Writing, race and representation: What the debate about Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt tells us about appropriation
A growing chorus of online critics accused American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins of having exploited the experience of migrants and repackaging it as opportunistic “trauma porn” for a predominantly white publishing industry.
American Dirt has certainly ignited a vigorous conversation, but hardly the one the author and publisher intended.
A growing chorus of online critics accused Jeanine Cummins of having exploited the experience of migrants and repackaging it as opportunistic “trauma porn” for a predominantly white publishing industry.
Cummins says she understands where the criticism comes from but still hopes people will read the book for themselves.
American Dirt seemed poised to become one of this year’s biggest, buzziest books.
When it came up for auction in 2018, the novel — about a desperate Mexican mother and son who flee for the US border after a drug cartel massacres their family — set off a bidding war and sold to a publisher for seven figures. It drew rapturous endorsements from novelists like Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros, and got glowing advance reviews from industry publications that hailed the book as propulsive and heart-wrenching.
The author, Jeanine Cummins, has said she hoped the novel would drive discussions about immigration policy and open “a back door into a bigger conversation about who we want to be as a country.” Since then, American Dirt has certainly ignited a vigorous conversation — but hardly the one the author and publisher intended.
Even before the book hit shelves this past week, a growing chorus of online critics was challenging the hoopla, accusing Cummins, who identifies as white and Latina, of having exploited the experience of migrants and repackaging it as opportunistic “trauma porn” for a predominantly white publishing industry.
Criticism intensified Tuesday after Oprah Winfrey anointed the novel as her next book club pick in a splashy joint appearance on CBS This Morning with the author, whom Winfrey said she hoped to interview near the border for her book club program.
It was an extraordinary convergence of forces: Industry hype meets charges of cultural appropriation meets one of the most combustible political issues in America today, immigration.
And that was before a photograph from a lavish book promotion dinner last spring, showing a faux barbed-wire floral decoration, began circulating on Twitter, where it was vilified as “border chic.” So was a resurfaced tweet from last fall in which Cummins cheered a fan’s manicure inspired by her book’s cover, complete with more barbed wire.
The controversy lands at a moment when debates about race and representation are front and center across the cultural and political landscape, from the Academy Awards, which faces yet another #OscarsSoWhite outcry, to the National Football League, where the number of minority head coaches is falling, to the Democratic presidential primary, where the most diverse field of candidates in history has narrowed to a nearly all-white group.
It also falls right into the roiling argument over art and cultural appropriation — how the stories of marginalised people should be told and who should be given the platforms to tell them. Social media has elevated more voices but also brought greater scrutiny to the decisions of businesses and tastemakers like Winfrey who are trying to build broader audiences.
Opinions are hardly monolithic. When white painter Dana Schutz drew fire for Open Casket, a painting of Emmett Till included in the 2018 Whitney Biennial, some black artists denounced her for exploiting black pain, demanding the work be removed or even destroyed. Others defended the artist’s right to take on any subject.
The literary world has been wrestling with the same questions, particularly in the young adult sector, where authors and publishers now routinely rely on sensitivity readers to help defend against potential racial and cultural blind spots.
When it comes to literature, Daniel Mendelsohn, an editor-at-large at the New York Review of Books, said it was important to stand up for unfettered freedom of imagination “as a matter of principle” while also acknowledging the reality of the offense it can cause.
“When controversies like this come up, it’s worth standing back and looking at all of pop culture, which is filled with preposterous misrepresentations,” he said. Which ones are offensive, he said, “is a very sticky issue” and depends on your relationship to the thing being represented.
“When it’s something very emotional and meaningful for me personally, like the representation and appropriation of the Holocaust, I get a little squishy,” he said.
The attention heaped on Cummins’ novel may have a particular sting for Latino writers now, because of both the intensity of political debate around the border and broader trends in publishing.
Ilan Stavans, general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, said those writers were appearing on mainstream publishers’ lists less frequently than during the boom of the 1980s and ’90s, when writers like Julia Alvarez, Oscar Hijuelos and Junot Díaz became bestsellers and literary stars.
“It’s not so much who tells the story but who gets to sell the story,” Stavans said of the outcry over American Dirt.
“If out of 100 titles that were published by mainstream publishers, 25 were by Latinos,” he continued, “no one would be complaining.”
Since the Oprah’s Book Club announcement, some Latino and other writers of color on Twitter have urged Winfrey to reconsider and called on readers not to support the book.
After Winfrey’s pick, actresses Salma Hayek, Gina Rodriguez and Yalitza Aparicio posted shots of themselves holding the book, which had been sent to them by Winfrey’s producers. By Friday, Hayek and Rodriguez had deleted their posts.
In a statement Friday, the publisher, Flatiron, said it was carefully “listening to the conversation” but stood by the book.
“We ultimately go back to the novel’s intention,” the statement read, and the way it “gives us empathy with our fellow human beings who are struggling to find safety in our unsafe world.”
Winfrey issued her own statement, saying she had found the book “riveting” but had been listening to members of the Latino community and would “bring people together” on her show on Apple TV Plus.
“I think it will open up the conversation in unexpected and hopefully very meaningful ways,” she said.
It's not clear how much ordinary readers are being swayed by the controversy. The novel, which was No 4 on Amazon on Saturday, is already on track to be a commercial success; Barnes & Noble made it a storewide book club pick.
At Warwick’s, an independent bookstore in San Diego where Cummins will speak Monday, the book was prominently displayed in the window. The store’s book buyer, Adrian Newell, said there had been no backlash from customers and added that the “vitriol” in some of the critiques made her uncomfortable.
“It’s better to get the story out, and the messenger is not always the one you would pick right away,” Newell said.
At a Barnes & Noble in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego, Cristian Perez, a 25-year-old teacher who is Mexican American, said he had not heard about American Dirt or the controversy, but he said he was glad to see a writer using her “privilege” to “bring light to the misfortunes of other people.”
Cummins, 45, has been sticking to her promotional schedule. On Wednesday, she drew more than 100 people to Politics and Prose, a bookstore in Washington, where she read from the novel and answered questions, addressing the backlash.
She told the audience that her book was informed by five years of research, some spent traversing the borderlands, visiting orphanages and volunteering at a soup kitchen for migrants.
“Voices of color, and women’s voices have been hijacked for a very long time, and I understand where that frustration is born,” said Cummins, who has a Puerto Rican grandmother.
“There is a lot of work to be done in the publishing industry on this front,” she said. “I hope to contribute what I can to that conversation in a constructive way, but I don’t feel like I’m responsible for the problem.”
Expectations for the book have been high from the outset.
Preorders from booksellers were so strong that Flatiron increased its announced first printing to 500,000 copies from 300,000. The novel appeared on more than a dozen lists for the most anticipated books of 2020 in magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times. Some prominent authors of Mexican descent, including Cisneros and Reyna Grande, publicly praised the book, with Cisneros calling it “the great novel of las Americas.”
Criticism began building in December, when writer Myriam Gurba posted a lacerating review, which she said had been assigned and then killed by a feminist magazine. “Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it,” she wrote.
Mainstream reviews, mainly written by white, non-Latino critics, were largely admiring, although there were some strong dissents. Parul Sehgal, a staff critic for The Times, called the book vivid in places but predictable, clumsily written and marked by “a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin.”
In the midst of the fallout, some writers who offered blurbs for the book have reconsidered. Mexican American poet and novelist Erika L Sánchez, who had praised it as written with “grace, compassion, and precision,” said in an interview this past week that she wouldn’t have thrown her weight behind the novel had she known it would upset so many in the literary world.
“I hope this book inadvertently opens up doors for people of color,” she added.
The complaints about the book mix concerns with its execution (including what some have said is Spanish not typical of Mexico), the identity of the author and the belief that a Latino writer telling the same story would not get the same support.
“The problem isn’t that a non-Mexican wrote about migration,” said Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, who writes about crossing the border and growing up unauthorised in California in his memoir, Children of the Land, due out Tuesday.
“The problem,” he said, “is the gross bastardisation of the subject and the erasing of others who have written about this and are writing about it.”
Other writers have questioned the idea, widespread in our broader literary conversation, that literature should put us in the shoes of marginalised people in order to build empathy or to “humanise” people who are already human.
“The idea of empathy is something people are leaning on as a crutch to defend something, instead of facing head-on the question: What is your motivation for writing about people in this way?” said Namwali Serpell, a Zambian-born novelist whose debut, The Old Drift, drew acclaim last year.
A more apt term for the in-their-shoes approach than empathy, she said, was pornography.
“It’s about the pleasure of the writer and reader, not the larger-scale issues people say they are being political about,” she said.
Cummins says she understands where the criticism comes from but still hopes people will read the book for themselves.
“I feel like the book needs to stand on its own merits,” she said at an event in Baltimore, according to industry publication Publishers Lunch. “If people read it on its own merits and then decide that they hate it based on what is in the pages, that’s OK. Not everyone needs to love my book.”
Jennifer Schuessler and Alexandra Alter c.2020 The New York Times Company
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