Appropriation and AMERICAN DIRT

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The fervor over AMERICAN DIRT continues to flame on. I wrote an early review of the novel, which I enjoyed, but found problematic, and then I came across this takedown by the writer Myriam Gurba, who scorched both the book and its author, Jeanine Cummins.

Here’s a quote from Gurba’s review:

Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.

For me, the controversy around American Dirt revolves around three points:

  1. Appropriation
  2. Marketing
  3. Envy

Appropriation

As an author, I’m disturbed by the treatment Cummins is getting from what is widely referred to as the “cancel culture,” which tends to attack any work of art they deem is appropriated. Cummins’ book tour was canceled, allegedly over threats to her.

Appropriation means to take something for one’s own use, without the owner’s permission. In this case, a white author is taking the migrant experience, which belongs to migrants, and writing about it for her own use.

I remain in the camp that a writer can write anything she wants, and there are no rules, especially in an imaginative work of fiction, about who is allowed to write what. But if you’re a white author writing about the migrant experience; or a straight author writing an LGBTQ character; or a male author writing from a women’s point of view—you’d better get it right.

No matter who your characters or point of view are, you have to pull off the authenticity test, and it’s going to be hard. But go ahead, that’s what writers do: they research, imagine, invent and write all kinds of things they have not directly experienced.

I know first-hand how hard that can be. In my novel STASH, there is only one character who is black: he’s a secondary character, a former NFL player turned drug-dealer and villain. At the time I was writing the novel, I hadn’t considered what hole I might be digging for myself.

After the novel was published, I was doing a book talk in my town and afterward a reader (who was black) came up to me and told me how much he liked the book. So it still hadn’t registered on me what mistake I might have made.

Only after some online reviews mentioned “racist undertones” in the novel did I wake up. And what did I do? I panicked. I didn’t want to be that author. I had made writing decisions that seemed to fit the story without considering what other impacts those decisions might have. That was definitely a mistake on my part.

Will I only write about middle-aged suburban white people now? Absolutely not. I want to expand, not contract, as a writer, but I’ll be more aware of the decisions I make and their potential ramifications to what I hope is a diverse reading audience.

What I’m also going to do is read more broadly and diversely. The Mexican American writer David Bowles suggested these books for readers who want an authentic rendering of the migrant experience:

  • Reyna Grande: Dream Called Home & Distance Between Us
  • Luis Urrea: Devil’s Highway, Into the Beautiful North
  • Cristina Henríquez: Book of Unknown Americans
  • Ana Raquel Minian: Undocumented Lives
  • Anabel Hernández: Massacre in Mexico
  • Guadalupe García McCall: All the Stars Denied

I just picked up “The Book of Unknown Americans” and am about to start it.

Marketing

For multiple reasons, I’m largely disappointed in the publishing industry. Flatiron made serious missteps in publishing American Dirt. A seven-figure advance for what is essentially a road thriller? A huge marketing campaign for what was positioned as a culturally significant novel that authentically portrays the migrant experience?

I can see why Gurba, and many others, are pissed off.

In a letter from Bob Miller, president and publisher of Flatiron books, he stated he was surprised about the backlash (because other literary lights and Oprah had given it pre-pub praise) and confessed to a number of publishing mistakes:

“We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland; we should not have had a centerpiece at our bookseller dinner last May that replicated the book jacket so tastelessly.”

They would have been better off marketing the book as a road thriller, but the temptation to cash in on the migrant experience was just too great.

You could make the case that the market should decide the fate of the book, and in this case the market declares American Dirt a winner: Oprah pick, bestseller, ubiquitous media coverage.

But leaving the definition of quality or success to the market is largely leaving it to white people to decide the book’s worth, since they make up the large majority of publishers and readers in the United States. The white world has to embrace the book in order for it to be a success, which means it has to please the novel-reading audience, not provoke it by challenging their views.

Envy

I’m about to step into a trap, because the complaints about American Dirt are legitimate. Marginalized and underrepresented voices have been snuffed out in favor of the white perspective.

But there’s not one author out there, myself included, who doesn’t wish we’d been given a seven-figure advance and enormous marketing support for a novel that we wrote, whatever its potential for controversy. Would I trade that kind of money to be the center of a cultural firestorm? Show me where to sign.

Jeanine Cummins I’m sure is experiencing some negative effects for the reaction to her novel. I feel bad that she wrote a book she wanted to write and is now becoming the blame target for problems within the publishing industry. On the other hand, she can afford all the therapy she needs and almost anything else that will assuage her.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.

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