Commentary: ‘American Dirt’ is what happens when Latinos are shut out of the book industry
By now, you’ve probably heard about the uproar that took place this week over a book.
“American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins was celebrated by critics as the great immigrant novel of our day.
“A ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our times.”
“I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up,” Winfrey said in a promotional video. “I feel like everyone 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.”
It was a perfectly orchestrated mega-budget campaign that might have gone off without a hitch if weren’t for Latinos. Many who grew up in actual immigrant families unleashed a storm of criticism — unlike anything the book industry has seen in years.
I was among those who spoke up.
I’m an immigrant, after all. My family fled by foot and bus to the U.S. in the 1980s as right-wing death squads were killing and torturing thousands across El Salvador, including several of my relatives.
The trauma of those dark days shaped everything about me.
I figured I might recognize some part of my story in Cummins’ book, which follows an immigrant mother and son on their harrowing escape north from Mexico.
Then I read the book. My skin crawled after the first few chapters.
Not because of the suspense, though that’s probably the only thing this narrative does well, like a cheap-thrill narconovela.
What made me cringe was immediately realizing that this book was not written for people like me, for immigrants. 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.
All, unfortunately, with the worst stereotypes, fixations and inaccuracies about Latinos.
After author Jeanine Cummins ignited a firestorm with her portrayal of Mexican migrants, “American Dirt” publisher Flatiron Books defends the novel.
Sure, I know it’s all fiction and I’m no literary critic. Cummins is not obligated to write a book that reflects my life. But it’s strange that a novel so many are praising for its humanity seems so far from all the real-life immigrant experiences I’ve covered.
Never in nearly two decades of writing about immigrants have I come across someone who resembles Cummins’ heroine, a Mexican woman named Lydia.
She’s a middle-class, bookstore-owning “Mami” who starts her treacherous journey with a small fortune: a stack of cash, thousands of dollars in inheritance money; also an ATM card to access thousands more from her mother’s life savings.
Why is she fleeing? Because while her husband, a journalist, was investigating a drug lord, Lydia was flirting with that same narco.
Moments after he walked into her bookshop, “She smiled at him, feeling slightly crazy. She ignored this feeling and plowed recklessly ahead.”
Later, when Lydia is running for her life, debating whether she and her 8-year-old son should jump on La Bestia, the perilous northbound freight train that’s cost many immigrants their limbs and lives, she has an identity crisis. She used to be “sensible,” “a devoted mother-and-wife.” Now she calls herself “deranged Lydia.”
Because hint, hint, reader: Any immigrant parent desperate enough to put their kids in such danger must be crazy, right?
It’s a book of villains and victims, the two most tired tropes about immigrants in the media, in which Cummins has an “excited fascination” with brown skin, as New York Times critic Parul Sehgal pointed out in one of the few negative reviews of the book. Her characters are “berry-brown” or “tan as childhood.” There is also a reference to “skinny brown children.”
When two of her leading characters, sisters migrating from Honduras named Rebeca and Soledad, hug, “Rebeca breathes deeply into Soledad’s neck, and her tears wet the soft brown curve of her sister’s skin.”
When’s the last time you hugged your sister and stopped to contemplate the color of her skin?
All novelists offer vivid descriptions of their characters, but Cummins’ preoccupation with skin color is especially disturbing in a society that constantly measures the worth of Latinos by where they fall on the scale of brownness.
Soledad, by the way, is also “dangerously” beautiful. She’s a “vivid throb of color,” an “accident of biology.” Even in the “most minor animation of the girl’s body … danger rattles off her relentlessly.”
Of course. Everywhere we Latinas go, our bodies are radioactive with peligro.
Speaking of Spanish, you’ll pick up quite a few words in “American Dirt.” Cummins, in stiff sentences that sound like Dora the Explorer teaching a toddler, will introduce you to conchas, refrescos, “Ándale,” “Ay, Dios mío,” “¡Me gusta!”
All this, it pains me to say, was praised by nearly every U.S. critic who reviewed it as a great accomplishment.
It’s what the Washington Post’s critic “devoured” in a “dry-eyed adrenaline rush,” what kept the Los Angeles Times reviewer up until 3 a.m., what the New York Times initially said had all the “ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dreiser‘s novels.” (The latter paper later deleted the tweet, and an editor explained the line had been from an unpublished draft.)
The heart of the problem is the industry — the critics, agents, publicists, book dealers who were responsible for this project. They’ve shown just how little they know about the immigrant experience beyond the headlines.
So we are left with this flawed book as our model, these damaging depictions at a time when there’s already so much demonizing of immigrants.
Cummins said she questioned whether she was the right person to tell this story.
She was born in Spain and raised in Maryland. A few years ago she identified herself in the New York Times as “white,” though in the book she plays up her Latina side, making reference to a grandmother from Puerto Rico. Her publisher publicized the book by promoting Cummins as “the wife of a formerly undocumented immigrant.” She doesn’t mention that her husband is from Ireland.
“I worried that, as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants,” she said in her author’s note.
“I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”
Still, she saw herself as a “bridge,” so she plunged in.
I don’t take issue with an outsider coming into my community to write about us. But “American Dirt” so completely misrepresents the immigrant experience that it must be called out.
Cummins said her goal was to help immigrants portrayed as a “faceless brown mass.” She said she wanted to give “these people a face.”
How’s that for a captivating book pitch?
The industry ate it up. In a rare three-day bidding war, Flatiron Books reportedly won Cummins’ book for a seven-figure sum.
The number astounded many writers. It fell with a blunt force on Latinos, who are constantly shut out of the book industry.
The overall industry is 80% white. Executives: 78% white. Publicists and marketing: 74% white. Agents: 80% white.
These numbers include 153 book publishers and agencies, including what’s known in the book world as the Big Five, which control nearly the entire market.
This diversity study, the most comprehensive in the industry, was launched by a small independent children’s book publisher in New York called Lee & Low Books. They’ve conducted it twice, in 2015 and in 2019. (Figures noted above are from the latest study, which will be released Jan. 28.)
In those four years, the numbers showed no significant change.
“The power balance has been off for so long,” said Hannah Ehrlich, director of marketing and publicity for Lee & Low. “Even when a big mistake is brought to their attention, when there’s a sense of urgency, publishers don’t fix it — or they try, with good intentions, but they don’t know how.”
They don’t know how. (Insert emoji of head exploding.)
The solution is simple: Hire more Latinos. More people of color. Listen to them. Promote them. Treat them fairly so they don’t leave.
Ehrlich kindly walked me through the world of publishing, which of course is very similar to journalism, including in its glaring lack of racial diversity.
Often, Ehrlich said, what happens is gatekeepers go looking for good stories, stories that resonate with their view of the world. If they 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.
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.
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.
All for sums that don’t come close to seven figures.
And for deals that don’t get the kind of superstar treatment of “American Dirt.” That includes books that Cummins studied closely to prepare for her novel, with real migrant stories like Oscar Martinez’s “The Beast,” Sonia Nazario’s “Enrique’s Journey,” Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Devil’s Highway.”
Cummins has no regrets about reaping the benefits of the system. She already got a movie deal and will soon travel to the border with Oprah for more publicity.
“I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write,” she said in a recent interview.
When asked about the criticism, the author often keeps the focus on the question of appropriation, saying writers shouldn’t be silenced. I have no desire to silence her, but her book is a symptom of a larger problem.
Cummins said people should direct their attention to the publishing world, not individual writers like her.
She’s got a point. In the end, the real fight over “American Dirt” is not about this writer. It’s about an industry that favors her stories over ones written by actual immigrants and Latinos.
Still, it’s hard to let Cummins off the hook. Not when she has posted photos on her Twitter account showing her celebrating “American Dirt” with floral centerpieces laced with barbed wire.
“That’s what I call attention to detail right?!” she wrote in a comment below the photo she posted of the party.
I can’t explain the gut punch I felt when I saw this image on the internet.
Growing up, my family spoke of this barbed wire. How it encircled them, how it tore their hands and legs in their treacherous trek north.
For us, the boogeyman that forced us to leave El Salvador was not some drug kingpin with a quivering mustache like La Lechuza.
It was a brutal 12-year war of terror waged on poor people by oligarchs, backed by the United States, which spent billions to train and equip Salvadoran death squads and the Salvadoran military; the U.S. helped pay for their weapons, bombs, jeeps, uniforms, gas masks. More than 75,000 Salvadorans died in the fighting.
Before my third birthday, I lost just about everyone: My grandfather, uncle and aunt were killed. My father was exiled. My mom was forced to leave me behind in El Salvador to come north.
It’s a story that repeats itself among the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who fled to the U.S. in the 1980s.
Because of greed, a thirst for power and government violence in Central America — a place where the United States has heavily intruded since the 1800s — thousands of families continue to run north. From Honduras. From Guatemala. From El Salvador.
This is the immigration story of our times.
Hopefully, soon, the book world will gather the nerve to let more of our own writers tell it. And give that story the same royal treatment it gave “American Dirt.”
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