It feels like years have gone by since Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt was unleashed onto the book world. In reality, it’s been nine days. In those nine days, readers and writers have decried the book’s racist narrative, Oprah has added it to her book club, and Cummins has canceled her book tour, citing unnamed “safety concerns.” Enter: NPR’s Latino USA podcast, in which host Maria Hinojosa interviewed Myriam Gurba, Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Jeanine Cummins to bring into a view all the feuding sides of the great literary battle of our time—our time being this unending horrible month of January.
Author Sandra Cisneros, who wrote a glowing blurb for American Dirt, voiced her continued support of the novel, arguing that it was “believable” and Cummins’ story could access a “different kind of audience,” one that would usually be skeptical about reading a book by an “author with a Latino last name.” When Myriam Gurba—who wrote what is in my opinion the definitive review of American Dirt—argued that the book is a several-hundred-page collection of negative stereotypes of Mexicans and Mexican culture, Cisneros responded that she doesn’t “understand the ‘stereotypical’ complaint.”
Gurba referred to an early scene in the book where a wealthy, sophisticated cartel head tries to woo the main character by bringing her conchas, a Mexican sweet bread, an action Gurba said was equivalent to a man trying to “sweep an American woman off her feet by bringing her doughnuts.” Cisneros said she felt that that Gurba’s comment about the conchas was merely “splitting hairs.” Cisneros encouraged everyone to read the book and should they find that they don’t like it, “put it down and do some serious introspection about why you really don’t like it . . . find out what you’re really upset about.” (While I can’t speak for every single Latinx person that has read this book, I’d argue that most are upset about how the book was presented to the public, and don’t need to embark on an internal journey to figure that out.) Cummins and Flatiron Books posited this story as seeking to “humanize” the mass of “brown faces” gathering at the southern border. (Gurba disagreed with this sentiment, noting that “there are no humans” in American Dirt, “just brown paper dolls.”)
The supposed need to humanize begs the question: to whom are immigrants not already human? The answer has surfaced an upsetting reality in publishing: That the industry is willing to release simplified stories in the supposed interest of attracting a larger (read: whiter) audience. How Latinx writers should react to that truth is a more complicated question. In response to the idea that some readers might also be upset that they’re unable to see their stories reflected back to them through any current fictional works, Cisneros said, “Write your own. We can’t write every single person’s story.”
Yet American Dirt and its white writer received a huge wave of resources and promotion prior to its release, in contrast to other Latinx writers, who may be more intimately familiar with the material but often get overlooked because they’re not white. Such was the case for Luis Alberto Urrea, whose first book By the Lake of Sleeping Children is one Cummins claims to have read on the journey to researching her novel. On Latino USA, Urrea spoke to Hinojosa about how difficult it was to get his book published because New York publishers told him that “nobody cares about starving Mexicans.” Urrea claimed that he did not read American Dirt in full because of his personal connection to the subject matter. Instead, his wife read it and became “agitated,” as she felt that some of Cummins’ work was lifted from Urrea’s work.
Urrea, who said he is opposed to inviting any sort of “literary scandal,” said he chooses to believe that there was no direct plagiarism. (HuffPost has noted that Cummins borrowed heavily from other writers, specifically pointing to a scene in Urrea’s book in which a young boy is crushed to death by a garbage truck, something that also happens in American Dirt. The scene wasn’t something Urrea had to research: “I knew about it because I buried that body,” he said.)
When Cummins spoke to Hinojosa, she struck a somber tone, a change from the tearfully proud tone used at her New York event. However the story was still the same - she was afraid, she did research, her father’s death gave her the ability to write this book in ten months. She said she regretted the border wall centerpiece seen around the world and the use of barbed wire in her book promotion. She also made sure to shift the blame for those events on to everyone else (florists, party planners, fans) involved in this book’s promotional tour, including her publishers, Flatiron Books. When drafting the book, Cummins said she was “afraid of being called to account for myself.” Which, of course, is precisely what happened: Cummins was called to account for her record of claiming she was white and unequipped to write about race, before doing a full pivot to being a Latina who felt compelled to humanize migrants.
While the podcast was pitched as a much-needed discussion, in reality, it brought little mutual understanding. Cisneros’s argument that naysayers should simply write their own stories flew in the face of her own admission that audiences are skeptical to pick up a book by an author with a “Latino last name.” It also failed to note the structural realities preventing such writers from releasing such stories, in an industry that is 76 percent white. How are new writers of color expected to enter the house when there are so few publishers, agents, and editors of color inside to open the door?
Cummins, meanwhile, has already sold her next book, which she has yet to complete. “I won’t write about migrants again,” she told Hinojosa. Flatiron Books has chosen to suspend Cummins’ book tour over what they say are fears of violence and, in a statement from their president Bob Miller, announced that Cummins would be participating in town halls with groups who have “raised objection” to the book. I’m sure that will go well.