In the wake of controversy, putting “American Dirt” to rest

By Gabby Rente

Lifestyle Editor

“American Dirt” was supposed to be the book of the year. Sold for a seven-figure deal to Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, it racked up endorsements from renowned authors, including Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros. 

The novel, written by Jeanine Cummins, follows the story of Lydia, a Mexican bookstore owner, who finds herself fleeing across the border with her son Luca after a drug lord kills her journalist husband. 

The book hit the shelves on Jan. 21, and the same day, Oprah Winfrey announced “American Dirt” as her new book club pick in a dazzling appearance with Cummins on “CBS This Morning.”  

But not everyone thought highly of Cummins’s novel. Writer for the Los Angeles Times Esmeralda Bermudez said that the book made her skin crawl. 

“What made me cringe was immediately realizing that this book was not written for people like me, for immigrants,” she said. “It was written for everyone else — to enchant them, take them on a wild border-crossing ride, make them feel all fuzzy inside about the immigrant plight.”

Myriam Gurba, writer and author of “Mean,” was one of the first to criticize “American Dirt,” calling the novel “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf.” 

Considering the recent bias incidents that have occurred on campus, and since Washington College is known for its in-depth writing program, the College has much to learn from controversies like “American Dirt.” Despite the book’s categorization as fiction, the way in which the book has been marketed portrays the work as an accurate depiction of the Mexican immigrant experience. 

In a video posted on Twitter, Oprah said that “[‘American Dirt’] woke me up, and I feel that everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom.”

Misrepresentation of an experience and calling it accurate is only one issue with “American Dirt.” Another has to do with the reasons for writing the novel in the first place. 

In her afterword to the novel, Cummins wrote that she wished someone “slightly browner” than herself would have written the story, but that she wanted to give a face to the “faceless brown mass,” as stated in the publisher’s letter to the novel. 

Since then, Cummins’s identity has come under scrutiny. In a 2015 New York Times Op-Ed, she wrote that “in every practical way, my family is mostly white.” She was born in Rota, Spain, where her father was stationed in the Navy, then grew up in Gaithersburg, Md. She has a Puerto Rican grandmother. Recently, Cummins began identifying as Latinx. 

Gurba, a founder of the #DignidadLiteraria movement, met with Macmillan publishers to discuss how the imprint can improve the amount of Latinx voices in the industry. According to the Los Angeles Times, she spoke on a panel about this meeting, saying the book was flagged as problematic early in the process. 

“And people’s critiques were either dismissed or they felt coerced into being silent. … They knew that this could happen and they went through with it anyway,” she said. 

Erika L. Sanchez, a Mexican American novelist and poet who visited WC on Nov. 14, 2019, blurbed for the book. She released a statement on Instagram standing by her decision to support Cummins.  

“I looked her up & saw she identified as Puerto Rican. As a rule, I only blurb people of color. My mistake was conflating those two things,” she said. “There were some cultural inaccuracies, but as a whole, I thought it was a solid book.” 

A 2019 Publisher’s Weekly study found that Latinx members only make up 3% of the publishing industry. 

The criticism increased upon realization that the undocumented immigrant husband Cummins mentioned in a press release for the book’s promotion was from Ireland, narrating a very different migration experience.

On Jan. 26, Flatiron Books announced the cancelation of Cummins’s book tour because of safety concerns after receiving threats of violence. Flatiron’s president and publisher, Bob Miller said in a statement, “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.”

“There are no bad people here, only bad decisions,” said Associate Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing Roy Kesey. 

He introduced the controversy to his Flash Fiction workshop class at the beginning of the semester as a way of talking about writing from a different perspective other than oneself and how to do it well.  

“American Dirt” is not the first time issues of appropriation have entered the classroom. In 2015, it was discovered that Michael Derrick Hudson, a white poet, was writing under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou in order to get published more in literary journals that were looking to diversify their content. 

The “American Dirt” controversy has opened conversations recently about who gets to tell what stories and who the publishing industry sees as its readers. Kesey had students read an article by Rebecca Makkai, another writer who has paid WC a visit back in September 2019. 

“How to Write Across Difference: Rebecca Makkai on Writing About the 1980s AIDS Crisis in Chicago,” published by Literary Hub, discusses how Makkai did her “due diligence” as a writer when conducting research for her novel “The Great Believers.” 

“In order to write this, I had to satisfactorily answer two questions: Was I reinforcing stereotypes, or combatting them? And was I stealing attention from first-hand narratives, or shedding light on them?” she wrote.

There is still much to be added to the discussion revolving around the controversy and what it means for the future of publishing. 

There will be an event held at the Literary House on March. 26 at 5:30 p.m. called “Washing Out American Dirt: A Literary House Tea & Talk” which will discuss inclusivity and representation in the publishing industry. There will be two guest speakers, Emma Snyder, owner of the Ivy Bookstore in Baltimore, and Associate Professor of Spanish Dr. Elena Deanda. 

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