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American Dirt Jeanine Cummins cover

The ‘American Dirt’ Story is Proof That Publishing Needs Greater Diversity Across the Board

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | January 27, 2020 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | January 27, 2020 |

American Dirt Jeanine Cummins cover

Last week, Oprah Winfrey announced that the latest selection for her wildly popular book club, which has been credited with helping generations of Americans get into reading, would be American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The novel tells the story of Lydia, a bookstore owner living in Acapulco who is forced to flee Mexico to the border with America with her son after her family is targeted by the head of a drug cartel. In an Instagram post, Winfrey said that ‘this story changed the way I see what it means to be a migrant in a whole new way.’ She was not the only major figure to herald the book as one of 2020’s must read titles. Stephen King and John Grisham gave it glowing blurbs and The New York Times dedicated a whole lot of pages to it, including two separate reviews — one in the daily paper and the other in the weekly Book Review section — and an excerpt. Flatiron, the publisher who allegedly paid a seven-figure advance for American Dirt, announced a first print run of 500,000 copies, which is about 25 times higher than the average. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the production company Imperative Entertainment has already acquired the film rights. This is a book that people want and need to be a hit and they’ve done everything in their power to get it to the forefront of the cultural discourse.

The narrative of instant glory surrounding American Dirt slowly began to change once Latino voices joined the staggeringly white conversation. Myriam Gurba’s review of the book, which she wrote for a feminist publication but was killed due to its negativity, described American Dirt as being ‘a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle’ that ‘would serve a Trumpian agenda.’ Author and translator David Bowles called it another example of ‘erasing authentic voices to sell an inaccurate cultural appropriation for millions.’ David Schmidt said, ‘If English-speaking readers assume that this novel accurately depicts the realities of Mexico and migration, it will only further the cause of disinformation and prejudice. And in this day and age, we can’t afford any more of that.’ Even The New York Times’s review, written by Parul Sehgal, after dedicating so many pages to free advertising for the book, slammed it as being ‘conspicuously like the work of an outsider’ as well as a book that’s simply incredibly badly written. Salma Hayek recently apologized for promoting the book on social media despite never having read it.

Cummins acknowledged that her decision as a white author to tackle this story would be controversial to many, and lamented that she ‘wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.’ At an event in Baltimore, she said that ‘the migrants who I spoke to, the people who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect vulnerable people, they showed me what real courage looks like. They made me recognize my own cowardice. When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice.’

I’ve already heard the usual gaggle of whiners claiming that people are trying to cancel this book and are demanding that nobody ever write about experiences outside of their own. As someone who used to be a YA blogger, I am all too aware of what this dog-whistle defense really means. ‘Cancel culture’ is not a real thing and it certainly doesn’t exist for people like Cummins, who have been enabled and supported by multi-million dollar industries. No publisher is going to think twice about its misguided decisions when a seven-figure advance was put on the table, one that they’re guaranteed to make back and then some thanks to Oprah’s endorsement. This book is everywhere. It’s even being spotlighted in my local bookshop. This isn’t a canceling: This is a call for conversation and accountability.

We know who the intended audience for American Dirt is: White people. This is a book that the author and publisher clearly foresee being some sort of guiding light for the presumed default white reader base, letting them feel sadness at the plight of those poor Mexican migrants while pretending their ability to care is all that will ever be required of them. As noted by many critics, the impossible-to-ignore white gaze of Cummins and her publishing team means that the book will inevitably take up space that is meant for true Mexican and Latino voices, all while it is defined as the great novel of this issue. Cummins tried to pre-empt criticism by saying how sad she was that ‘someone slightly browner’ didn’t write this story, but they have.

Mexican literature is thriving and has done so for a long time. The key difference is that it seldom gets the support, advances, or industry hype that books by white authors do. This isn’t speculation. This is a fact and we have the data to back it up. Cummins benefitted from not being ‘slightly browner’ than she is. Her whiteness gave her industry authority among her equally white peers to position herself as the leading voice of this story, and her perspective is one of trauma porn and apolitical opportunism.

Authors of color are lambasted for writing in their own voices, speaking of their own experiences and perspectives, while white authors are deemed to be important and worthy enough to write universally. Stereotypes peddled by white supremacy are gobbled up and sent soaring to the top of the bestseller charts (and Oscars season, as evidenced by titles like Green Book). Authenticity is dismissed in favor of fetish. Cummins took to Twitter to brag about her manicure, which included the barbed wire fence of the border taken from her cover.

This isn’t just about who is able to write what story. It’s about who is given the power to and at what expense to those who are more marginalized. It’s also about how these conversations struggle to take place without the same bad faith screeching about censorship, and how the concept of sensitivity readers in publishing are often dismissed as unnecessary when they could have helped to avoid this mess in the first place. It’s about wondering why the standards for entry into this privileged echelon of storytelling are so much lower for white mediocrity than the talent and truth of writes of color. Remember, Cummins’s book has its fans but its biggest criticism has been how shockingly weak her writing is and how poorly she gives layers to the voices of her Mexican protagonists, yet the cover quote still declares American Dirt to be the new Grapes of Wrath.

The publishing world needs full-on restructuring. This is a world that, by design, is only open to the wealthy, the well-connected, and the white. As long as this continues, there will be more novels like American Dirt gobbling up all the oxygen in the room and making bank off the backs of a marginalized community’s suffering. It’s clearly not enough to be ‘well-meaning.’ If change doesn’t happen then we’ll be repeating this cycle for decades to come. Of course, that might have been their endgame. After all, American Dirt is set to sell a whole lot of copies.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

Header Image Source: Flatiron Books