‘American Dirt’: Who gets to tell your story?

Why We Wrote This

How can fiction best engender empathy? Underneath the firestorm of controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt” are questions vital to storytelling.

Steve Kagan
Jeanine Cummins (right), author of "American Dirt," signs a copy of her book for Juliet Dickerson at BookExpo in New York on May 29, 2019.

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The furor over “American Dirt” centers around a previously noncontroversial idea: authors using fiction to imagine lives other than their own. To some, the controversy represents identity politics run amok. To others, the dispute highlights a lack of diversity within the most prestigious echelons of the publishing industry.

At the heart of the matter is a deeper question: How can fiction best engender empathy?

“Why it’s happening now is because it is related to the politics of identity and the feeling that certain groups in society haven’t had a sufficient voice and representation,” says Ian Buruma, former editor of The New York Review of Books. “If every writer could only write about characters like themselves that would become a very narrow exercise. And the whole point of writing, especially of fiction, is that you can get into the heads of people who are not like yourself.”

But bestselling author David Bowles (“Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico”) believes that earlier protest campaigns have resulted in more empathetic rewrites that were mindful of people’s dignity.

“I think the publishing industry is moving in the right direction,” he says. “I actually feel positive about the opportunities for writers of color in upcoming years. I think [the ‘American Dirt’ incident] is more of a hiccup along the way than an indication that we’re sliding back.” (Read the Monitor’s review of “American Dirt.”) 

It was supposed to be the book launch of every author’s dream: Jeanine Cummins had scored a rare publishing industry trifecta. She sold “American Dirt” for seven figures. A Hollywood studio bought the film rights. Oprah Winfrey anointed it her Book Club pick.

Yesterday, Ms. Cummins’ publisher canceled her tour and issued a public apology amid a firestorm of accusations of cultural appropriation and stereotyping.

It’s a pattern familiar to writers of young adult, science fiction, and other genre fiction. But “American Dirt,” industry observers say, is the most high-profile work of literary fiction bound up in a thorny question: Who gets to tell someone’s story?

Ms. Cummins herself acknowledged the debate in her afterword of her thriller about a Mexican mother and son escaping a drug lord by fleeing to the U.S. border. “As a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants,” she wrote. “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”

The furor over “American Dirt” centers around a previously noncontroversial idea: authors using fiction to imagine lives other than their own. To some, the controversy represents identity politics run amok. To others, the dispute highlights a lack of diversity within the most prestigious echelons of the publishing industry. At the heart of the matter is a deeper question: How can fiction best engender empathy?

“Why it’s happening now is because it is related to the politics of identity and the feeling that certain groups in society haven’t had a sufficient voice and representation,” says Ian Buruma, former editor of The New York Review of Books. “But when it starts relating to fiction or drama or film, it seems to me a very doubtful discourse because, first of all, if every writer could only write about characters like themselves that would become a very narrow exercise. And the whole point of writing, especially of fiction, is that you can get into the heads of people who are not like yourself.”

The caveat is that authors should strive for verisimilitude. Ms. Cummins has claimed she was “careful and deliberate” in her research and traveled extensively on both sides of the border. (Flatiron Books agreed to the Monitor’s request for an email interview with Ms. Cummins, but she hasn’t responded to the submitted questions.)

Yet Latino authors such as Myriam Gurba, Daniel Peña, and David Bowles have rebuked Ms. Cummins for employing nonidiomatic Spanish phrases, homogenizing Mexicans’ regional cultures and geography, and lazily relying on stereotypical tropes such as setting the first scene at a quinceañera. They fret that “American Dirt” will leave readers with the impression that Mexico is a hellhole.

“Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it,” wrote Ms. Gurba (author of the memoir “Mean”), whose caustic review notes that Ms. Cummins identified as white in a 2015 essay. In the run-up to the book’s publication, the author described herself as part Latino because her grandmother is from Puerto Rico. “Critics have compared Cummins to Steinbeck, I think a more apt comparison is to Vanilla Ice,” Ms. Gurba wrote.

By contrast, American writer Lionel Shriver (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) has long defended the idea that authors should be free to try on other hats. At the 2017 Brisbane Writer’s Festival in Australia, she underscored that point by donning a sombrero at the end of a speech.

“We all observe each other,” says Ms. Shriver. “And part of self-examination is not always availing, is it? So sometimes others can see things about you that you can’t. So I’m interested in the observations of people about groups to which they do not belong.”

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/File
Writer Lionel Shriver, shown in 2007 in her London apartment, has long defended the idea that novelists should be free to write about lives unlike their own.

“If you’re a good fiction writer and a good observer of the world, there are no limits to what you can take on with enough empathy and research,” says Ms. Shriver. “You own the whole world for as long as you are here. It is your backyard. It is your experience. And there is no hands off. And that’s for everyone, as well as artists. So you have a right to have an opinion about it, to experience it, to think about it, to talk about it.”

Of late, several genre fiction authors have been called out for misrepresenting marginalized groups that they aren’t a part of. The civil war in the Romance Writers of America – which resulted in the resignations of multiple presidents, an entire board, and the cancellation of the 2020 convention – erupted in December after the RWA banned a Chinese American writer, Courtney Milan, for forcefully objecting on Twitter to how Kathryn Lynn Davis described Chinese characters in “Somewhere Lies the Moon” (which was published in 1999).

In the world of young adult fantasy, Amélie Wen Zhao’s “Blood Heir,” Keira Drake’s “The Continent,” Laura Moriarty’s “American Heart,” and Laurie Frost’s “The Black Witch” were pilloried for alleged racist depictions of characters. Polite critiques on Twitter and Goodreads were about as rare as a starred review for a James Patterson thriller in Publishers Weekly. Consequently, several of those books were pulled prior to publication and revised.

Bestselling YA author Mr. Bowles (“Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico”) believes those protest campaigns resulted in more empathetic rewrites that were more mindful of the dignity of groups of people.

“Very few people are saying that people cannot write other people’s stories, but what they are saying is it is the height of privilege to believe that you are writing in a vacuum,” says Mr. Bowles, who notes that relatively few books are subject to headline-making instances of blowback. “All of this hand-wringing about, ‘You’re trying to censor me,’ feels like more of a move by white hegemony – often an unconscious move, but a move nonetheless – to continue to marginalize the voices of color.” 

The limits of sensitivity readers

For its part, the publishing industry is very self-aware of its demographic makeup. Yesterday, Lee and Low Books released a survey that revealed that 76% of employees in the industry are white, 74% are women, 81% are straight, and 89% are non-disabled. In recent years, many publishing houses have striven to promote marginalized authors writing about marginalized characters with #ownvoices marketing campaigns.

The industry regularly employs sensitivity readers to vet books – particularly for children and young adults – for offensive material related to portrayals of race, nationality, gender, religion, sexuality, and ability. In her acknowledgments at the end of “American Dirt,” Ms. Cummins thanks more than a dozen Latinos who read the manuscript, including scholars and people at various nonprofit institutions in Mexico.

Some are dubious that sensitivity readers can claim to fully represent a particular group. After all, people within different nationalities, races, classes, and genders aren’t homogenous.

“They’re being explicitly asked to make normative judgments, ethical judgments, aesthetic judgments,” says philosopher and science fiction author Craig Delancey (“Gods of Earth”). “Is the fact that this particular character is a criminal somehow now expressive of certain bigotries?”

Their evaluations go beyond fact-checking – they’re subjective, says Mr. Delancey. Case in point: Clarkesworld magazine recently pulled the sci-fi short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” – not exactly a common category of intersectionality – when some readers interpreted it as a transphobic allegory. The story had been vetted by sensitivity readers. And it was written by a trans woman.

Mr. Buruma, for one, believes that authors shouldn’t strive for sensitivity in an ideological sense of placating readers. After all, many works of literature, including “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Ulysses,” and “Last Exit to Brooklyn” have offended readers. Rather, authors should be sensitive to the behavior of their characters, who may well misbehave, as a way to understand the human heart.

“Fiction has an important role in making us understand not only ourselves better and how human behavior in general works – including our own – but where empathy comes in is that it allows us to get under the skin of people who are not like us,” says Mr. Buruma, now a professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College in New York.

By her own account, that’s exactly what Ms. Cummins set out to accomplish with “American Dirt.” She wrote that she wanted to remind readers that “the people coming to our border are not one faceless brown mass but singular individuals.”

A firestorm or a hiccup?

Some writers, including Ann Patchett and Lauren Groff, testify to being deeply moved by the story. “When I think of the migrants at the border, suffering and desperate, I think of Lydia and Luca,” Ms. Groff wrote in a New York Times review, in which she also expressed anxiety over the fact that “American Dirt” wasn’t written by a Mexican or a migrant.

Sandra Cisneros (“The House on Mango Street”) remains a staunch defender of the book and believes it could reach audiences who wouldn’t pick up one of her books. “It’s going to be [an audience] who maybe is undecided about issues at the border,” Ms. Cisneros told NPR’s Maria Hinojosa. “It’s going to be someone who wants to be entertained, and the story is going to enter like a Trojan horse and change minds. And it’s going to change the minds that, perhaps, I can’t change.”

But for Daniel Peña (“Bang”) the plot amounts to “lab-created brown trauma built for the white gaze and white book clubs to give a textural experience to people who need to feel something to avoid doing anything and from the safety of their chair.” 

Yesterday, Flatiron publisher Bob Miller issued a public apology in which he wrote, “We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience.” The publisher also canceled Ms. Cummins’ extensive book tour due to “specific threats to booksellers and the author.” Ms. Winfrey now says she wants to host a “deeper conversation” about “American Dirt” on her Apple+ TV show.

Flatiron promises a series of town hall meetings at a later point in which Ms. Cummins “will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book.” Mr. Miller added, “We believe that this provides an opportunity to come together and unearth difficult truths to help us move forward as a community.”

In an interview prior to Flatiron’s announcement, Mr. Bowles said he was encouraged by the publisher’s response to the Latino writers who’d raised objections about “American Dirt.”

“I think the publishing industry is moving in the right direction,” he says. “I actually feel positive about the opportunities for writers of color in upcoming years. I think [the ‘American Dirt’ incident] is more of a hiccup along the way than an indication that we’re sliding back.” 

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