“American Dirt”, the new choice of the Oprah book club, is fueling a debate about who can tell which stories

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But some Latins are responding with their message: we will not take this book, and neither should you.

But Jeanine Cummins, the author, is not a Mexican or migrant. And for some aspiring readers, this is a problem that cannot be erased from celebrity thorns or publishers’ promotion.

The novel, already adapted into a movie, has become the latest tipping point in a growing debate on representation, cultural appropriation and if artists can – or should – tell stories about identities that they don’t know firsthand.
It’s also a raging topic in response to music and movies – remember when Jennifer Lopez sang Motown and Emma Stone played a character of Chinese and Hawaiian origin?

And now the debate has exploded once again, thanks to a 392-page book with barbed wire running across its cover.

A book party with barbed wire decorations

The choices of the Oprah’s Book Club they have a reputation for their strong influence in the publishing industry. Winning the billionaire’s blessing can send a book to the top of the bestseller list as adoring fans and avid readers hurry up to get a copy.
This could also happen for “American Dirt”. Amazon is already listing the book among its most popular titles.
The debate over “American Dirt” had already spread before Oprah’s announcement on Tuesday. The book had collected a few rave reviews and praise from authors such as Stephen King, Don Winslow and Sandra Cisneros, but also fierce criticism in some corners from reviewers who had read it and some authors who swore they would never.

But when Oprah blessed the book that landed in the Oprah Book Club, the conversation took over.

Critics accuse Cummins – who reportedly got a seven-digit contract for “American Dirt” after a bidding war between publishers – to rely on stereotypes to paint an inauthentic picture of Mexican migrants and exploit trauma and pain for profit.
And their outrage grew this week when tweets surfaced showing the author celebrating the book over dinner floral centerpieces wrapped with barbed wire is showing off a manicure with the barbed wire design that is on the cover of his book.

The author wrote that “she wanted someone slightly browner” to tell the story

In an author’s note included in the book, Cummins acknowledges that he is grappling with whether she should write it.

“I feared that my privilege would blind me to certain truths, that I would have done things wrong, as I might have done. I feared that, as a non-migrant and non-Mexican, I would have had no business writing a book almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I would have liked someone to write it “slightly browner than me,” he says.

“But then, I thought, if you’re a person who has the ability to be a bridge, why not be a bridge? So I started.”

Cummins, who she described herself as white, she also says in the note that the experience of her Puerto Rican grandmother in the United States inspired her. He describes his search for “American Dirt” as “careful and deliberate”.

“I have traveled extensively on both sides of the border and have learned as much as possible about Mexico and migrants, about people living across borders,” he writes.

A montage chorus of criticism on Twitter argues that the portraits in the book are not accurate – and that many black writers have told compelling stories about Mexico, migration and the border, but have not won such a big book deal or such acclaim since publishing industry, which is dominated by whites.

For its part, Flatiron Books claims to be proud to be the editor of “American Dirt” and to listen to the debate.

“The concerns that have been raised, including the question of who gets to tell which stories are valid in relation to the literature, and we welcome that conversation,” said the editor in a statement posted on Twitter Thursday.

The book, according to the editor, “empathizes with our fellow men” in that it answers the question “How far will a mother go to protect her son?”

“This is the goal through which we have seen” American Dirt “as the publisher and how we hope it will be appreciated by readers,” Flatiron says.

Cummins dealt with the controversy at an event in Baltimore this week, again describing how he had struggled to write “American Dirt” and ultimately decided it would be “cowardice”. The book, he said, “must stand on its own merits.”
“I think this is an important conversation. I feel it is a question that needs to be addressed more firmly to publishers than to individual writers. I would never have refused the money someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write. “he said, according to a transcript of his observations.

“I recognize that there is a huge iniquity in the sector, about who gets attention for writing which books … I am aware that in the court of public opinion on my ethnicity at this point I am the white lady. I am also Puerto Rican. I’m a Latin woman. And I’m not a migrant, “she continued.

“But I feel like putting this aspect so central to the conversation: I find myself in such an uncomfortable position on how to identify myself and how to account for things that go beyond my account.”

The questions “American Dirt” is raising go far beyond this book

Although there is no doubt that “American Dirt” itself has sparked a heated debate that shows no signs of slowing down, it is also part of a much broader conversation.

Ana-Christina Ramón claims to see a clear connection to her work. As director of research and civic engagement for the UCLA social sciences division and coauthor of an annual report on diversity in Hollywood, closely follows what stories are being told on TV and on the big screen – and who is telling them. The debate over “American Dirt,” he says, has a familiar tone.

“Especially for the Latin community, in film and TV we don’t really have the opportunity to show our authentic lives,” says Ramón, who has not read “American Dirt” but says he has read numerous reviews and analysis of the book from the people of whom he trusts. “So seeing that it’s a bit the same in literature is frustrating.”

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And the consequences, he says, can be devastating.

“When the privileged few can tell stories and distribute them widely, they shape the narrative for themselves and others,” he wrote on Twitter.

It’s something that Lori Flores encounters every time a new semester begins. The associate history professor at Stony Brook University says she starts all the courses she teaches the border between the United States and Mexico or immigration by asking students what words come to mind when they think about those things. And the answers can be daunting.

“Every time I do it, they are words like” drugs “,” violence “,” danger “,” economic threats. “It is illuminating and frustrating that every term, starting all over again, causes people to realize that migration takes place through many reasons and that migrants look in every way, “he says.

“Unfortunately, this book, which is enlightening for people, we continue to get the same trope as a migrant victim fleeing a drug-and-corruption Mexico. … Erase all the other rich, complicated and different Latin stories Americans, migrants of all kinds … It cancels all the work that those of us who are trying to educate the public are trying to do. I think that’s what strikes a big nerve for people. They are frustrated and tired of the struggle. that must repeat itself every day “.

Flores said he wouldn’t buy the book based on what he read about it, but he isn’t ruling out taking a copy from the library and using it as a teaching tool.

“It certainly can be,” he says, “because it makes us think about what’s problematic in history and what’s problematic in the publishing sector.”

A teacher says that authors should “write the other” but do it well

Nisi Shawl says that the conclusion of the “American Dirt” debate should not be that the authors cannot write about experiences they have not lived.

Indeed, Shawl, who wrote a book called “Writing the Other” and also teaches lessons on this topic, says it is something that every author must be able to do.

“In any kind of fiction, you’re building a world. If you’re trying to do it realistically, then you’re not just representing people who are actually demographically like you. You have to be able to do it,” they say. “It is a skill that writers need.

These authors don't like the immigration stories they are hearing from Washington. So they are writing alone

“It’s just that you can do it well or you can do it badly,” they say. “And by all accounts, (in” American Dirt “) this was badly done.”

There are common missteps that writers do, says Shawl, and relying on stereotypes and clichés is one of them.

“They are not going from what they have gone through, but they are filtering it through a TV show or a book or a cartoon, or something else,” says Shawl, who learned “American Dirt” from a student and did not l I still read.

But it is possible to learn from mistakes – something Shawl hopes the author of the book will do.

“I think you have to expect at least part of the time to be wrong,” says Shawl. “But you can learn how to improve it.”

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