“American Dirt” was the country’s top-selling book last week, now No. 1 on the Publishers Weekly list and St. Louis indie booksellers’ own list. About 500 holds are placed on 176 copies of “American Dirt” at the St. Louis County Library, with about 115 people waiting at St. Louis Public Library.
The novel received a storm of publicity when it went on sale Jan. 21 and Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. But the storm was real: Latinx readers were angry over reports that a white writer, Jeanine Cummins, had appropriated Mexican culture for a page turner about migrants. Not only that, she reportedly received a million-dollar advance and the full force of a publicity machine, something that’s only a dream for most writers. Book critics seemed to struggle to decide whether the novel deserved praise — or condemnation.
Cummins, who has relatives here, had said she was looking forward to visiting St. Louis, but Left Bank Books canceled last weekend’s event at the 11th hour; publisher Flatiron Books then canceled two more events and finally, on Wednesday, the entire tour.
That same day, dozens of authors published an open letter to Winfrey urging her to reconsider her selection. PEN America also weighed in, advocating dialogue without “descending into either ad hominem attacks or caricature. As defenders of freedom of expression, we categorically reject rigid rules about who has the right to tell which stories. We see no contradiction between that position and the need for the publishing industry to urgently address its own chronic shortcomings.”
Winfrey released a video statement indicating the book club pick was still on, but her plans were being tweaked:
“I’ve spent the past few days listening to members of the Latinx community to get a greater understanding of their concerns, and I hear them. I do,” Winfrey said in the video. “What I want to do is bring people together from all sides to talk about this book.”
Author Ann Patchett, who hosted Cummins in her Nashville, Tennessee, bookstore without incident, emailed the Associated Press, saying she understood the decision to end the tour.
“For the record, I loved ‘American Dirt.’ I’ve never in my life seen this kind of public flogging,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, writer Myriam Gurba, an early critic, tweeted: “Do you know what is so ironic about this book? It is a book about cartels that now threatens a cartel. I’m speaking in terms of market structures. The publishing industry is often referred to as a monopoly. Its not. Its more of an oligopoly.”
Do you know what is so ironic about “this book?” It is a book about cartels that now threatens a cartel. I’m speaking in terms of market structures. The publishing industry is often referred to as a monopoly. Its not. Its more of an oligopoly.— Myriam Chingona Gurba de Serrano (@lesbrains) January 29, 2020
It’s obvious the discussion is far from over. People are buying the book and will be talking about it in book clubs, trying to suss out whether the anger over a mere page turner is valid or overwrought.
As readers continue to debate topics regarding “American Dirt” and prepare for their own book club discussions, here are some more things to consider.
Who’s to blame for canceled events?
Left Bank Books in St. Louis was the first store to cancel an event with Cummins, citing not just requests from the Latinx community, but vague threats on social media. Online responses to the cancellation ranged from “thank you” to disappointment from readers who wanted to hear from the author. Others thought the store was bowing to efforts to censor her.
A few days later, Flatiron Books apologized for its mistakes in promotion and said in a press release: “Unfortunately, our concerns about safety have led us to the difficult decision to cancel the book tour.”
In a statement, Bob Miller, Flatiron’s president, said, “Based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety.”
David Bowles, who has been active in discussing and criticizing the novel, said in a phone interview Tuesday with the Post-Dispatch that Latinx critics did not cause the early cancellations at individual stores, even though some Twitter users celebrated.
“People protesting did not cancel the event,” he said from his home in Texas. The publisher and bookseller exercised their power “on our behalf.” Bowles, a Mexican American born in Texas, writes young adult and children’s books and teaches at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.
He also said he saw “nothing wrong with celebrating a win over something evil,” clarifying that he didn’t see Cummins herself, however, as evil. He said that on Twitter he and writers Roberto Lovato and Gurba were starting the hashtag #DignidadLiteraria, which suggests a variety of actions, including organizing protests for “literary dignity.”
A Washington University professor blamed neither bookseller nor author: Cummins’ publisher failed her and booksellers, says Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.
Not only did the publisher fail to properly vet the book, its publicity roll-out was a disaster, subjecting Cummins to vicious criticism for some of its mistakes.
“Someone should have noticed it would create this reaction.” The publisher and editor were negligent, Sánchez Prado said.
“There are about 36 million Mexicans in this country who could have been consulted,” he said. The publisher and editor displayed “disrespect for intellectual authority.”
Are book critics fair?
A review in the New York Times helped accelerate criticism. Parul Sehgal wrote that “American Dirt” showed “a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin.” This complaint and others were repeated by multiple outlets.
When reading the book, however, many may be surprised to find out that a rare, early reference to skin color actually comes during an unflattering portrayal of a white American character. The novel’s protagonist, Lydia, seeks help from a Mexican friend and his American wife. The wife fears that providing help may put her own missionary friends in danger. Carlos, the husband, asks if they are just “drive-by Samaritans?” then says:
“They just want to make pancakes and take selfies with skinny brown children?” The novel clearly uses the straightforward reference to bring up racism by whites.
Gurba’s review criticizes the novel overall and in many particulars, which have been repeated online. For instance, she writes that Lydia is shocked Mexico City has an ice rink.
The actual passage in the book might strike others as a simple description: “The commuter rail station is located at one end of a vast shopping mall with a Sephora and a Panda Express and even an ice rink. The street in front is crowded with pink taxis and red buses.”
A repeated accusation from David J. Schmidt on HuffPost is that the novel comes close to plagiarizing a nonfiction book by Luis Alberto Urrea, “By the Lake of Sleeping Children,” which describes a boy killed by a garbage truck in a dump (now closed). Not only does Cummins mention Urrea in her acknowledgments, in the novel itself she cites Urrea: “Lydia knows a little about las colonias of Tijuana because she’s read the books, because Luis Alberto Urrea is one of her favorite writers, and he’s written about the dumps, about kids like Beto who live there.”
Most veteran book reviewers acknowledge that criticism is, by definition, opinion. But they also are urged to be “fair.” That means a person who doesn’t like science fiction usually should not review science fiction. A scholar who has a personal dislike for another scholar should back up criticism with evidence and not just make personal attacks. On the other hand, with limited space available, reviewers have to pick and choose examples from books.
Readers of “American Dirt” might want to decide how some examples cited by critics actually appear to them. Can a novel that name checks an author be accused of plagiarism?
When asked whether critics had unfairly portrayed how Cummins referred to brown skin, Bowles said he tells Latinx readers they don’t need to be “fair” when criticizing the book because their emotional reaction comes from a place of collective historical trauma. “I know that may fly in the face of a world view,” he says.
He does want Mexican Americans to read “American Dirt” — so credibility of the criticism grows. He tells them writing about how they feel when they read the book is fine; their criticism can be an expression of their feelings.
How can a simple novel trigger readers?
“American Dirt,” although “well-constructed and well-paced” is “objectifying,” particularly for some Mexican American readers, Bowles says. Even if Cummins was well-intentioned, that’s “irrelevant” if the result is full of errors, he says.
He has tweeted: “So what do we do? We stand together, forming an organic coalition of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, other Latinx folks, & allies, pointing out the harm that an inaccurate, objectifying book can do to a community already grappling with generational trauma.”
So what do we do? We stand together, forming an organic coalition of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, other Latinx folks, & allies, pointing out the harm that an inaccurate, objectifying book can do to a community already grappling with generational trauma. #DignidadLiteraria— David Bowles (Mācuīl Ehēcatl) (@DavidOBowles) January 29, 2020
Not only do many Mexican Americans feel tense over current American policies regarding the border and immigration, they recall disturbing history. From 1910 to 1920, for instance, thousands of ethnic Mexicans are believed to have been killed in Texas.
“All these things have people on tenterhooks,” he said by phone. And when they read a novel by a person who doesn’t have deep familiarity with Mexican culture and history, the story causes an emotional response. The “whitewashing” generates real feelings of distrust and trauma.
Sánchez Prado, who grew up in Mexico City, says the story is not as personal to him.
“I am a white Mexican, so in Mexico I am not discriminated against.”
The expert in Mexican literature details many faults in the story. For instance, evoking the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez is out of date: “He is not someone people in Mexico are thinking about.” The Spanish in the book sounds contrived (“Mami” is used in Puerto Rico; “Mamá” is more common in Mexico, he says.)
And since Lydia is a middle-class woman, the routes she takes to the U.S. are unnecessary, he says. “It trivializes what’s really going on with the Central American migrants traversing Mexico.
“It feels like whitewashing.”
Also, the emphasis on drug cartels and the assertion that children grow up constantly worried about them is wrong, he says: “Violence in Mexico is often overstated in U.S. media, to the point that similar problems of crime and violence from the U.S. get forgotten.
“I feel safer in Mexico City than in St. Louis.”
Sánchez Prado believes it’s unlikely Americans will learn much about his country from the novel or change their minds about migrants. Because it aimed to be a bestseller, political criticism in the book is not pointed enough, he says. “The noncommittal nature of the plot is infuriating.”
The Washington University professor also points out that St. Louis has relatively few Mexican American residents. He has even noticed that Mexican groceries on Cherokee Street often employ people from Central America. There is no extensive local literary discussion of Latinx writing and limited choices of Mexican literature in local bookstores.
Those are among the reasons he finds it unlikely that the average book club reader of “American Dirt” will dig deeper into books about Mexico.
Aren’t things now more diverse?
Some publishers have worked to acquire more books by Latinx writers, Bowles agrees. “It’s important we applaud people who have made the publishing industry more reflective of the culture,” he says.
Children’s books in particular are gaining diversity, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. But the stats aren’t impressive. Among U.S. publishers, the center says, of 3,312 children’s books it examined in 2018, 240 featured Latinx characters. Of those, 186 were written by Latinx authors. In 2015, 79 of 3,200 books featured Latinx characters.
A survey by Lee & Low Books released in January indicates “76 percent of publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents are White. The rest are comprised of people who self-report as Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (7 percent); Hispanic/Latino/Mexican (6 percent); Black/African American (5 percent); and biracial/multiracial (3 percent). Native Americans and Middle Easterners each comprise less than 1 percent of publishing staff.”
The publisher emphasizes that most of the figures have not changed significantly from its first survey in 2015; in addition, it sent out more surveys last year, but a significant number were not returned.
There is some evidence book awards are less likely to only favor white writers. The National Book Awards have seemed conscious of diversity for some time. For instance, just last year its fiction shortlist of five included novelists identified as Asian American, Moroccan American and African American. Another finalist was a debut collection of short stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, which featured Latina characters. Her book, “Sabrina & Corina,” was also a finalist for a Story Prize and the PEN/Bingham.
Where do I find good books about Mexico?
Bowles believes readers need to figure it out for themselves by Googling lists or doing other research. “I’m not here to baby or mollycoddle you,” he says. “Catch up.” The average white American, he says, needs to recognize there is a “huge segment of the population who do not see the world the way they do.”
Because of the controversy over “American Dirt,” more lists have popped up in the past few days. The Texas Observer offered 17 about the border by Latinx writers. Some of the titles are memoir and poetry. Fiction titles listed include “Signs Preceding the End of the World” by Yuri Herrera; “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L. Sánchez; “Where We Come From” by Oscar Cásares; and “Everyone Knows You Go Home” by Natalia Sylvester.
Sánchez Prado even suggests a travel book by Paul Theroux. He’s planning to use “On the Plain of Snakes” as a textbook in class because he believes students will connect with the outsider look at Mexico, saying “the process of learning about Mexico is part of it.”
“It is the book by a white writer I wish Americans would read.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.