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It’s clear that the swirl around Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt isn’t going to end anytime soon.
The highly anticipated novel about the Mexican migrant experience was denounced almost immediately by Mexican, Mexican American, and a variety of writers of Latinx heritage for its inaccuracies, embarrassing stereotypes, and cultural appropriation.
The outcry also raised important questions about how the overwhelmingly white book industry operates, and who decides what stories are worth telling.
Earlier this month, members of #DignidadLiteraria, a movement created by critics of the novel, held a meeting with Dirt publisher Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan. According to author and Dignidad co-founder David Bowles, they came away with promises to “build in greater representation in Macmillan, both in terms of titles and in terms of the actual editorial staff.”
The critics are making the most of the moment. Last week, some Dignidad members hosted “action forums” in several cities, including a discussion about the Latinx community and publishing at Antioch University in Culver City featuring Roxane Gay, Myriam Gurba, Wendy C. Ortiz, and Romeo Guzman.
And Bowles, citing conversations with fellow writers Gurba, David Schmidt, and Geoff Cordner, has proposed a collective review of the book, chapter-by-chapter, in response to the charge that Dignidad concerns are overblown. “If you’re Mexican, Mexican American, or otherwise intimately familiar with Mexico, I’m hoping you’ll ‘sign up’ below to look closely and critically at a single chapter.”
While this kind of group critique is not new, they can be instrumental in helping mainstream audiences understand how harmful poorly informed literature can be.
In 2010, readers, writers, and cultural experts began contributing to a blog called “A Critical Review of the Novel The Help,” about the best-selling book turned blockbuster film that centered the experience of wealthy white women in a feel-good version of the segregation experience in the Jim Crow South.
One post correctly predicted that unchecked, the “happy slave” narrative would continue to spread.
“After the success of The Help, I figured it was only a matter of time before some other enterprising author wanted their own happy slave, happy domestic narrative,” wrote Kimberly Klaus. “The end result seems to be that…other recent publications sought to find their very own ‘Happy Darkie,’ only this time it’s in children’s literature.”
Sho’ nuff. The best example she cited was the appalling A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a 2016 picture book featuring a good-natured enslaved chef and his young daughter scrambling around—shenanigans!—after they run low on sugar for Washington’s special cake. “Lest you think that this should have been a heart-warming ‘it’s take your daughter to work day!’ tale, it’s important to remember that the book was based on real people who were slaves,” says Klaus. And on real racist ideas that should never have been amplified by an influential publisher in the marketplace.
Amid a broad outcry, Scholastic, the publisher of A Birthday Cake for George Washington,was forced to pull the book.
While we wait for the American Dirt critique blog to populate, it’s worth noting that one part of their site already has.
The Death Threat Quilt is a sobering collection of the online threats and racist attacks that members of the Dignidad have experienced. (By contrast, there were no death threats against Cummins, Dignidad members confirmed at their meeting at Macmillan.)
“Marginalized writers endure constant threats of violence for speaking truth to power. Such threats are also laced with racist and misogynist hatred,” the introduction to the Quilt begins. “Flatiron books admitted during a meeting with Dignidad Literaria that Jeanine Cummins received no death threats. Meanwhile, critics of her work have been told they should be executed. Scroll through this death threat quilt to learn about this very ugly truth.”
The controversial novel continues to galvanize critics.Read More