipient is not anonymous but an Asian-American woman, whereas the donor, like Dorland, is white. There, the similarity between Dorland and her fictional counterpart ends; while Dorland was born in poverty and suffered the trauma of abuse growing up, the donor in the story is wealthy and entitled.
You may say Larson took poetic license. However, she overstepped creative boundaries, when, in earlier versions of the story, she named the donor Dawn. And she quoted verbatim a letter to the anonymous recipient of her kidney Dorland had posted on a private Facebook group she had invited Larson to join. It turns out that Dorland and Larson both belonged to GrubStreet, a writing collective in Boston.
Dorland sued Larson for plagiarism. In the course of “discovery” in the case, emails and text messages between Sonya Larson and her clique of buddies at GrubStreet emerged, ridiculing Dorland for being “needy,” giving a kidney donation merely to seek approval, and possessing a “white savior” complex.
As if someone would have a part of their body cut off just to get attention.
If you haven’t heard the term “white savior,” think of a Rudyard Kipling type who goes to poor countries like India to uplift the masses.
Celeste Ng, a bestselling author whose novel Little Fires Everywhere was made into a Hulu series, and who, like Larson, comes from an affluent background, was part of the clique. “Dorland and her one kidney can go f*#k themselves,” Ng wrote to Larson. Alison Murphy, director of online learning at GrubStreet wrote, “I will ice her out if she tries to mess with you.” GrubStreet’s artistic director Christopher Castellani said, “My mission in life is going to be to exact revenge on this pestilence of a person (namely Dorland).”
Here was a writing community whose stated aim was inclusivity and equity, but who, in reality, was trying to snuff out one of its members.
Are you feeling nauseated already?
Although the incident disgusted and incensed me I was not surprised. It is said that academicians are backstabbers because the stakes are so low. Well, the stakes are even lower for writers. Particularly for writers of short stories, which are normally published in obscure literary magazines with names like Ploughshares and Tin House and never read by the mainstream public. In a minority of cases, short stories serve as stepping-stones to bigger and better things. If your story is selected for the collection, Best American Short Stories, for example, recognition might follow.
A publication named American Short Fiction soon published Larson’s story. I imagine the editors checked off the relevant boxes: (a) A female writer of color (Larson is part Chinese, part white), (b) A story involving a Chinese immigrant and her white benefactor, and (c) The theme of “white savior.”
I say this, because, upon reading The Kindest, I found it vacuous, inauthentic, and gimmicky. It seemed that the author had executed the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) school formula, using all of its trappings while ignoring the basic ingredients of passion, emotion, and realism, or even compassion, for her characters. The white woman in Larson’s story is a cardboard figure, a caricature lacking any depth or wholeness, or plausibility. Her character is created solely with the aim of making the reader cringe at her neediness. No wonder the reader cannot empathize with her.
The Chinese recipient of the kidney, on the other hand, is shown to be ungrateful even though the white woman’s donation saved her life. She views the white woman – Dorland – through a lens that can only be labeled as reverse racism. The reader cannot identify or sympathize with her either.
Even though most of the controversy has focused on the depiction of Dorland in the story, as a South Asian, I found the character of the Chinese woman equally troubling. She is so stuck in her Asian-ness that she cannot rise above her ethnic trenches to see the white woman’s donation for what it is, an act of incredible generosity. The portrayal of the Chinese woman is patronizing and therefore racist. It reminded me of the 1980s television series The Jewel in the Crown, which, while decrying the arrogance of the British colonials, practiced racism by depicting the dark Indian natives only as victims or silhouetted background figures.
The best literature rises above the ethnicity, race, or nationality of its characters. Sonya Larson’s story fails because it is based on a weak and fatuous premise, namely that Dawn Dorland donated a kidney just to get attention.
Does Larson realize how crazy that sounds? Who would undertake the bodily risk of taking their kidney out purely for the sake of getting publicity from a private Facebook group?
Decades ago, an Indian friend of mine received a heart transplant. All he ever wanted to do afterward was to thank the donor’s family. I don’t think the donor’s race or the family’s motivations entered into it at all.
Besides, what if Dorland were seeking approval? It wouldn’t have hurt Larson and her buddy Celeste Ng to give her some. After all, Dorland belonged to their group. And she had performed a selfless act. Perhaps she was not as secure and therefore acted in a manner that was not as stylish as that practiced by the upper-class Larson and Ng. But why does style supersede substance in American society? Why should someone’s perceived neediness or un-hip behavior cancel out the noble act they have committed?
It is clear that Larson, Ng, and the others had created, not a supportive community, but a sorority where style won over substance. Where how you presented yourself was all that mattered. Where some people were on the inside, and some out. Where those who were up-and-coming judged those who were not merely based on how they communicated on social media. The careers of Larson and Ng were on the rise. But instead of helping Dorland, they chose to put her down to make themselves look superior.
What irks me is the arrogance with which Sonya Larson used Dorland’s letter verbatim, not even bothering to change a word. I am even more troubled by the lack of ethics and morality exhibited by Larson and her GrubStreet buddies.
The communications also revealed another dynamic. If you belong to an ethnic minority, you are automatically assumed to be disadvantaged and therefore given the benefit of the doubt in questioning the motivations of others.
At the end of October, saying that “the incident had raised lingering questions about the insider/outsider dynamics in the organization,” GrubStreet asked Larson and her two buddies Murphy and Castellano to step down from leadership positions.
At last, some poetic justice was done. For how long, I am not sure.
Sarita Sarvate has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.