My reaction to the American Dirt "controversy"
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park
As an author and a human being, I follow the American Dirt issue with great interest. American Dirt is a novel about the journey of a Mexican family to the United States. DISCLAIMER: I admit that I haven’t yet read the book. Though with all that’s been written about it, pro and con, I feel that I have enough familiarity with it to express an opinion or two. If you disagree, then you probably should stop reading.
The problem, as delineated in a January 22 Washington Post article by Teo Armus, is that “a growing group of Mexican Americans and other Latinos have … spoken out against Cummins, accusing her of appropriating a story they say is not hers to tell — and writing it for a largely white audience, with the stereotypes and clichés to show.”
One writer quoted in the Post, Miriam Gurba, called it “a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle,” On the Tropics of Meta website, she posted that “American Dirt fails to convey any Mexican sensibility.” Chicano writer David Bowles called it “trauma-porn melodrama.”
If Latinx authors are being ignored or bypassed in favor of white authors, that is an injustice committed by editors, knowingly or unknowingly. That must be addressed, but it is not inherent to the book. If American Dirt does not accurately represent the Latinx experience, that is a flaw in the storytelling. It may be a valid argument, but it is separate from the first and should be addressed separately.
Attacking American Dirt by combining such unrelated issues dilutes each argument and does an injustice to art everywhere.
I write heroic fantasy short stories and a novel about women and men fighting a system that enslaves and demeans women. Some of my characters are lesbians and gays, some are not. I am a straight, white author who identifies as male. I’ve never been a woman, never been a lesbian, never been gay.
But I am a human being. I write about human beings, about human experiences and feelings. I explore the theme of humans trying to escape roles and boxes other humans have tried to coerce them to fit. These situations inflame my passion for the rights of humans to live as they will, free of arbitrary external restrictions. That is how I interpret the old maxim, “Write what you know.”
If my fiction does not appeal to some readers as a matter of individual taste, I have no problem with it. But if others tell me I have no right to explore such matters because I’ve never been any of the characters I write about, they are committing the same offenses I write about.
Attacking and/or banning art because it does not meet someone else’s arbitrary standards is a totalitarian solution.