American Dirt is a newly released book that has caused interesting public discussion. Author Jeanine Cummins wrote a fiction novel based on a Mexican woman’s migration journey to the United States with her son. Cummins – a white writer with no personal connection to the migrant experience – has received immense praise (and a seven-figure advance) for this novel: in fact, it was even one of Oprah Winfrey’s book club picks!
However, despite the celebrity praise, Cummins’ publishers Flatiron Books have cancelled her book tour, citing concerns for the author’s safety. While physical threats against Cummins have not been common, American Dirt has dealt with widespread criticism. Beyond the all too common outrage culture Twitter and other social media platforms have become known for, within the noise lies a valid question: whose stories get heard – and who gets to tell them?
According to the most recent diversity survey from Lee & Low Books, nearly 80% of US book publishers and agencies are white. Eighty percent! And the Latinx community is sorely underrepresented, making up 6% of the industry as a whole – and only 3% of its leadership. So, clearly there is a disconnect between today’s population and the decision-makers who choose which books get put on the shelves, as well as how much the author gets paid.
This is the crux of many critiques when it comes to American Dirt. Jeanine Cummins may have felt compelled to write this story to humanize “the faceless brown mass,” attempting to do her part to better the perception of immigrants. While filled with good intention, Cummins fell flat on numerous cultural nuances, even using grammatically incorrect Spanish to help fill the dialogue of characters that many have critiqued as “thin, if not a caricature.” As written in the Chicago Tribune, the issue is not that Cummins wrote this story – but rather that she wrote it poorly. Adding insult to injury, many institutions and white critics continue to praise the novel in spite of its problematic flaws.
Cummins wrote in the afterword of this highly anticipated, well-funded novel: “I wish someone slightly browner than me would write it…” Well, the irony is that they have. Many Latinx authors have written complex stories about the migration journey, and they took to Twitter to make it known. In the aftermath of such criticism, a campaign #DignidadLiteraria (Literary Dignity) began trending by Latinx authors and industry people. The goal? To give visibility and properly fund Latinx stories told by those within the community. It is quite refreshing to see a productive reaction to social media criticism. To refer to one of the authors involved in this campaign, they hope that this interest in #DignidadLiteraria goes beyond the Cummins controversy because the issue regarding lack of representation was there before; it most likely will remain after interest dies down regarding American Dirt. And it is important to create space for underrepresented groups to tell their own stories before allowing space for others to capitalize off of a reality in which they have little personal experience.
Aviles, Gwen. “’American Dirt’ and the Continued Fight to Diversify Publishing.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 4 Feb. 2020, www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/can-american-dirt-controversy-help-diversify-publishing-industry-n1127501.
Boyagoda, Randy. “The ‘American Dirt’ Controversy Is Painfully Intramural.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Jan. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/01/american-dirt-controversy/605725/.
Kibbe, Kayla. “How ‘American Dirt’ Went From One of the Most Anticipated Novels of the Year to the Most Controversial.” InsideHook, 22 Jan. 2020, www.insidehook.com/daily_brief/books/jeanine-cummings-american-dirt-novel-controversy.
Warner, John. “’American Dirt’: The Problem Isn’t Who Wrote It, but How.” Chicagotribune.com, Chicago Tribune, 29 Jan. 2020, www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/ct-books-biblioracle-american-dirt-0202-20200127-4ckdclu7zbgy3cfgdg43ovwqru-story.html.