Digging into “American Dirt” and What Lies Underneath It All

“Taking away the platform for someone within that group to advocate their story goes to show you never cared, speaking on behalf of them is different from speaking for them”.

Within the publishing world, writing outside one’s shoes, specifically ethnicity or race, is viewed as a disputable subject. Even though, as Americans, we are guaranteed freedom of religion, speech, peaceful assembly, and press, how free are we really? Many maintain that publishers need to introduce more diverse authors, editors, and stories. This fact doesn’t forbid people from writing outside their ethnicity or race. However, things become an issue when the work is culturally appropriating and depicting stereotypes and inaccuracies of a targeted group.

This topic made headlines last year when a white author, Jeanine Cummins, released American Dirt, a story that recounts the life of a Mexican woman who’s forced to flee with her son to the United States and the struggles that meet them through their journey. Not only did the story show elements of trauma-porn, cultural appropriation, and stereotyping of migrants, it left the literary world divided. Many readers say it left them with a bitter taste to swallow. A reviewer went so far as saying, “At a time when Mexico and the Mexican-American community are reviled in this country as they haven’t been in decades, to elevate this inauthentic book written by someone outside our community is to slap our collective face”. On the other hand, Cheri, another reviewer, would disagree stating the story is “a very timely read that moved me, shook me to the core, this is filled with heartache, as well as humanity, the kindness of strangers.” Both make valid statements to their points, but it still makes you wonder, how can a white American woman get away with writing a story about an undocumented Mexican immigrant?

 How can a white American woman get away with writing a story about an undocumented Mexican immigrant?

According to New York Times, 89% of books published by major publishing houses were written by white authors in 2018, only leaving 11% written by BIPOC authors. This disparity goes to show how displaced the world of publishing truly is. With the current climate the world is in and the recent tragedies that depict how marginalized BIPOC are, some say publishing houses haven’t done enough to show their support by giving more job opportunities and roles to BIPOC. In a 2019 Diversity Baseline Study, it was found that 76% of white individuals held the majority of the industry roles, 78% taking on executive roles, 85% editorial, and 80% literary agent roles. With limited opportunities to make it into this rigorous market, it is hard not to see the many hurdles and challenges BIPOC have to overcome to ever get their voices and stories heard.

While these aren’t the only obstacles preventing these communities’ advancement in this sector, many bloggers, bookstagrammers, writers, and authors used their platforms to bring attention to this ongoing problem. Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez criticized American Dirt heavily when it was published. “In 17 years of journalism, in interviewing thousands of immigrants, I’ve never come across anyone like American Dirt’s main character…this should not be called by anyone ‘the great immigrant novel, the story of our time, The Grapes of Wrath.’ Why? How did we get to a point in our industry, in the book industry, in society, that this is the low standard that we have?”

This Instagram post made it’s rounds when the book first made headlines.

Others like Bookstagrammer Adriana of  Book_Aspirations, expressed, “It’s time the industry makes room for its own voices and promotes diverse authors/books to diverse audiences. It’s time to uplift and hype up Own Voices authors who have long been overlooked. For example, I’m a Latinx immigrant, and if I want to read a ‘migrant’ story chances are I’d like an authentic voice that honors my experience and doesn’t get exaggerated nor caricaturized”.

While there’s still so much work to be done to fix the disparities that this industry proves to have everyday, there are still so many questions on whether it is ethical at all for any of this to be taking place. Speaking with Oreal Vernon, content creator and entrepreneur, we are able to examine this topic through fresh eyes.

In your opinion, do you believe we should have the freedom of press and speech? Why?

I believe that we should have this freedom because our world is so vast and massive if we didn’t then we wouldn’t be able to understand each other as a collective.

Have you experienced anything negative due to assumptions and discrimination that came from other people’s words or actions? How did it make you feel?

As a black woman with an invisible disability people make assumptions by just looking at me. People see what they want to and people know what they want to know before even asking who I am or what my story is. So there have been several cases where people have used their own education and not given me the privilege of educating them on who I am.

“I believe that as an author you have responsibility to your readers to be transparent.”

Oreal Vernon

What are the pros and cons you believe comes from being allowed to write about others cultures, experiences, trauma, etc.?

Pros:

  • Seeing what other perspectives are. The point of writing about others is to educate people about topics such as dyslexia, coming from someone who is, some people don’t have first hand experience so they don’t fully understand 
  • Putting it on paper! Cause you’re not serving anyone else, talking to anyone else, doing anything else. Just putting your ideas on paper.

Cons:

  • You’re not that person or that group, you’re just putting your own perspective on that topic. It isn’t the perspective of all or the group or person. It’s toxic! 
  • Taking away the platform for someone within that group to advocate their story goes to show you never cared, speaking on behalf of them is different from speaking for them.

Finally, what would allow someone to have the right to talk/write on matters not pertaining to them?

The only way you could write about a person or something that you have no personal experience with is if you did your research with reliable sources, and if not then state before that you don’t have personal experience with that topic.

This will forever be a topic making its rounds amongst the literacy world and its associates. Whether it’s in the author’s hands or the publisher’s hands, accountability and change is required. If there’s anything you should take with you from this discussion, Andrea couldn’t have put it into better words:

“I honestly don’t think anyone needs to be allowed or given permission to write about something. People have the right to be creative and do what they want. They just need to be respectful and aware because you don’t know who’s reading it or who’s it affecting at the end of the day.”

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