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Why the Latinx Literary Community Is Warning Us About ‘American Dirt’

While American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was being officially named the monthly pick for Oprah’s Book Club and the Barnes & Noble February 2020 National Book Club Selection Tuesday morning, Latinx writers and book bloggers and their supporters had already launched a social media campaign warning readers of the alleged egregious stereotypes about Mexico and Mexican-Americans within the book.

Oprah joined the CBS This Morning crew, including her BFF Gayle King, with Jeanine to share the highly anticipated book selection.

“You already have a little bit of haterade people are drinking about you,” Gayle said about the controversy. “Even you were first worried you had no business writing this book. You felt compelled yet unqualified because it’s a migrant story. In Mexico.”

“I always knew I wanted to write about immigration,” Jeanine responded. “I was interested in that topic and I resisted for a very long time, telling the story from a migrant’s point of view because I was worried I didn’t know enough. That my privilege would make me bind to certain truths.

“I felt very compelled. It was five years of research and two failed drafts that convinced me that I needed to go into Lydia’s point of view,” she said. She added during her early research she spoke to a former Chicano studies professor chair at San Diego State University who told her: “‘Jeanine, we need every voice we can get telling this story.'”

Oprah ended the interview by saying she and Jeanine will travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to the real places mentioned in the book to videotape the book club special for Apple TV+.

On Instagram, book bloggers and writers posted several photos starting with a neon blue screen, matching the blue hue in the book cover, followed by a pile of books by Mexican-American writers. Book blogger Lupita @lupita.reads said the book is “filled with harmful stereotypes of my culture for the sake of representation.”

Especially not at this time when all we are fed in the media is “Mexico = bad”. I can’t and I won’t accept books that dehumanize immigrants. The thing is, I am not a “brown faceless mass”, as the author noted, I have had a face for a very long time and so have writers like me that have written about our struggles beyond our initial journey here.

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I might be just a reader but that doesn’t mean I should sit back and accept books that are filled with harmful stereotypes of my culture for the sake of representation. Especially not at this time when all we are fed in the media is “Mexico = bad”. I can’t and I won’t accept books that dehumanize immigrants. The thing is, I am not a “brown faceless mass”, as the author noted, I have had a face for a very long time and so have writers like me that have written about our struggles beyond our initial journey here. Struggles of acceptance into a country that time and time again tell us we are unwanted yet uses our bodies for labor…. . I urge you today and every day to listen to own voices reviewers and their criticisms of this book because if we treat their concerns as insignificant we are perpetuating the problem whether you choose to read this book or not. This isn’t about censoring what you read it’s simply asking you to listen, asking you to educate yourself on the stereotypes this book elevates. It’s about asking you to consider supporting your own voices stories, stories that aren’t advertised as widely as this book, stories written by writers that accurately depict the immigrant experiences… . Swipe right for a list of Mexican/Mexican-American own voices & novels that center immigration without dehumanizing it. Not pictured but books you should also buy are: Mean by Myriam Gurba, They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid's Poems by David Bowles & Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

A post shared by Lupita | lupita.reads (@lupita.reads) on

The messages ask readers to educate themselves on the stereotypes in the book and support books actually written by Mexican and Mexican-American authors who depict more accurate immigrant stories but didn’t get the same marketing budget as American Dirt. Book bloggers a part of the “own voices” community posted they felt their concerns about the book have been drowned out by the good reviews by the publisher, Oprah, and their affiliates.

The book is under the Flatiron Books imprint with MacMillan Publishers. Its website has a quote from trailblazing Mexican-American poet Sandra Cisneros saying, “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel! This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”

“This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel! This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”

American Dirt follows Lydia, a bookseller in Mexico, who is married to a journalist. Once her husband publishes a profile of a drug cartel leader, Lydia must flee her home with her son Luca. Their journey leads to the border where they know the cartel leader won’t find them in the U.S. The book’s description ends: “As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?”

Though Oprah received the bulk of the backlash, Barnes & Noble also announced its bookstores will hold a book club discussion on March 10 at 7 p.m. No word yet on any counter-discussions scheduled at that time.

 

“With Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, we have selected a book that will resonate with our customers and stay with them long after they turn the final page,” said Liz Harwell, senior director of merchandising, trade books at Barnes & Noble, in the announcement. “American Dirt is a heart-racing page turner that takes readers into the heart of the migrant crisis.”

 

Barnes & Noble Book Club conversation will be at #BNBookClub on social media while Oprah’s Book Club can be found at @OprahsBookClub on Instagram.

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