‘American Dirt’ falls in the mud

January 30, 2020, 8:09 PM UTC

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American Dirt debuted this month to much acclaim. The novel promised to be the long-awaited expression of the Mexican migrant experience, the “A Grapes of Wrath for our time,” as one reviewer gasped on the book jacket.

Jeanine Cummins, 45, who identifies as white and Latina, appeared to have a hit on her hands right out of the gate. The novel, which is about a middle-class bookstore owner who treks from her home in Acapulco, Mexico to the U.S. border with her son after her entire family is gunned down by cartel members, was this year’s Big Book—introduced by an elaborate marketing campaign, befitting an author who had reportedly nailed a seven-figure advance from publisher Flatiron Books.

It also hit the shelves with significant praise from esteemed writers, like John Grisham, Stephen King, and Sandra Cisneros, and celebrities like Salma Hayek. But the biggest get of all was a high-profile welcome as an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

But American Dirt quickly turned to mud, largely of its own making.

It started with the book itself. Rather than illuminating the stories of asylum-seeking migrants, Latinx readers and writers felt the novel was an exercise in cultural appropriation, relying on embarrassing linguistic missteps and ugly stereotypes.

Even the author was concerned she wasn’t up to the task. “I was worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants,” Cummins wrote in her author’s note.

California-based Chicana writer Myriam Gurba affirmed Cummins’s fear in an early review that jump-started a movement.

[“Cummins’s] obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following: 1. Appropriating genius works by people of color; 2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and; 3. Repackaging them for mass racially ‘colorblind consumption,’” she wrote in the blog Tropics of Meta. (The review was self-published after Ms. Magazine turned it down for being too negative.)

Gurba was eventually joined by a chorus of Latinx voices critiquing the book—the outfit behind Bitch Magazine helpfully compiled a representative list—while asking broader questions about how the overwhelmingly white book industry operates, which stories it chooses to tell and to whom.

The song from the chorus: The industry norm of catering to a white gaze informed by racist ideas is the problem.

“If [publishers] come across a compelling pitch about a person of color, the question becomes, ‘How do you sell this idea to a broader, mainstream audience?’ Translation: white people,” explains Los Angeles Times staff writer, Esmerelda Bermudez. “By focusing on one audience, the industry makes it harder for writers of color to break through and also for publishers to build a more diverse customer base.” Which gets us nothing but Dirt. “So it goes, in a long process that many writers of color know all too well, where the best of our stories are frequently sanitized, devalued, tropicalized, manipulated, shrunk down, hijacked.”

In the case of the American Dirt saga, the problematic marketing machine got to work early and often.

It started with a border wall-themed dinner hosted by Flatiron Books celebrating Cummins’s debut. “At an #AmericaDirt party, guests dined while BARBED WIRE CENTER PIECES adorned the tables. You know, to evoke border chic,” tweeted Gurba.

Then formidable forces convened around the book, including a CBS Morning Show roll-out with Winfrey and a related social media campaign of positive posts from Latina actors. (Hayek was forced to delete her post after admitting she didn’t read the book.) Part of the marketing push emphasized that Cummins’s husband was an “undocumented immigrant,” who turned out to be from Ireland. By the time the novel was in circulation, its framing as emblematic of the migrant experience was too much to bear.

The rage against the marketing machine has been remarkably effective.

#DignitadLiteraria is now a robust Twitter hashtag, highlighting the work of Latinx writers who have been ignored by the publishing world, and 124 writers published an open letter to Winfrey asking for her to remove American Dirt as a book club selection. She has since acknowledged the backlash and promised more dialog.

Then, on Wednesday, Flatiron Books conceded the fight and canceled the remaining 13 events left on Cummins’s national book tour.

Bob Miller, Flatiron’s president and publisher, issued a statement citing “specific threats to booksellers and the author” as the reason, then apologized for the marketing of the book. “We can now see how insensitive [the dinner, the unspecified Irish husband] and other decisions were, and we regret them,” he wrote. Flatiron also plans to host or participate in town hall meetings to further explore the backlash against the book and their own diversity deficits. “The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them.”

But these discussions have already started—and I hope they stay centered in Latinx spaces, where they belong.

Futuro Media’s Maria Hiojosa, host of Latino USA, the weekly NPR news and cultural radio program, spoke to four key figures in the American Dirt controversy: Myriam Gurba, Silvia Cisneros, Mexican-American writer, novelist and poet Luis Alberto Urrea, and Jeanine Cummins herself.

The show offers an excellent breakdown of the complex issues the book has raised, and a master class in having very difficult conversations. But this moment with Urrea made my heart skip a bit, wondering what a marketing campaign for him would have looked like: “My first book, which seemed to inspire things in this novel, was rejected for 10 straight years.”

Ellen McGirt

On Point

Fifth Third Bank takes a stand on LGBTQ equality The bank is pulling millions of dollars in funding to Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship program, which lets companies make tax deductible contributions to a private school voucher system designed to help low-income students. Following a report that dozens of the schools discriminated against LGBTQ students, the bank withdrew. "We have communicated with program officials that we will not be contributing again until more inclusive policies have been adopted by all participating schools to protect the sexual orientation of all our students," the bank tweeted.

The first 19th* story focuses on Kamala Harris’s exit from the race The 19th, the new nonprofit newsroom covering gender, politics, and policy, has published its first piece today. It explores the presidential campaign of Harris, who launched her bid to tremendous promise a year ago this week. De-briefing with staffers, reporter Errin Haines finds they struggled to make sure that Harris’s attributes, a Black and Indian woman from immigrant parents, didn’t take away from her relatability. “We had to be very, very careful about how we handled all types of situations, on the account that we did not want anything to interfere with progress, and we did not want anything to interfere with someone’s ability to connect with Kamala,” says the candidate’s Iowa state director.
Washington Post

Gwen Ifill honored with a Black Heritage series stamp from the USPS The legendary journalist would probably wave off the honor, but the groundbreaking reporter is still a beacon to many. "She touched my life because she was a damn good reporter," Allison Davis, one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists told NPR. "She is what everybody should aspire to be." Ifill will become the 43rd stamp in the Black Heritage series when the stamp is issued next Tuesday.

On Background

What a great time to read Latinx authors! The open letter to Oprah doubles as a great place to start, but I’ll also shout-out Rose Cahalan writing in the Texas Observer who did the work in her critique of American Dirt. “Racism and gatekeeping in the publishing industry are big, systemic problems; at least American Dirt has started a much-needed conversation on the subject. What can readers do? One small step is to commit to read more books by Latinx authors,” she says.
Texas Observer

Did you love Island of The Blue Dolphins? It has long been a childhood staple, the tender tale of a girl surviving alone on San Nicolas Island, a small island off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. It is based on a story of a real woman who actually lived there from 1835 to 1853. She died six weeks after her rescue; because nobody knew her language, we don’t even know her true name. This analysis from American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) offers rich details of the life of the real woman, the context and how Scott O’Dell’s well-meaning attempt to create a sentimental story erased a culture. “Island of the Blue Dolphins is a lot like most books and media about American Indians that give the audience the kind of Indians that America loves to love.”
American Indians In Children’s Literature Blog

Architects of color weigh in on the unbearable whiteness of design The American Institute of Architects is over 160 years old, and still a work in progress. Curbed asked 16 architects at various stages of their careers to talk candidly about the race-related challenges they’ve faced over their careers. They did not disappoint. “I never saw anything about work by black architects or architecture about black people unless it was traditional African architecture or the pyramids in Egypt. That's as far as it went,” said Mabel O. Wilson on the eurocentrism of the profession. Suchi Reddy, an immigrant from India, remembers the shock. “I never really knew what racism was until I came to this country,” she said. “The first thing you overcome is the gender bias, and then the racial questions come.”


"As a formerly undocumented Mexican immigrant, I have long wished for books with Mexican immigrant protagonists, squarely centered on our immigrant experience, to receive critical acclaim—to be celebrated with awards, to appear on required reading lists, and to have their authors receive advances that raise an eyebrow. I should have been more specific in my wishes and prayers."

—Julissa Arce, in a book review for BuzzFeed.

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