Before ‘American Dirt,’ a 1980s literary hoax tested the limits of authenticity
In 1983, a new novel set on the streets of L.A.'s Eastside gripped readers with its visceral, often humorous depiction of barrio life. “Famous All Over Town” tells the story of a Chicano teenager, Rudy “Chato” Medina, who lives with his family on Shamrock Street in a community riven by poverty and gang violence. The author was Danny Santiago.
Reviews were effusive in their praise. “The 14-year-old Mexican American point of view is authentic, funny and tragic,” wrote a critic in the Pittsburgh Press at the time. In the heyday of 1980s multiculturalism, Santiago’s book seemed to feed a mainstream desire to bring more Latino voices into commercial publishing.
For the record:
3:34 p.m. March 3, 2020An earlier version of this article referred to JT LeRoy as a memoirist. The literary persona created by Laura Albert was a novelist.
Yet aside from a few short stories he published in literary journals, Santiago was a virtual unknown. The mystery grew after he declined to accept an award in person. His publisher later admitted they could not submit Santiago for Pulitzer Prize consideration because they had no photograph or detailed biography.
Santiago was no recluse; he didn’t exist at all.
Seventeen months later, in the New York Review of Books, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne revealed that Danny Santiago was a pseudonym. The real author of “Famous All Over Town” was a 70-year-old, Yale-educated man named Daniel Lewis James. He wasn’t Mexican. A veteran of Hollywood, Lewis had worked with Charlie Chaplin but was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Dunne, husband of Joan Didion, disclosed James’ identity with the writer’s permission, according to accounts.
The Daniel Lewis James revelation sparked spirited debate in the Latino writing community and U.S. publishing at large. More than 30 years later, the discourse over “Famous All Over Town” sounds remarkably familiar to anyone who has been following the critical tussles over Jeanine Cummins’ bestseller, “American Dirt.” Published in January and set in Mexico, “American Dirt” has been derided by critics as an egregious example of cultural appropriation and negligence in its handling of Mexican tropes.
A change of heart
In the case of “Famous All Over Town,” Chicano writers who had initially liked Chato’s tale later dismissed it after learning its author was a white man. They argued that James, who died in 1988, unethically mimicked a Mexican American voice. Lewis’ unmasking raised critical questions of what constitutes “authenticity” that to this day have not been resolved, according to UC Berkeley English professor Marcial Gonzalez, who has written about the historical reception of “Famous All Over Town.”
Critics at the time suggested that in adopting a Latino-sounding pen name, Lewis was jumping on “the bandwagon of minorities who might be more publishable these days,” as one literary editor put it.
It was an argument that cut two ways: The privileged corners of the literary community began feeling that the push for diverse voices could eventually sideline their own, while minorities argued that the diversity “bandwagon” of the 1980s pigeonholed their imaginations and voices — and what was deemed publishable for them as minorities — into narrow categories acceptable to a white audience. Still other writers defended “Famous All Over Town,” saying that it captured the pathos of Chicano life with undeniable intimacy.
A comparison of the two controversies reveals that the boundaries of what is considered “authentic” in literature are shifting, according to multiple interviews with authors and academics across the country. Of course, the major difference is that Cummins never masked her name or identity — though she has shifted from identifying herself as white to calling herself Latina, by virtue of a Puerto Rican grandmother.
“In an ideal world, anyone should be able to write about any topic,” Gonzalez said in an interview. “However, the real world is much more complex than that. I think the responses of those who have criticized ‘American Dirt’ are sincere, and one has to take them into account.”
One thing that’s only grown since the 1980s is the public’s hunger for ever-juicier “real” stories that sustain a taut dramatic narrative in books, film and television, leading publishers and authors to test the limits of exaggeration and self-representation. Inevitably this results in what Yale professor Christopher L. Miller calls “intercultural literary hoaxes.” Some of the most notorious in recent decades include queer novelist JT LeRoy, later revealed to be writer Laura Albert; or Forrest Carter, whose Native American-themed “The Education of Little Tree” turned out to be written by one Asa Carter, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yet in contrast to earlier eras, authors from historically underrepresented groups are increasingly asserting their authority over what is and what is not an “authentic” narrative voice drawing from their cultures, as the reaction to “American Dirt” has shown. These limits seem to be hardening in the early 21st century, several critics and authors said.
“Somebody [who] is perceived to be overstepping a boundary ... might say, ‘No, I wasn’t meaning any harm by it,’ or, ‘Well, if it’s a good book …,’” Miller said in an interview. “But it actually sums up an entire armory of defenses these impostor authors use, based on freedom of expression, and the right to represent, and then — one step further — the right to represent the ‘other.’”
He added: “And that’s when things, in particular now I think, are more hotly debated. And we’re starting to see some real whistleblowing — and I’m mixing metaphors here — with teeth.”
A question of accountability
Cummins’ fast-paced tale of a mother and her son escaping from Acapulco, Mexico, to the border with the United States was selected by Oprah’s Book Club and endorsed by several star Latinas. But immediately upon publication, it faced intense backlash from critics, led by Long Beach writer and teacher Myriam Gurba.
Critics have made much of Cummins defending herself by identifying as a “Latinx woman.” In an author’s note, she mentioned her formerly undocumented immigrant husband — without mentioning that he was from Ireland. Cummins and her publisher did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
“What Gurba wrote was just brilliant in that it hit every point that needed to be made,” said Richard T. Rodriguez, a professor of media and cultural studies at UC Riverside. “But it wasn’t even so much about Cummins, it was the way in which she authorized the publication of the book by kind of playing this ethnic ‘other’ that they decided they needed in order to sell the book.”
For “American Dirt,” the controversy has not dampened reader interest, even in the deeply Latino city of L.A. The novel spent two weeks at No. 1 on The Times’ bestseller list. Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, was forced to cancel a publicity tour for “American Dirt” after the avalanche of negative responses, but it will air a town hall-style event with Oprah Winfrey and Cummins on her Apple TV+ program, according to reports. The program was recorded on Feb. 13 in Tucson.
Author Aya de Leon, whose recent novel “Side Chick Nation” deals with the 2017 tragedy of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, took on Cummins’ identity in a recent Guernica essay titled “What About Your Grandmother, Jeanine?” De Leon needles the “American Dirt” author for not vetting her work more deeply, arguing that her looseness with Mexican tropes springs from her privilege as a white woman, and also asking why Cummins has remained mostly silent on the political and social challenges currently facing Puerto Rico.
“Fiction is imperfect, especially when we’re writing about experiences that we haven’t had,” De Leon said in an interview. “But what to me is critical is to have some kind of connection with the people who have had those experiences, and to be in a relationship with those folks, even if the relationship is that you’re paying somebody to vet your manuscript, even if it’s a relationship of accountability.”
De Leon, director of the Poetry for the People project at UC Berkeley, said she got a minuscule $6,000 advance for “Side Chick Nation” compared to Cummins’ seven-figure prize for “American Dirt,” but still used a portion of it to hire a sensitivity reader. De Leon is herself Puerto Rican.
“You can tell from her author’s note that Jeanine had a suspicion, had that gut feeling, that something was wrong,” De Leon said. “And she lets this white industry convince her that it’s fine, and they let her put out this book.”
The question of accountability has seemingly overtaken concerns about whether non-Mexican authors like Cummins or Lewis have the “right” to write about Mexicans. In 2014, for example, Jennifer Clement, an American-born but Mexico-raised white woman, published the novel “Prayers for the Stolen,” which is written in the voice of a girl in southern Mexico. It raised no critical hackles from the Mexican American literary community.
“It’s true anybody who’s not Mexican or Mexican American can write about Mexico, of course you can,” said Clement, who is also currently president of PEN International. “But you have to do the work, and it takes a lot of work, sacrifice and kind of reshaping your own identity. You won’t remain the same person afterward.”
In the decades since “Famous All Over Town” hit the market, it continues to be sold as a piece of work by Danny Santiago, with no explanatory notes on the author’s true identity. It’s available in public libraries. Professors — like Gonzalez at Berkeley — still teach it, and sometimes employ the pedagogical trick of not revealing the name of Daniel Lewis James until after students have consumed it.
Leading Latino voices still defend the book’s literary merits. “I think ‘Famous All Over Town’ is a great book,” said Luis J. Rodriguez during an L.A. Times Book Club-sponsored conversation with this writer in February. But, he added, “If you’re going to write about other people, you better take on the responsibility.”
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