I had been interning at a literary agency in Back Bay for less than a week when I first became aware of the debate around Jeanine Cummins’s “American Dirt.” The book recounts the story of a Mexican woman who leaves her life behind to immigrate to America as an undocumented immigrant. On the surface, Cummins’s novel had the makings of a literary success story.
Its publisher, Macmillan, is a giant of the publishing world and upon its release, Oprah Winfrey herself endorsed the novel by listing it as an “Oprah’s Book Club Pick.” The media executive even took to Twitter to promote the title: “From the first sentence, I was IN … Like so many of us, I’ve read newspaper articles and watched television news stories and seen movies about the plight of families looking for a better life, but this story changed the way I see what it means to be a migrant in a whole new way.”
Unfortunately for Cummins, high profile support did not shelter her novel from controversy. Upon its publication in late January, “American Dirt” became embroiled in a debate regarding diversity and the appropriation of trauma in a notoriously homogenous industry.
Most critics point to the novel as a textbook example of “brownface.” Cummins, a self-identifying white woman, recognizes that many distinctions lay between her and her protagonist, Lydia.
“The elephant in the room is that I’m not Mexican,” Cummins said in an interview with Trident Booksellers. “But she’s a mom and I’m a mom. The experience of the parent-child bond is not universal, but it’s global.”
Despite Cummins’s reasoning, critics say the author usurped the narratives of immigrant communities to forge a story that, according to Latinx author Myriam Gurba, is nothing more than “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf.”
I will speak not to the quality of Cummins’s writing. I have not read “American Dirt,” and I have no plans to. Thus, this article seeks not to review the heavily contested novel but rather to inquire as to how this controversy came to be in the first place. While Cummins has been the focus of most hate and criticism, she was not alone in brewing this scandal. A robust team of publishing professionals backed her manuscript. Agents, editors and publicists alike supported Cummins in writing a story that she was not capable of telling.
It is no secret that the publishing world has a homogeneity problem. According to a story from Bustle, the industry has an extended history of celebrating predominately white storytellers. Honors such as The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature seem to overlook writers of color entirely. Of the 30 women to win the Pulitzer prize since its 1917 inception, only three were women of color. Moreover, Caucasian publishing professionals overpopulate the industry. In a 2015 study by Lee & Low, 79% of publishing professionals were white. The study was exhaustive in scope. It examined diversity, or rather the lack thereof, in all facets of the industry: executives, reviewers, sales, marketing and publicity. Furthering issues of representation, 89% of publishing professionals identified as heterosexual, 96% were non-disabled and 99% identified as cisgender.
But on Feb. 4, “American Dirt”‘s publisher made a vow to change this. As reported by the LA Times, Macmillan met with Latinx activists to discuss their plans to broaden Latino representation in the publishing industry. According to a press release, the company is committed to “substantially increasing Latinx representation across Macmillan, including authors, titles, staff and its overall literary ecosystem.” The statement went on to say that Macmillan will endeavor to reach its goal within 90 days.
This may or may not result in sustained change, and it is a shame that Macmillan’s public commitment to representation arrived only after the publishing house became ensnared in a nation-wide scandal. It is a start though, and the “American Dirt” controversy will hopefully push the publishing industry to support authors of all backgrounds. That way, each writer’s fiction will be rooted in authenticity and lived experience, rather than in the appropriation of someone else’s pain.