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‘American Dirt’ and the Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing

Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt has been getting quite a bit of attention lately. The novel follows Lydia and her son Luca, as they escape from Acapulco, Mexico after a drug cartel murders their family members at a quinceañera. High profile people like Oprah, Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, Julia Alvarez, Gina Rodriguez, and Yalitza Aparicio have shown their support. But the book is facing major backlash from lots of Latinx writers for its generous use of cliches and stereotypes. Worse, Cummins very conveniently began to claim a Latina identity shortly before publication after historically identifying as white, something that has widely been kept out of the discussions of the book in major media outlets.

These are major issues, to say the least, but the controversy has shifted to questions about censorship and whether or not the entire novel is appropriation. Most intriguing, people are now asking who has the right to tell certain stories? Norma Iglesias-Prieto, professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at San Diego State University, told the LA Times, “It’s better to speak with a more human perspective than not speak at all.” 

I would have to disagree. Like my suegra says, “En boca cerrada no entra mosca.”

Speaking with unearned and unsubstantiated authority on a subject is presumptuous at best, harmful at worst. As Cummings said in her preface, “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” But let’s be real, there are plenty of brown writers who have written on the subject. They haven’t, however, been able to tap into the “thrilling” Trump era tropes that white Americans want to project on the “faceless brown masses.” So instead of debating who has the right to tell the story, let’s just take a look at the facts.

Mexican’s Already Have A Voice Boo

CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS / REUTERS

Something that really struck a nerve was the idea that Mexican’s are a voiceless people who need to be humanized. First of all, there are so many Mexican and Mexican-American authors, activists, and filmmakers telling immigrant stories. If you want to humanize someone, you tell a story the reader can identify with so they can see that there are more similarities than differences. Trauma porn is another thing entirely. Trauma porn is “any type of media – be it written, photographed or filmed – which exploits traumatic moments of adversity to generate buzz, notoriety or social media attention.”

The U.S. is presented as a shiny beacon of hope and Mexico is a bad place full of bad people. This whole good v. bad binary is used as a way to convince terrified Americans that good Brown people are forced to flee evil Mexico and should be embraced. Kind of like how people like to justify the existence of immigrants by saying, “Who else would pick up our trash?” Not exactly an empowering message. The entire ideology of this book follows the U.S. media news perspective in which Latinx are objects rather than people and are rarely asked to weigh in on their own issues. 

The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing

Cummins got a reported seven-figure deal to humanize us poor Mexicans. When have you ever in your life heard of a Latina author being offered that much to write about her community? We need not look further than the fact that publishing is one of the whitest spaces ever.

In 2015, Lee & Low publishers found that the publishing industry is 79 percent white/Caucasian, 78 percent women/cis women, 88 percent straight/heterosexual, and 82 percent “not differently-abled.” Publishers Weekly’s 2015 Annual Salary survey found that “the dearth of minority employees directly affects the types of books that are published.” Their survey also found that just under 80 percent of publishing staff and review journal staff are white.

American Dirt’s publisher Flatiron Books has decided to stand by and defend their controversial novel. “We are carefully listening to the conversation happening around the novel,” the statement said.

American Dirt asks the question, ‘How far will a mother go to protect her son?,’ and in the course of answering that question, gives us empathy with our fellow human beings who are struggling to find safety in our unsafe world.”

It’s important to point out that sympathy and empathy are two different things. It’s also important to note that there is not a single Latinx or person of color on their staff. Aren’t we all a bit tired of white people telling us what is and isn’t ok? If these are gatekeepers of what gets published, it is imperative that we recognize their implicit biases. How exactly do white people gauge what is an authentic immigrant story and what is not? In the context of this book, it seems that the worth of the book has been equated with packaging Mexican suffering as a must-buy thriller. Yikes.

Don’t Claim What Ain’t Yours

American Dirt

As the author of MEAN, Myriam Gruba pointed out in the viral, scathing review that started this whole controversy, Cummins is not a Latina but has taken the liberty of rebranding herself as such. In a 2015 New York Times op-ed Cummins wrote point blank, “I am white… I’ll never know the impotent rage of being profiled or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name.” 

Cummins has a Puerto Rican Grandmother, and she was born in Spain apparently. (Sidenote: If I have to say one more time that Spanish people are not Latinx I’m going to scream.) Her heritage keeps coming up as some kind of justification. Is a Puerto Rican grandmother sufficient? Does that qualify you to write about a community you’ve never been a part of? It doesn’t take an anthropologist to know that culture is learned rather than passed down through some kind of implicit blood bond (not to say those don’t exist). If your so-called “authority” on our culture is not actually linked to the experience of being Latina, why are you even leveraging it? 

The issue here is not that Cummins isn’t Mexican like so many publications have tried to trivialize and claim. It’s that American Dirt follows the already proud American tradition of “telling the stories” of marginalized people without having any idea or bothering to care about who they actually are.