A group of Latinx writers is hosting a town hall on Feb. 15 to discuss the state of Latinx representation in publishing at Alley Cat Bookstore. This town hall — organized by #DignidadLiteraria — is one of several across the nation created in response to Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a novel that follows a Mexican bookstore owner named Lydia and her eight year old son as they cross the border after their family was massacred by a drug cartel.
Cummins is white. She self-identified as such in a 2015 New York Times opinion piece, and in the afterward of American Dirt, wrote, “I wish someone slightly browner than me would write it.” But, despite the apprehension, Cummins still did, and got a seven-figure advance in the process. The novel became an Oprah book club pick. Film rights were sold to Imperative Entertainment. A quote from Don Winslow on the cover of American Dirt calls it a “Grapes of Wrath for our times.”
But marketing isn’t always reality. In a scathing review titled “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,” Long Beach writer Myriam Gurba scorched the novel, critiquing it for “appropriating genius works by people of color” and “repackaging them for mass racially ‘colorblind’ consumption.”
“Myriam’s unique voice touched a chord in all of us,” San Francisco writer Roberto Lovato says. Lovato is an organizer with #DignidadLiteraria, and one of the speakers at the town hall on Feb. 15, along with Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Aya de León, Carolina de Robertis and Juli Delgado Lopera.
The sentiment was further echoed and amplified as pictures of barbed wire centerpieces at a booksellers convention dinner for Cummins’ novel surfaced. “You know, to evoke border chic,” Gurba tweeted. (They were also reminiscent of the Cummins’ barbed wire nails — painted to match American Dirt’s cover.)
Maybe if American Dirt wasn’t inflated to “an epic, Steinbeck, Homer like” level, as Lovato puts it, the inevitable backlash wouldn’t have grown to match. But American Dirt is symptomatic of an industry with a problematic history: A 2019 diversity survey by Lee & Low Books revealed that 76 percent of people who work in publishing are white, and only six percent identify as Latinx.
“This lack of participation — that’s not our fault — makes us look like we’re unable to write, and that we’re unworthy to be part of the national conversation even about our own stories,” Lovato says. Lovato himself has a book coming out this year — Unforgetting, a memoir about Lovato’s experiences in El Salvador’s guerilla warfare and intergenerational trauma.
#DignidadLiteraria fought back. Lovato flew to New York, where he and several others held a meeting with Macmillan, the publishing company responsible for American Dirt. There, Macmillan agreed to push for more Latinx representation across Macmillan, develop an “action plan,” and regroup with #DignidadLiteraria to “assess progress.”
“What happened with American Dirt also brought to everyone’s attention what I call the Appalachian problem in U.S. publishing,” Lovato says. The Appalachian problem refers to how the publishing industry is based in New York. “But most Latinos, Central Americans live west of the Appalachians.”
#DignidadLiteraria plans to meet again with Macmillan in a few weeks to discuss next steps. They also penned a letter to Oprah Winfrey this week in LitHub, asking her to discuss with them the “continued underrepresentation of Latinx authors in publishing and in your highly influential book club.”
Representation in storytelling is a fatal matter, Lovato believes. He recalls his experiences in the Salvadoran Civil War when talking about why.
“I learned that there was a relationship between death, murder, and dehumanization in the story you tell about a person,” Lovato says. “That knowledge I gained in the 1980s is allowing me to understand the stories you tell about an individual or a group of people are the necessary precursors that destroy those people, that cage children, that push them to cut their skin on barbed wires.”
#DignidadLiteraria en el Bay Area, Feb. 15, 3 p.m., Alley Cat Bookstore and Gallery, 3036 24th St.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.