OPINION: Criticism Grows After Novel Flings 'Dirt' at Latinx People
The controversy surrounding “American Dirt,” Jeanine Cummins’ ill-conceived novel about Mexican refugees, is more than a publishing blunder or yet another case of cultural appropriation. The real takeaway has been just how harmful white people’s false empathy towards immigrant communities can be. As a young Latinx writer getting my start in literary worlds, that painful lesson hits especially close to home.
Since I started a bilingual creative writing MFA program on the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve been more aware of workshops and people speaking about my hometown in exaggerated or “poetic” ways because that kind of story draws attention. But these conflated narratives have real-world repercussions. Look at how violent border stories play into the mindset of a mass shooter driving to El Paso last year to kill people he linked to a “Hispanic invasion.”
The obvious issue with “American Dirt” right off the bat is that this white woman’s deeply flawed book was immediately compared to literary works such as John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”
Response to the book exposed a large gaping hole where the publishing world’s common sense should have been. Of the 83 selections in Oprah’s Book Club, fewer than a handful are by Latinx writers. Gabriel Garcia Marquez accounts for two of them (even though, perhaps shockingly to some white readers, more Latinx people have written books than Marquez).
The flaws of the book are easy to see:
- A white woman wrote a story about a marginalized group that she does not belong to, adding to the “giving a voice to” argument that is both antiquated and insulting because these people already have a voice. Your not listening to them does not prove otherwise.
- A long struggle for writers who incorporate or write in other languages has been the imposed use of italics and/or translations. These devices show a hierarchy, implying that non-English is other, foreign or less than. The book does that frequently and literally starts with an epigraph of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, which is both in italics (only the Spanish) and translated. Lines in the book like, “On the swings, at the fútbol field, in the boys’ bathroom at school, the gruesome gather and swell” show that this story is for white people to come together and pity these poor characters who even say soccer wrong.
- This last one, though maybe more technical for writers, is the use of an omniscient third-person narrator. In layperson’s terms, this means the narrator is basically god and knows all that happens and all that every character thinks. For instance: “Lydia studies him for a moment. Because there’s nothing she can do about any of it, about the graffiti announcing Javier’s presence, about the sickening proximity of Lorenzo, about feeling acutely distrustful of everyone she meets: Marisol, who emerges from the kitchen to retrieve and unpack the groceries, the men sitting at the counter playing cards, Lorenzo smirking on the couch. Any one of them could mean her harm. Any one of them could murder Luca in his sleep.” So this white lady is putting words into the mouths, and thoughts into the heads, of all of these Mexican characters, each of whom — except maybe Lydia — poses a violent threat. See the insulting part?
The true, insidious malice in the “American Dirt” debacle has been the response to the criticisms. Taste-makers and celebrities were heaping on their praise until Myriam Gurba, a Chicana author, wrote a scathing review (“Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”) of the book.
The bigger issue that Gurba and other critics point out is that the inaccuracies and fetishization of Latinx immigrants escaping these harsh realities only exacerbate misinformed narratives that promulgate the current U.S. administration’s rhetoric and policy. These stories have and continue to hurt people seeking refuge and people of color who are citizens and live in the United States.
On February 3, Gurba met with Flatiron Books, the company that published and avariciously promoted the novel. It has been a hectic — putting it mildly — few weeks for Gurba, who reports receiving death threats and harassment on social media.
Citing safety concerns for the author but completely ignoring the harassment Gurba faces, Flatiron announced it was canceling the book tour. Ron Charles of the Washington Post had the white-privileged gaul to compare these events to Salman Rushdie being issued a fatwa for his novel some decades ago.
The author originally fended off criticism by citing that one of her grandparents was Puerto Rican. Then she switched it to, well, she did the research (which clearly was untrue, done very badly, or entirely out of context, and she lifted huge parts of her story from Luis Alberto Urrea, whose work has focused on the trek many immigrants make).
At the end of the day, no matter how much research you do, you haven’t lived these struggles, and making a seven-figure salary off those struggles is reprehensible. And that seven, again SEVEN, figure salary, might be expanding, as there are already talks about the movie.
I’m not saying there should be zero tolerance for anybody to write off of experiences that aren’t theirs; that would be entirely limiting and contradictory to fiction and creative writing, which is entirely contradictory to what I myself believe and feel all writers should aim to do: tell stories that move people, open horizons and create a good outcome with our readers. But perspective, point of view and representation matter, especially when there is a profit to be made. Because the question shouldn’t be about how Cummins told this story. It should be about who has the right to tell these stories.
I took a class in my MFA program where we read both Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a novel set in the immediate post-slavery U.S., and Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad,” which takes place during slavery. The novels required extensive research as neither author lived during slavery, but because of their respect and connection to the narratives told, neither was problematic. These books would not be hailed for their literary greatness if white authors had written them, because these are not their stories to tell.
Maybe it is due to my time in a Creative Writing MFA program and all the hours I have spent around a sea of writers, but there seems to be this idea that as long as something sounds pretty, authors have an intrinsic freedom to write about whatever they want, including other people’s tragedies. That’s trauma porn. It’s taking advantage.
So why is it okay in this instance? It’s not. Gurba and other writers are building a #DignidadLiteraria movement. It took all of this pushback and outrage for the publishing industry to actually do something.
In an article by NBC News, author David Bowles said that the meeting that took place with Flatiron Books resulted in the company’s agreement to “commit to expanding Latinx representation in its staff and with the book titles it will publish. He added that Macmillan will devise an action plan to meet these goals within 90 days and that the publisher will meet with #DignidadLiteraria and other Latino leaders in 30 days to check in regarding the action plan.”
The important thing to note going forward, for any publisher or writer or even reader, is the idea that fronterizos or Mexicans or Latinx people or refugees or immigrants don’t have a voice is just plain insulting. If you want to prop up these characters and their voices, support and highlight the work of people within the communities who are already writing.