By Jan S. Gephardt
First, a little background. The story behind American Dirt is, pretty straightforwardly, the origin of a lot of literature: a writer from a dominant culture took a look at a dramatic situation and thought, “Wow! This would make a great story!” So she did some research. Then she did a lot plot-building and character development, and brought her literary skills to making the project a fast-paced adventure.
She’d already written three other books before this, so she had the writing chops. She was ready. Let the story flow!
Freedom to create
Author Jeanine Cummins is a white woman, not a Mexicana like her protagonist, but historically that cultural mismatch has rarely mattered in American (or, indeed, European) literature.
For most of the centuries since the art-form of the novel was invented, white writers have had free license to imagine that they can learn to understand any other culture with enough research. However much that is. After that, they can write what they like about it. Their publishers and readers were mostly other white folk who had no idea if their portrayals were accurate, and who usually didn’t worry about that too much.
There are a lot of people who think that’s fine–in fact, they apparently think this is good for art. As an editorial in my hometown paper, The Kansas City Star put it, “The whole point of literature is to take us outside of ourselves. Shakespeare was never a king, Tolstoy was never a woman, and Austen never married. Asking writers to stick to their own experiences would be nothing less than the end of art.”
Now . . . I’m an author who writes from the viewpoint of a sapient police dog who lives on a space station in the far future. I’m hardly in any position to ask that writers “stick to their own experiences” exclusively when they create their stories! However, I will ask–indeed, demand–that writers not indulge in cultural appropriation in the name of “art.”
“Trauma porn” and stereotyping
I’ve had a lot of stuff to do with my life since the book’s release January 21, besides sit right down and read American Dirt. But trusted friends from the Latinx and Mexicanx literary community who have read it warn it employs harmful stereotypes. Respected critics have described it as more “trauma porn” than empathetic.
Far from being good for art, cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and misrepresentation is hurtful, demeaning, and actively bad for art. This makes me reluctant to shell out money to experience it.
Living the dream
I think the outcry is intensified by piling insult upon injury.
For many authentic Latinex writer-voices, the cultural damage and hurtful triggering are the “insult.” The “injury” lies in the way the white-dominated writing establishment initially embraced the book.
Having created her opus, author Cummins then hit the proverbial jackpot. There was an auction for American Dirt (counter-proposals from several publishers). If the rumors are true, she landed a seven-figure advance of about $2 million.
Cummins’ publisher, Flatiron Books, gathered cover quotes and supportive tweets to die for–from celebrities and high-profile writers everyone knows. Even though some of them hadn’t read the book either.
The pre-sale hype reached a fever pitch of appearances, parties, interviews, and breathless anticipation. Then she was guaranteed best-seller status when Oprah Winfrey picked up her book for the most powerful book-marketing juggernaut of all, Oprah’s Book Club.
This happens to almost NO writers. It happens an order of magnitude less often for non-white writers from someplace other than New York City. And that’s what angers many of us.
“Read better books”
Why should we care? Because gatekeepers in large media corporations can fund a $2 million advance and a massive, celebrity-fueled rollout to hype a “darling.” That’s out of reach for smaller publishers (such as Weird Sisters) and independent authors. It’s also too seldom the story of “mid-list” writers for larger publishers.
For what Cummins’ publisher spent on her, they could have more modestly promoted dozens of excellent writers speaking in their own voices, from their own cultural experiences. Such unequal representation hurts many authors of worthy books, to favor a questionable few.
I’ll quote the Kansas City Star editorial again, because it’s all of a piece with the clueless reaction they typified. They said, “instead of canceling [Cummins’ book tour, a decision taken by her publisher] . . . just buy a better book.”
Unfortunately, it’s darned hard to get your “better book” noticed when there’s this elephantine, full-court-press of a media blitz in the room.
In the interest of helping our readers find and “buy better books” by truly authentic voices, please explore this list. It’s from The Texas Observer, and it lists “17 Great Books on the Border, to read instead of American Dirt.“ We hope you’ll find some gems there!
Many thanks to Goodreads, for the American Dirt cover photo, and to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the composite photo of Jeanine Cummins with her cover. We deeply appreciate Vox, for sharing the photo of the infamous party centerpieces, and the New York Times for the photo from Oprah’s appearance with Cummins on CBS This Morning.