Outrage turned to action when authors, including Roxane Gay, Myriam Gurba and Wendy C. Ortiz, gathered at #Dignidadliteraria to demand change and increased Latinx representation in the publishing industry as the “American Dirt” debacle continues.
Emotions ran high on Thursday, February 6, as high-profile and Latinx authors, as well as an array of community members, filled the lecture hall of Antioch University in Culver City for the #Dignidadliteraria protest event. About 100 people from diverse backgrounds joined together in solidarity to reject Jeanine Cummins’ new novel, “American Dirt,” and demand accountability from the publishing industry.
The problematic novel tells the story of a Mexican-born immigrant and her son fleeing to America to escape the drug cartel. However, there are a few key snags: Cummins, who is Irish-American, used what renowned author and #Dignidadliteraria panelist Roxane Gay expressed as “bad Spanish” and appropriated Latinx culture for a seven-figure contract and movie deal.
“Publishers need to put their money where their mouths are and hire more than one Latinx person.”-Roxane Gay
The empowering literary gathering came about following outrage over “American Dirt”’s publication, being touted by Oprah Winfrey’s book club and the subsequent cancellation of Cummins’ book tour. Her book publisher, Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, said in a statement that: “Unfortunately, our concerns about safety have led us to the difficult decision to cancel the book tour.” In fact, it turns out, such threats were exaggerated or untrue, including false reports of death threats. Perhaps instead of running away from a community of people stereotyped as violent, Flatiron was afraid of facing accountability for its actions.
In a time of literary inequity, #Dignidadliteraria was formed by authors Myriam Gurba, Roberto Lovato and David Bowles and as a succession of community meetings across the United States to advocate for Latinx visibility in the publishing industry. The powerhouse of panelists consisted of writers Gurba, author of Mean; Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist; Wendy C. Ortiz, author of Excavation; Romeo Guzman, editor of Tropics of Meta and Christopher Soto, founder of Undocupoets. When the panel’s moderator, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, was asked how this gathering of authors made her feel, she replied, “Emotional. It’s so important to talk about how Latinx voices are not recognized in the publishing industry.” Bermejo organized the impressive community forum with little time to spare.
The panelists delved into the core problems within the culture of the publishing industry. Gay told AFLW that “publishers need to put their money where their mouths are and hire more than one Latinx person.” Each panelist agreed that Macmillan’s promise to open pathways for Latinx visibility is being observed with scrutiny.
“The novel ‘American Dirt’ was pre-ordained to be a film whether you like it or not.”-Myriam Gurba
“The novel ‘American Dirt’ was pre-ordained to be a film whether you like it or not,” Gurba said. “People working for Flatiron identified the book as problematic early on, and they ignored it.” Clearly, Flatiron put popular sales before authentic representation.
With a publishing industry that is dominated by Caucasians, Guzman asserted that “it’s important to create new pipelines. White people are the gatekeepers that keep Latinx people out.” Both panelists and community members agreed that working with small press versus large press offers more professional mobility for the voices of Latinx writers to be heard. There was a resounding call to support small press, but to remember the importance of changing the ethos of the large press industry.
Several panelists pondered what the reaction to Cummins’ novel would have been if she had used her platform for social justice. Both Bermejo and Soto concluded that if Cummins really cared about the populations she profited from, she would be striving to change the industry too. “Jeanine said she wanted to lead: Where the fuck is she?” Soto asked. “Undocumented writers still can’t apply for opportunities; she should be using her platform to change that. Macmillan should be giving money to undocumented writers.”
Although the path is marked with adversity, the fight for Latinx visibility must press on.
Ultimately, Flatiron and Cummins failed to use their privilege to be catalysts for change. “Even with social-justice writing evolving, an essay can’t save the world,” Gay explained. “Accountability goes a long way—publishers being willing to pull a book, booksellers taking a moral stand.” The Latinx literary community panel ignited a conversation and a fight for change that is getting stronger. “White women protect Jeanine, she has her own team of white women to assign death threats to the people of color that speak out,” Gay said. Although the path is marked with adversity, the fight for Latinx visibility must press on.
Feature photo by Jessica Ceballos y Campbell
Danielle Broadway is an English Literature MA student at California State University, Long Beach. She has been published in LA Weekly, is a writer for CSULB’s the Daily49er is a managing editor for Watermark, her school’s academic literary journal and is an assistant editor at Angels Flight • literary west. She has worked in education for more than six years and is a social-justice activist. To that end, she is an intern at East Yards: Communities For Environmental Justice in Long Beach, where she works with community leaders to change environmental policy. Inspired by her family and her ancestors, Danielle aspires to be a catalyst for change both in the classroom and beyond.