There has been ongoing controversy regarding American Dirt.
The book, telling the story of a mother and her son fleeing violence in Mexico to the United States, has gotten incredible acclaim from notable voices in the publishing industry, from authors like Stephen King and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.
That didn’t stop it from receiving an onslaught of criticism, particularly from Latinx writers and activists, who have publicly shown their disdain for the book.
When I first heard about American Dirt, I was outraged, but not surprised. Books like American Dirt and authors like Jeanine Cummins are simply part of the capitalist nature of the publishing industry which actively seeks to monetize stories from vulnerable communities above allowing them to tell their stories themselves.
But first to address this faux debate about who gets to tell stories. I am a fiction writer, so I have to make it clear, as did a number of writers in a letter to Oprah, that the role comes with the responsibility of properly telling stories that are outside one’s experiences. One cannot be a fiction writer if they’re not willing to include characters that have lived lives that are not one’s own. Thus, my personal problem with American Dirt is not this notion that Cummins cannot write outside her background, as some mainstream propaganda claims. The keyword to properly telling a story outside your own is ‘properly.’
The real issue that Cummins’s defenders are overlooking (or just dismissing) is the capitalist machine that is the publishing industry which promotes books like American Dirt to be the defining novel of Mexico and immigration, a book that many Latinx writers and activists, including Myriam Gurba and David Bowles, have rightly reviewed as inaccurate and exploitative. As David Schmidt noted, Cummins couldn’t even get the spelling of her characters’ names right (it’s Quijano, not Quixano).
But even more so, the novel is problematic in its stereotypes of Mexican people, Mexican culture, Mexican immigrants (never mind that the refugee crisis involves Central Americans and is not solely a Mexican issue), and the emphasis on violence in Mexico and the portrayal of the United States, a country whose current administration is caging migrant children, as its only haven. If anything, the book is a Trumpian vision of Mexico and its citizens, an inauthentic story told through the white-savior gaze that is Cummins’s imagination.
So how does the publishing industry respond to this problematic book (and I use the word ‘problematic’ in the nicest way possible)?
It gives Cummins a seven-figure advance. It gets Oprah’s stamp of approval. It is celebrated at a party with barbed wire centerpieces with Cummins displaying barbed wire manicure on fingernails. And it receives a movie deal with the screenwriter for Blood Diamond writing the script.
Overall, a disaster.
That said, this is by design. Flatiron spent a large amount of effort wanting to make this book a success at all costs. They wanted to make this book a defining moment in our culture, ensuring Cummins be recognized as the next Steinbeck for humanizing a vulnerable and already human community. Even with the criticisms regarding the book, the industry refuses to acknowledge its mistake, with Oprah and Flatiron giving half-ass apologies and playing the hear-both-sides game, giving Cummins’s defenders access to a platform and, therefore, justification.
This is, again, by design. The publishing industry has a diversity problem, which is putting it mildly. Even even more than that, the publishing industry thrives on stories like American Dirt, which is part of a trend that actively takes advantage of trauma to monetize its value and nothing else. Marginalized writers have been constantly denied in the publishing industry for years, often for very clear discrimination. Even Cummins herself said that she “wished that someone slightly browner […] would write it.”
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Marginalized communities have been writing for years. But the publishing industry is ultimately a gatekeeper and a cultural authority in deciding who gets to represent a story and more so who gets to profit from it. Cummins was the white person asking if what she was doing was racist and did it anyway because the entire system was willing to back her up.
Thus, this controversy is more than just one book. It’s about a club that keeps marginalized folks out. It’s about an industry that has only one thing in mind: to make a profit without disrupting the status quo. It’s about how even though there are already so many Latinx authors that have covered the topic better, the industry decides that Cummins, entirely unqualified, is a much better authority. It’s about how even Sandra Cisneros, one of the most prominent voices in Chicanx literature, doubles down her support for the book and dismisses its critics. It actually makes sense for her to do that. She’s now part of the literary establishment, and club members defend the club to keep their comfortable positions. The establishment wants to profit from stories of vulnerable communities without ever letting them have power and ownership. They only needed Latinx voices as token validation, and Cisneros (along with Julia Alvarez, Erika Sanchez, and Reyna Grande) was more than willing to cooperate.
And the worst part is that it’s all going to pay off for Cummins and Flatiron. Despite the controversy and cancelation of her book tour, American Dirt will continue to sell, whether it’s because people want to be part of the conversation or because it’s a familiar story that enforces their biases. Cummings will still have her seven-figure advance. And the movie is still in the works. The media will continue to push this narrative of the online angry mob that threatens Cummins even when Flatiron themselves confirmed she never received such threats. (Oddly enough, they never acknowledge the threats launched at the book’s critics).
It’s never that we were voiceless. We’ve always had our voices. And we always will. It’s just that the system doesn’t think our voices are worth anything, much less that they should be ours.
Still, that does not mean it’s over. A movement is brewing in support of #DignidadLiteraria, and their recent meeting with Macmillan had fruitful promises. The publication and forced success of American Dirt said the quiet parts out loud and the backlash has sparked a rallying cry to change the industry. As Myriam Gurba and others have pointed out, the industry needs a revolution, one that will not allow books like American Dirt to be cultural authorities ever again.
Correction: A previous draft mentioned Cummins getting barbed wire manicure on her fingernails. It was actually someone else’s fingernails that she posted on her social media.