‘American Dirt’ falls in the mud
American Dirt debuted this month to much acclaim. The novel promised to be the long-awaited expression of the Mexican migrant experience, the “A Grapes of Wrath for our time,” as one reviewer gasped on the book jacket.
Jeanine Cummins, 45, who identifies as white and Latina, appeared to have a hit on her hands right out of the gate. The novel, which is about a middle-class bookstore owner who treks from her home in Acapulco, Mexico to the U.S. border with her son after her entire family is gunned down by cartel members, was this year’s Big Book—introduced by an elaborate marketing campaign, befitting an author who had reportedly nailed a seven-figure advance from publisher Flatiron Books.
It also hit the shelves with significant praise from esteemed writers, like John Grisham, Stephen King, and Sandra Cisneros, and celebrities like Salma Hayek. But the biggest get of all was a high-profile welcome as an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
But American Dirt quickly turned to mud, largely of its own making.
It started with the book itself. Rather than illuminating the stories of asylum-seeking migrants, Latinx readers and writers felt the novel was an exercise in cultural appropriation, relying on embarrassing linguistic missteps and ugly stereotypes.
Even the author was concerned she wasn’t up to the task. “I was worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants,” Cummins wrote in her author’s note.
California-based Chicana writer Myriam Gurba affirmed Cummins’s fear in an early review that jump-started a movement.
[“Cummins’s] obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following: 1. Appropriating genius works by people of color; 2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and; 3. Repackaging them for mass racially ‘colorblind consumption,’” she wrote in the blog Tropics of Meta. (The review was self-published after Ms. Magazine turned it down for being too negative.)
Gurba was eventually joined by a chorus of Latinx voices critiquing the book—the outfit behind Bitch Magazine helpfully compiled a representative list—while asking broader questions about how the overwhelmingly white book industry operates, which stories it chooses to tell and to whom.
The song from the chorus: The industry norm of catering to a white gaze informed by racist ideas is the problem.
“If [publishers] come across a compelling pitch about a person of color, the question becomes, ‘How do you sell this idea to a broader, mainstream audience?’ Translation: white people,” explains Los Angeles Times staff writer, Esmerelda Bermudez. “By focusing on one audience, the industry makes it harder for writers of color to break through and also for publishers to build a more diverse customer base.” Which gets us nothing but Dirt. “So it goes, in a long process that many writers of color know all too well, where the best of our stories are frequently sanitized, devalued, tropicalized, manipulated, shrunk down, hijacked.”
In the case of the American Dirt saga, the problematic marketing machine got to work early and often.
It started with a border wall-themed dinner hosted by Flatiron Books celebrating Cummins’s debut. “At an #AmericaDirt party, guests dined while BARBED WIRE CENTER PIECES adorned the tables. You know, to evoke border chic,” tweeted Gurba.
Then formidable forces convened around the book, including a CBS Morning Show roll-out with Winfrey and a related social media campaign of positive posts from Latina actors. (Hayek was forced to delete her post after admitting she didn’t read the book.) Part of the marketing push emphasized that Cummins’s husband was an “undocumented immigrant,” who turned out to be from Ireland. By the time the novel was in circulation, its framing as emblematic of the migrant experience was too much to bear.
The rage against the marketing machine has been remarkably effective.
#DignitadLiteraria is now a robust Twitter hashtag, highlighting the work of Latinx writers who have been ignored by the publishing world, and 124 writers published an open letter to Winfrey asking for her to remove American Dirt as a book club selection. She has since acknowledged the backlash and promised more dialog.
Bob Miller, Flatiron’s president and publisher, issued a statement citing “specific threats to booksellers and the author” as the reason, then apologized for the marketing of the book. “We can now see how insensitive [the dinner, the unspecified Irish husband] and other decisions were, and we regret them,” he wrote. Flatiron also plans to host or participate in town hall meetings to further explore the backlash against the book and their own diversity deficits. “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.”
But these discussions have already started—and I hope they stay centered in Latinx spaces, where they belong.
Futuro Media’s Maria Hiojosa, host of Latino USA, the weekly NPR news and cultural radio program, spoke to four key figures in the American Dirt controversy: Myriam Gurba, Silvia Cisneros, Mexican-American writer, novelist and poet Luis Alberto Urrea, and Jeanine Cummins herself.
The show offers an excellent breakdown of the complex issues the book has raised, and a master class in having very difficult conversations. But this moment with Urrea made my heart skip a bit, wondering what a marketing campaign for him would have looked like: “My first book, which seemed to inspire things in this novel, was rejected for 10 straight years.”