Alison Flood, The Guardian, January 24, 2020
Jeanine Cummins’s British publisher, Headline, is standing shoulder to shoulder with the American press that published her divisive thriller, declaring that it is proud to publish her in the UK. As the backlash continues over her novel about migration from Mexico to the US, the imprint acknowledged the book has “sparked debate about the legitimacy of who gets to tell which stories”.
American Dirt, the high-octane story of a Mexican mother who crosses into the US with her son, was published this week. It was acquired for a seven-figure sum by Flatiron Books in the US, and received effusive pre-publication praise from authors including Stephen King and Don Winslow. It went on to land a film deal and win selection from Oprah’s Book Club – a surefire guarantee of bestsellerdom.
But reviewers have called into question Cummins’s right to tell the story and accused her of stereotyping – criticism that intensified when it emerged Flatiron celebrated the book last year with a dinner party featuring barbed wire in floral arrangements. Writing on Medium, the Mexican-American author and translator David Bowles called the novel “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama”, while the Chicana writer Myriam Gurba condemned Cummins for her “overly ripe Mexican stereotypes”, and for prose “taint[ed]” by the “white gaze”.
Kate Horan, director of McAllen Public Library, which is on the US-Mexico border, said she had been invited to partner with Oprah’s Book Club to celebrate the novel. She declined, saying that instead she would be compiling a list of books “by authentic Latinx authors” to make available to her community.
“Latinx authors have objected to [Cummins] – who in the past has identified as ‘white’ – appropriating a story that could have, and should have, been voiced by someone of Mexican heritage,” she wrote to Oprah’s Book Club declining to endorse the novel. “The numerous inaccuracies in her story are clear evidence of the white gaze, capitalising on hurtful stereotypes and cashing in on human suffering.”
Cummins acknowledged from the start that her decision to tell this story raised questions, writing in an author’s note of her concern that “as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants”, and adding that she “wished someone slightly browner than me would write it”.
After the controversy blew up, Cummins addressed American booksellers, telling bookshop manager Javier Ramirez at an event in Baltimore that she had struggled with the question of what gave her the right to tell the story “for a very long time”.
“I lived in fear of this moment, of being called to account for myself: ‘Who do you think you are?’” she said. “And in the end, the people who I met along the way, the migrants who I spoke to, the people who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect vulnerable people, they showed me what real courage looks like. They made me recognise my own cowardice. When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice.”
Bowles, who teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley, said there was “nothing wrong with a non-Mexican writing about the plight of Mexicans”.
“What’s wrong is erasing authentic voices to sell an inaccurate cultural appropriation for millions,” he wrote, blaming Cummins’s “enablers” – including Flatiron, Winfrey, and newspapers who “printed fawning pieces” about the book. Mexican-American writers, he said, have been writing about the border for years: “However, none of us has been advanced as much money or had … publishing, press, and personalities marshalled to promote us in quite this way.” Online, authors provided lists of alternatives to American Dirt. “Read something told in our own voices,” wrote Gurba, pointing to titles including Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels, and Reyna Grande’s A Dream Called Home.
According to PublishersLunch, Cummins told booksellers that the question needed to be “directed more firmly toward publishers than at individual writers … I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write,” she said. “I acknowledge that there is tremendous inequity in the industry, about who gets attention for writing what books.”
Flatiron has said that “some of the biggest names in Latinx literature are championing the novel”, but added that it was “carefully listening” to the debate.
“The concerns that have been raised, including the question of who gets to tell which stories, are valid ones in relation to literature and we welcome the conversation,” it said. According to the publisher, the novel asks, “How far will a mother go to protect her son?” and provokes empathy with people “struggling to find safety in our unsafe world. This is the lens through which we have viewed American Dirt as the publisher, and the way in which we hope it can be appreciated by readers.”