The Fight for Diversity in Publishing Competes With ‘American Dirt’ Success

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’ debut sensation, was met with controversy right off the bat when the Latinx literary community said some descriptions in the book appeared racist. Jeanine, who identifies as a white woman with a Latina grandmother, saw her author profile still rise with white readers and Oprah Winfrey claiming it as a marvel.

Whether readers think the novel had racist undertones or not, American Dirt reignited the conversation around diversity in publishing. But what changes should we expect?

A group of Latinx writers, spearheaded by Myriam Gurba, helped drive the campaign against the novel, which led to a meeting with Flatiron Books after the publisher canceled the book tour  over safety concerns for the author and booksellers hosting the events. The Flatiron Books president and publisher, Bob Miller, said he and his colleagues had been excited about the book’s release and its praise from major authors and Barnes & Noble and Oprah’s Book Club making the book a selection. In a statement, after the excitement wore off, he said:

“We were therefore surprised by the anger that has emerged from members of the Latinx and publishing communities. The fact that we were surprised is indicative of a problem, which is that in positioning this novel, we failed to acknowledge our own limits.”

The statement also added the publisher regretting the categorization of the novel under the migrant experience, the mention of Jeanine’s husband being an undocumented immigrant “while not specifying that he was from Ireland,” and a centerpiece at a bookseller dinner last May that “replicated the book jacket so tastelessly.”

The barbed wire illustration on the cover has been seen as offensive, and critics accused Jeanine of glamorizing the negative symbol of immigration with her book cover manicure. The blue watercolor-looking birds have become a part of Oprah’s Book Club profile photo on Instagram and the background of Jeanine’s website.

Flatiron Books plans to organize town hall meetings, where Jeanine will be joined by groups who have raised objections to the book. Dignidad Literaria responded with a letter from 142 writers of various ethnic backgrounds asking Oprah, who wields much literary industry power, to backtrack and drop American Dirt from its selection list. Some authors include Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina; Jasmine Guillory, author of The Wedding Date; and Angie Kim, author of Miracle Creek.

On Oprah’s Book Club Instagram posts asking for input on the novel, most of the comments are positive reviews. Jeanine, the author of The Crooked Branch, The Outside Boy, A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and its Aftermath, has expressed her support for migrants along the U.S,-Mexico border on her website and asked readers to also send their support.

When I was traveling in Mexico and the borderlands researching for American Dirt, nothing surprised me more than the preponderance of HOPE among people who endure so much hardship. That is what the United States of America still represents to the people who risk everything to get here. So many good people in the US and Mexico are deeply committed to protecting refugees in their most vulnerable moments; these folks are out there just quietly saving lives every single day. If you are moved to do so, please support them however you can.

The Los Angeles Times featured a recent local event, organized by Myriam and other writers including Roxane Gay, about the American Dirt controversy. Roxane said of the novel’s author, Jeanine:

“This woman is going to be set for life, this book is going to earn royalties in perpetuity, and so it just reinforces what publishing already knows, which is as long as white people are translating the experiences of people of color, it will sell very well.”

Dignidad Literaria is holding another town hall meeting in San Antonio, Texas at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center on Feb. 22.

With American Dirt at No. 1 this week on The New York Times Best Sellers list, the time period of the book’s success may last a few more months and most likely reach the end of the year. Roxane echoes the concern that diversity in publishing, especially related to this book, might not happen the way it needs to.

One of the main issues is a white author being reportedly paid a seven-figure paycheck to tell migrant stories that are not a part of her experience. The argument between readers is who gets to write others’ experiences versus if it’s fair to designate certain stories for certain groups.

All eyes are now on Oprah’s TV special she promised in response to the criticism. According to local Arizona publications, she was shooting Feb. 13 on location in Tucson, where 250 people were asked to meet at the Harkins Theatres Arizona Pavilions and moved to another location. Oprah had promised last month on CBS This Morning that she would shoot the special around the border towns mentioned in the book.

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