Take Hurting Seriously


The latest eruption in Book Twitter is about American Dirt, a novel about Mexican emigrants written by someone who four years ago claimed to be white. For an explanation of what’s problematic in the book, read this gentle review, or this straightforward one, or this salty one, or this explainer. If you’re a person of color, you probably already know what I’m about to say.

But I want to speak to white authors. When I searched for “American Dirt” to see what all the fuss was about, this was one of the top news results:

Preview image of headline with author photo and book cover.
(The headline of a Washington Post article reads, “‘American Dirt’ is a novel about Mexicans by a writer who isn’t. For some, that’s a problem,” with the first-line preview reading, “At first, Jeanine Cummins was worried she had no business writing ‘American Dirt.’”)

That Post headline rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m ashamed to say it took me some time to figure out why—because I’m also guilty of it. The headline frames people’s objections as an intellectual issue: “some” people have “a problem” with it. The caption of the photo heading the article is, “The book has sparked debate over who is entitled to tell fictional stories.”

I’m white. I’ve been the author who was afraid of “cancel culture.” I’ve been afraid to write BIPOC characters because of the backlash if I get it wrong. But I listened to authors and readers of color, who did the emotional work to explain what shouldn’t have had to be explained: if you’re more afraid of being called out than you are of doing harm, you’re worrying about the wrong thing.

But it’s worse than that. Even though I understood and assented to the notion that I should care more about doing harm than being called out, I was still unwittingly treating call-outs as an intellectual exercise: a matter of justice and fairness. I wasn’t giving enough credence to people saying, “These bad representations are actually hurting us.”

The uproar has nothing to do with who is “allowed” to write about Mexicans. It’s not like Cummins wrote a great book and Latinx critics are just sore because she’s white. People are pointing out the real harm that this book’s misrepresentations can cause. As David Schmidt wrote,

While the book ostensibly pushes a progressive message, it drives home a very Trumpist myth: “crime and violence are Mexican problems.”

That problem is worse precisely because the book was given a seven-figure advance and a huge marketing/PR push ahead of books that actual migrants have written. David Bowles wrote a great piece about the problematic parts of publishing that landed us here, ending with,

“Imagine what $1,000,000 could have done to actually address the problem Cummins ostensibly set out to resolve. Macmillan: you could have, for example, advanced forty Chicana/Mexicana writers $25,000 each for their #ownvoices stories about our ‘faceless’ plight.”

If you read the critiques of American Dirt and come away thinking that the problem is just that its author is white, you’re guilty, at least subconsciously, of thinking, “These people are exaggerating their pain.”

People’s hurt deserves and desperately needs to be believed. That’s as true of readers calling out bad rep as it is of women reporting sexual assault and people of color reporting racism, and and we need to take them seriously.

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