Perhaps you heard of the controversy in January that turned the publishing industry upside down for a few weeks. It had everything that makes a good scandal in the United States these days: money, power, accusations of cultural appropriation and racism, and eventually even a hashtag.
The brou-ha-ha was about American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, published by Macmillan Publishers in January. It’s the fictional story of a young boy’s and his mother’s journey from Acapulco to the United States under harrowing circumstances.
Macmillan Publishers won the bidding war, offering Cummins a seven figure contract and a publicity budget large enough to garner the sales to warrant such a payment. Meanwhile talented writers of Asian, Latinx, and African American heritage are rarely offered book contracts at all, much less such lucrative deals. (For context, an African-American writer who won the National Book Award fought to get a contract for $20,000 for her subsequent book.)
Many took issue with the book’s cover, which prominently features barbed wire, symbolic of the cruelties of U.S. Immigration policies, as a design element. While some saw the book jacket design as effectively evoking the main obstacle the protagonists faced, Latinx writers were incensed at what they saw as a publisher insensitively capitalizing on an emblem of immigrant trauma.
Undaunted, Macmillan expanded on this visual theme, using barbed wire for the centerpieces at a publicity luncheon for the book. Also deaf to the criticisms, author Jeanine Cummins got a manicure with nail art of barbed wire, then tweeted about it.
Immigration reporter Aura Bogado critiqued Cummins’s “vulgar pleasure of proudly wearing this exact symbol of oppression as a fashion statement,” (1/23/2020) in a new wave of outrage over Cummins and her book. She was not alone in her outrage:
“What is wrong with all of you? Barbed wire manis? Are you intentionally trolling for bad press or just legit this dumb and or like actually cruel?”
— Chelsea Peretti (@chelseaperetti) January 23, 2020 tweet
Cummins, who has previously identified as white, started to refer to herself as Latinx (her grandmother was of Puerto Rican origin) just before the book came out. She and Macmillan have been accused of cultural appropriation and tokenism.
This brings us to critiques of the author and her work. Mexican American writers’ criticisms of the book itself, and of Cummins as the author, centered on authenticity of the characters, settings and plot elements. Many said, in effect, if you want to understand migrants’ experiences, read Children of the Land, by Marcello Hernandéz Castillo.
Does this mean that white writers can never create characters who are people of color? Can white writers never tell stories of migration? I’ve been asked that question more than a few times since January, when American Dirt came out. Yet I don’t think that’s the right question. Of course white writers, like anyone else, are free to write whatever they like (at least here in the U.S., at least for now). I believe that a better question is “How can white writers write well about characters who are people of color?”
In American Dirt, the father and husband of the two protagonists is a journalist who’s written about one of the drug cartels, identifying the kingpin by name. In retaliation, three men assaulted the celebrants at his niece’s quincañeros party, killing him and fifteen others. His son had gone to the bathroom, and his wife had gone to find the child, so the gunmen overlooked them. (The potential victim hiding behind a shower curtain while the perpetrator comes into the bathroom is a common trope of the suspense genre.) After that, the boy and his mother are on the run, migrating north while escaping the cartel and, at the border, border patrol agents.
Unfortunately, American Dirt was sloppy. There was an important plot element having to do with a garbage dump that was home to many impoverished children and young adults, but the dump was closed and demolished twenty years before the setting of the book. In writing fiction
about real events, part of the discipline is to get all of the details that you include about the true event absolutely correct, including time period. For instance, one of my writer buddies is finishing an historical fiction novel set in the 1840s. She wrote a scene in which one of her characters quoted from a Frederick Douglass speech, though he had written the speech two decades after her scene took place. Despite how perfect Douglass’ speech was for the scene, she had to change her character’s speech so that it referred to events that were contemporary to the scene.
In American Dirt, all of the Mexican characters except the protagonists are either poor, violent, or both. Some characters, such as two sisters the protagonists meet on their journey, are only developed enough to be somewhat plausible victims, their characters are only shown in relation to the violence they endured. Similarly, in the opening scene, the author kills off the husband (not to mention his family) before the reader ever gets to develop an opinion of, much less empathy for, him. The leaves the author open to accusations of “violence porn.”
Another weakness of the book is that the author switches point of view frequently, but without giving the reader any of the structural clues — scene breaks, new chapters — that would keep this from being disorienting. Rather, you’re reading the narration as if you’re inside the mom’s head, then without warning you’re looking at the world from within the little boy’s mind.
In its defense, American Dirt reads like a thriller, rather than a meditation on the border and its miseries. I don’t read thrillers much, so I’m not a good judge of their qualities. Rather, my criticisms are about American Dirt’s pretensions to be a book humanizing immigrants who cross the border without governmental permission.
By contrast, Children of the Land, by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, is utterly gripping from the first scene, as ICE agents, looking for his father (who had been deported three years earlier), swarm through teenaged Hernandez Castillo’s house.
As the scene unfolds, I feel his palpable fear, his constant anticipation of a raid, in my own body:
My body never really stopped shaking, a small breakwater holding back the tidal wave of the past…. I knew ICE was all around us and that a raid was just on the horizon…. But my mistake was that I always saw them outside—never did I think I would one day find them inside my house…. the only place the shaking stopped a little…. But I would never again be able to unwind at home, to take my shoes off and completely let my body go. Home was suddenly something to add to the list of dangers. I had nowhere else to go.
Hernandez Castillo’s preferred medium is poetry, and his memoir reflects his lyrical way of thinking. He uses pop culture to explore his experience of alienation, of belonging and not belonging, using everything from the Trix cereal commercial to The Truman Show. He shows us his fractured sense of identity through his process of getting a green card.
Children of the Land is so layered that I’m sure I haven’t uncovered all of its meanings. Hernandez Castillo describes taking his father to a Denny’s restaurant in Tijuana, before his immigration appointment at the U.S. Embassy:
You didn’t need permission to enter the bright America that was Denny’s, which was next door to the little America, the embassy, and everything was in stark relief against the big America just beyond. All you needed was money. It was easy to take part in the Denny’s America…. It was easy because they didn’t care when or where you made your money, only that you had it at the time of purchase. Money was your green card.
In Children of the Land’s narrative, the border is a character, alive and pulsating with power, worming its way deep into migrants’ imaginations and consciousness. It’s the author’s antagonist, in the book and in
his life, which revolves around his palpable relationship with the border and all it represents. That makes this a very different book from American Dirt. In Cummins’ book, the border seems more like a narrative device.
Even after reading American Dirt and Children of the Land, I still believe white folks can write characters who are people of color, and characters who endure the degradations of the U.S.’s immigration system—if we do so with intimacy, insight, and sensitivity. In fact, the controversy over
American Dirt has shined a light on the value of sensitivity readers, who read and assess manuscripts with a particular issue of representation in mind. Usually, sensitivity readers are members of, and/or are deeply knowledgeable about, the background(s) of the characters in the manuscript. They don’t play “red light/green light” with books: contrary to criticisms of sensitivity readers, they don’t wield veto power. Instead, they help an author strengthen their book, by noting all of the places the author’s cultural blinders or lack of knowledge have created problems in the narrative.
The saga of American Dirt had at least one positive outcome. It prompted L.L. McKinney, an author of fantasy novels, to create the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, to highlight the deep racial inequities in the publishing industry. Writers of color posted the details of the publishing deals they were able to get, and McKinney compiled the posts into a spreadsheet that reveals the extent of the problem. They can now use that information in negotiating their book deals.
Writing a memoir, I haven’t yet had to grapple with questions of my protagonist’s identity, since my protagonist is me: a white, American, lesbian, Jewish mom with physical challenges.
Looking back at the topics of my blog posts, it seems likely that any novel I write will somehow grapple with issues of identity, power, and representation. I can’t say now who the protagonist of my future novel will be: her ethnic background, her religion, her skin color, and all those characteristics bring with them. I hope, with all my heart, that I do my characters’ identities justice. I imagine immersing myself in my characters’ cultures, communities, and concerns, and portraying them in a way that reflects my deep research and learning. I pledge now to write my characters as whole, complex people, and to seek guidance and feedback from members of my characters’ communities. Most of all, I promise to write them with humility.
American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. Macmillan Publishers, 2020.
Children of the Land, by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. HarperCollins, 2020.
Jeanine Cummins manicure by @BookManicurist; photo source unknown. Images by Joe Kennedy and Macmillan Publishers. Photo of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo by Kenzie Allen; book cover photo HarperCollins.