Jeanine Cummins’ novel, “American Dirt,” was sent to bookstores across the country with an editor’s note that spoke about how fervently Cummins wished to “give these people (the faceless brown mass at the Mexican border) a face.” Executive Vice President and Publisher Amy Einhorn attempted to give Cummins, who is neither brown nor a migrant, some credibility in the note by including her connection to a formerly undocumented immigrant. The editor’s note is as obtuse as the book itself — for a book all about uplifting the voiceless, it relies on tired stereotypes and problematic conceptualizations of a group of people. Although it is poorly written, fetishizes Mexican migrants and insensitive in its discussion of immigration, it successfully points to a larger problem within an overwhelmingly white literary industry.
“American Dirt,” follows a Mexican mother and her son from their comfortable life in Acapulco, which is being overrun by drug cartels, to their journey to the U.S. as they flee from a dangerous drug lord. Writers of color have spoken about how the book is full of cliches and stereotypes about Mexico, portraying a “Trumpian fantasy of what Mexico is.” Furthermore, instead of humanizing her characters into three-dimensional beings — i.e., “giving these people a face” as Cummins apparently longed to do — she relies on tropes and sexualization. Naturally, the book features a Latin lover, the drug lord Javier. It also includes the “dangerously” beautiful Soledad, whose body is a “vivid throb of color.” Several scholars have discussed how problematic this characterization is: Cummins is dehumanizing Latinos by portraying brown bodies as something solely to be feared or lusted after.
Cummins herself admitted that she wasn’t sure whether she was the right person to write about a brown woman’s immigrant experience. She identified as a white woman until recently, when she coincidentally remembered her Puerto Rican grandmother. The personal connection she has to a “formerly undocumented immigrant” is through her husband, who is Irish. Again, that shows just how tone-deaf the publisher and the author are, as they completely disregard the complexities and nuances of the immigrant experience between places of origin and race. An Irish immigrant will not face the same discrimination that a Mexican immigrant does. Even from an entirely legal standpoint, Mexican immigrants are at a disadvantage when adjusting their immigration status.
In an interview, Cummins defended her choice to write the novel despite her misgivings: “I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write.” The book was apparently in a heated bidding war between publishing houses and Cummins was offered a seven-figure deal by Flatiron Books, the winner. Iranian writer Porochista Khakpour stated that she only knows of one writer of color that was offered a six-figure advance before — “and that was in the ‘90s.” Reyna Grande, now an award-winning writer who wrote about her own journey crossing the Mexican border when she was child, reported that she received a $20,000 advance for her first book, but only after 27 attempts and constant suggestions to make her story “more marketable.”
That in itself is the real root of the problem: writers of color are turned away by the publishing industry in large numbers. A 2019 Diversity Baseline survey by Lee & Low Books showed that the publishing industry is predominantly white: 78% of executives, 85% of editors, 80% of critics and 80% of agents are white. Naturally, a white industry will want to invest in books they, as an audience, will want to read; this returns to the suggestions that Grande received when trying to find a publisher. The industry wants immigrant tales that a white audience will find palatable, and Cummins delivered, even if she wasn’t factual or sensitive in her portrayal.
UCR is the only school in the UC system that offers a degree in creative writing and it is one of the most diverse. The industry makes it hard for writers of color, like UCR graduates, to break into the field; subsequently, texts by diverse, talented authors are going unrecognized while authors like Cummins are being applauded for subpar work.