Updated: Jan 28
Well, hello again, you big, beautiful world. You might have noticed I seem a bit nervous right now. That's just because I've got performance anxiety. When I launched this blog five days ago, it was with the modest hope that I, as an author once inexplicably named among the 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America by Time magazine and somewhat more explicably named a Latina magazine Woman of the Year before said magazine collapsed (and I'm not saying that collapse was entirely my fault, but, you know, probably), could contribute something meaningful to the whole American Dirt nightmare - and by that I mean make it less nightmarish, not more nightmarish as I usually do (but only in my personal life).
I thought maybe a few people would read my posts. To my surprise, nearly 60,000 of you read one of the posts alone, within 48 hours of it going up. (Thanks for that, btw.) This made me happy the way Sandra Cisneros jumping out of a cake with flowers on her head might make me happy, if she were ever to do something that ridiculous - which is to say it terrified me almost to the point of pissing my pants. It also made me reticent to write anything new, because as any prize fighter other than Oscar de la Hoya will tell you, it's better to bow out while you're on top. I'm pretty sure only six people will read anything else I write from here forward, including this post here, but this is mostly due to my having anxious attachment because of the inconsistent care I got as an infant. Also, I tend to overshare, unlike Cisneros, who is the face of elegance and decorum.
That all out of the way, I will now leap into the topic du jour - why none alls y'all should be surprised that Sandra Cisneros endorsed American Dirt, the fake-ass immigrant novel written by a white lady (also with flowers on her head, apparently) from New York who magnanimously visited Mexico for a few days and then "borrowed" anecdotes about Mexican migration from a bunch of actual Mexican or Mexican American writers who did not, as she did, get a seven-figure advance from a publisher for their efforts, presumably because publishing realizes "them thar people" would only spend it on wrestling masks and guns anyway.
The book, which was chosen by Oprah for her book club (a book club that has never, not once, chosen a US-born Latinx author) has been brilliantly and meticulously eviscerated by intelligent, insightful voices in the Latinx writing, academic and activist communities. This outpouring of our collective cultural vomit prompted Salma Hayek, one of a gaggle of rich celebs and writers who also endorsed this abomination of a book, to apologize for her misdeed on Instagram, explaining, in essence: "Totes TLDR, my bad."
Last night, Oprah herself issued a quasi-apology video, leaning, perhaps insensitively, next to Carmen Miranda's fruit basket on a kitchen island, in which she said she was listening to our criticism and that she hears us. She did not, it must be noted, actually withdraw the offending book from her club; rather, she explained how moved she was by the book because it was a story of an immigrant mother doing anything for her child, and offered, in a gesture nearly as tone-deaf as the selection of this shitbook in the first place, to host "conversations about the book in the Latinx community." Mmmmkay, Oprah. It was a diplomatic move, surely crafted by her careful handlers. But this is not a moment that calls for clever diplomacy designed to shut Latinos up whilst not alienating or angering the publisher and booksellers who already printed and ordered millions of copies of this tripe and need to recoup all them pesos they shelled out when conspiring for more than a year to shove this tome down our collective throats like Bill Clinton's big, fat, vegan churro.
But I digress.
Among the many sensible outrages expressed by my own readers and others was - and I'm paraphrasing here - "How the fuck could Sandra Cisneros endorse this crap?"
Quick aside, for those who've never heard of Sandra Cisneros. She is a Mexican American author from Chicago, raised middle class, who wrote a pretty okay book of disjointed stories, called The House on Mango Street, which recently set some records for being the book most often forced upon American schoolchirrens who would rather be talking mad shit about that one girl on Snapchat. Cisneros is something of an icon in the US literary and Latinx communities, in the former because they allowed her through the gate and in the latter because who the fuck else have we had to look up to. Her name was etched in stone above the library at Columbia University when I was a student there, along with - I kid you not - Shakespeare; until now, she was a sacred cow - wait, sorry, vaca - no one was allowed to rope.
Cue: Me, lasso in hand. Yippee kay ay ay ay. Yay.
When I was a young aspiring writer (as opposed to what I am now, an old aspiring writer) I read Mango Street and liked it. I still remember one particular description, of a boy standing in the sun, and the sun baking what felt like a bowl onto his head. This stuck with me. It was a good description. There was a good description in that book. Cool. As a writer, I admired what she'd been able to do whilst having a name certain people believed to be like mine, and hoped one day to accomplish something similar, with more than one good description per book though.
So it was, when I wrote my first novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, back in 2003, and sent it to 65 different agents in hopes one of them would help me, I sent it to Cisneros' agent, a woman named Susan Bergholtz. At the time, Bergholtz represented all of the well-known US-born Latina authors. I believed that I, as an award-winning literary feature writer for both the Boston Globe and the LA Times, having been the youngest feature writer ever hired by the Globe and having been named the top newspaper essayist in the nation before I was 29, had a good shot of joining that roster.
Imagine my surprise when Bergholtz not only rejected me, but called me to tell me why she was rejecting me and my book. "I only represent authentic Latina voices," she whined. "And from what I've read here, you are not writing in an authentic Latina voice at all."
The Dirty Girls Social Club is a novel about six middle-class, college educated, professional American women who were born in the United States, live their normal lives in English, and have been friends since they went to Boston University together. They are all Latina. They're just not Latina in a way that makes Bergholtz feel like she's on the beach in Cabo.
Because I was raised by a sociology and history professor from Havana, Cuba (quick aside, no, we're not from a rich family, no, I'm not from Miami, no, we're not conservative, yes, we supported the revolution) a brilliant scholar who actually taught Latin American sociology, and because I had covered the diverse Latino communities of Boston and Los Angeles for two of the top papers on earth, I deliberately wrote the book to, on one level, be a fun and sexy read (because what's the point of a book no one likes reading and only reads because it's on the syllabus?) but that, on another level, would totally deconstruct and address, somewhat satirically, the absurdity of the notion of one single authentic and monolithic Latino identity in the United States.
I wanted people to come away from my book - about a black Colombian American lesbian from San Francisco, two brown Mestiza Mexican Americans (one from Albuquerque who thinks she's totally Spanish and the other from San Diego who's convinced she's Aztec, and they're both wrong), a blonde, blue-eyed Cuban Jew from Miami, a lightskinned black half Puerto Rican, half Dominican from Providence and a half Cuban half white trash chick from New Orleans - realizing that to be used correctly, the word "Latino" had to be synonymous with only one thing: Human fucking being. I used a parody of chick lit to address the complexity and diversity of the "Latino" universe, a social construct unique to the United States and informed in the public discourse primarily through stereotype and idiocy; I did this, because I do shit like that for my own amusement, and because comedy is socialized rage, as Jerry Seinfeld so rightly declared.
This worldview of mine, in the simplistically exotic and profitable Bergholtzian-Cisnerian world of high Latina lettres, was deemed inauthentic by these jackboots, presumably because it was not only confusing to Berghotlz personally for its refusal to be exotic, but also because the foundational premise of my book inadvertently threatened everything she and her minstrelized clients have been seeking to build for decades with their mediocre and sporadic prose, hackneyed magical realism, Guatemalan rebosos from Pier One, gallons of turqoise jewelry (drip, drip) and fancy paper flower headdresses.
I was heartbroken. I also understood none of this at that time. All I understood was that maybe I wasn't a good or authentic writer after all. And maybe I was a failure.
I remember sitting there in the room that was doubling as a baby nursery and home office for me. I'd left my cushy day job as a reporter at the Times while I was pregnant with my son, in order to move back to Albuquerque to focus on finally writing the Great American Novel, near my parents. I was using all my savings to do this, and my money was gone. I'd gambled big, and lost. I had no income. I suspected I'd written a good book, because even though I patently suck at almost everything else in life I have always been a pretty fantastic writer, but here I was, being told by one of the most powerful gatekeepers for people "like me" in the publishing world that I wasn't "brown enough." Translation: I wasn't brown like Sandra Cisneros was brown, because, you know, these fools don't realize that Latin America shares the same noxious colonial history of Europeans committing genocide against the natives and replacing them with Africans as slaves. I guess when this shit happens in the "authentic" Latinx language of, you know, fucking Spanish (or French or Portuguese), it doesn't count. They sincerely do not realize Latinos can be white or black because that is confusing to Americans slurping up their erroneous view of the world as served to them by Hollywood on a platter with their Trumpian fucking cheeseburgers.
Of the 65 agents I queried about that novel, 64 of them told me basically the same thing (fuck off, wannabe white girl) when they bothered writing or calling back at all. Mostly they ignored me. But there was one agent, the brilliant Leslie Daniels, now a novelist herself. Then with the Joy Harris literary agency, Leslie took me on as a client. She is one of the smartest, gentlest, most insightful human beings I have ever met. It was Leslie who managed to get that book into a six-publisher bidding war that lasted three days. It was Leslie who was able to get me a $475,000 advance for that book, from St. Martin's Press. They were not the highest bidder; Simon & Schuster was. But I went with SMP because my incredible editor there, Elizabeth Beier, told me that she and the rest of the company did not see the book as "just a Latina book" but as a hilarious, universal novel for everyone. "We think this is our next Nanny Diaries," Elizabeth told me, and I fell in love with her on the spot. I still love her. She is reissuing DGSC later this year.
The Dirty Girls Social Club debuted on the NY Times bestseller list. It spent 21 weeks there. The book has sold more than half a million copies in the US alone, and has been published in nearly a dozen other languages around the world. It has done well in The Netherlands, Iceland, South Korea.
Because I'm a petty bitch, I called Susan Bergholtz again from inside my new Lexus, shortly after Katie Couric interviewed me on the Today Show about it. I asked her if she still thought I was inauthentic, considering that 90 percent of my readers were, you know, US Latinas who said my book was the first one they'd ever read where they felt like they actually saw their reality accurately depicted. She told me she was dying of cancer and didn't have time for my bullshit. I apologized and wished her well, but secretly I was rooting for the cancer.
The following year, in an effort to give other non-stereotypical Latinx authors like me a platform to meet each other and readers, I financed and created a literary conference in Miami Beach, which I called the Chica Lit Club Fiesta. The name, like the name of my novel, was ironic, meant to poke fun at the idea that women writing romance or chick lit were somehow not "real" writers. Incredible and largely overlooked US Latinx writers, writing in a variety of commercial genres, came, including Gaby Triana, Berta Caceres, Kathy Cano Murillo, Mary Castillo, Julie Leto, Reyna Grande, Erasmo Guerra and others. We had documentary filmmaker Raquel Ortiz screen her moving film Mi Puerto Rico one night, and everyone came in their pajamas. I made popcorn. I invited Cisneros as a guest of honor. I offered to present her with an award from my fledgling organization. She wrote back to decline, saying that she would never associate herself with me or this event because, and I quote: "You aren't a serious writer, and you're not down with la causa." I asked what it was about my work that she found to be not serious, but she never responded. Couple years later, I reached out to her again for something, and she wrote back to say she didn't know who I was, which would have been throwing mad shade if she hadn't already shown me that she knew damn well who I was; instead, it smacked of dementia.
I came to realize, over time, that Cisneros, Bergholtz and their gang are what my dad calls "ethnic entrepreneurs." Their entire existence is predicated on not only the oversimplification of the "exotic peoples" they purport to represent but about whom they actually know jack shit, but also is dependent upon the continued marginalization and exoticization of said peoples, because without it them fakeass Aztec empresses would have no rebosos at all. My father describes such people as comemierdas, the highly academic Spanish word for shiteaters. He, having grown up in actual Latin America, where there are actual distinct social classes, ethnicities, races and all of the resultant problems that come from real, complex multi-directional oppressions and histories, is deeply amused by people like Cisneros.
"And if the oppression they say they detest were to disappear overnight," he says with a grin, "what then? Who are these comemierdas then? What do they have to talk about, it they aren't talking about 'la causa y la lucha'? They got nothin'. They are no one. They've marginalized themselves and bought into the lie of their comoditized Disneyahuatl mythology." (Okay, that word was mine, clearly, I'm paraphrasing, but I'm sure my dad won't mind - and yes, I called him dad, not papi, gorwing up, fuck you Bergholtz). "Their entire identity is defined in the negative - they struggle against 'white people hating brown people,' therefore they are. But if they had no struggle left, if they actually succeeded at toppling the oppressor, would they have anything at all to say about what it is to be the default person?"
Nope. They would not.
Cisneros, and others like her, are culturally American. Culture and language are not genetic. They are not carried like some distant genetic memory of sunshine in one's melanin or DNA. But because this nation likes to conflate skin tone or last name with actual culture, asserting "difference" where none often resides, in service to the dominant white power structure, Cisneros has accepted that, being brown with a vag, she cannot possibly be the default American like Robert Downey, Jr. is. She underscores this by dressing like what Bergholtz thinks Mexicans dress like, which is to say the way a Mayan woman might have dressed in the 19th century if she shopped at Dollar Tree.
This is exactly the conclusion the dominant class would like all minoritized people to adopt about themselves, because it is disempowerment and invalidation disguised as ethnic pride. Once you convince the oppressed to marginalize themselves, to make themselves small and predictable in the name of some coveted "authenticity," you win. Once you convince them to become professors and appoint themselves the Arbiters of Authenticity, then they begin to police themselves, weeding out people like - well, like me. And so it is that the snake is convinced to eat itself.
Imagine, for a moment, if this notion of white male authenticity were applied to all white male authors, or creatives in general. It becomes obviously absurd. And yet, done to me and others "like me," it is considered to be an exercise in "diversity."
Cisneros writes what people like Bergholtz expect her to write, whether it is true to her actual life experience or not, and for this she is dearly rewarded. She is also an exquisitely lazy writer, producing hardly any work at all, presumably because she is too busy shopping for ruanas or bright house paint with which to assert her Mexicanness to her suburban Texas neighbors. Truth is, Cisneros has always been a literary minstrel show, shucking and jiving to Bergholtz's choreography, but until now everyone has been too afraid to say it because the punishments of challenging this duo and the literary and "ethnic studies" universes for which they are gatekeepers are severe. Cisneros gives colorful, campy, "authentic" voice to the low expectations the dominant class, and particularly the publishing establishment and academia, have of exoticized, tropicalized, dehumanized Latinos, whom they not only expect, but require, to be exotic. Cisneros supported American Dirt, because of fucking course she did; she has never known anything about actual Mexico, and would not have noticed the problems those who are familiar with that place and its issues noticed; she saw a soul-sister, writing the same tired stereotypes that she herself has parroted for decades. Her skin tone has left her immune to criticism, however. Till this blog.
It's not that my writing isn't serious, or that I'm not down for the cause. That's just what they told me. But they (and now I) know the truth. I am a huge threat to the status quo that has made people like Bergholtz and Cisneros rich, because I am a self-defined and fully human writer who refuses to be a minstrel, and I'm as willing to call people out on their bullshit as I am to continue writing in my own voice, a voice utterly lacking in the accent they want me to have.
Before I forget, I channeled Tom Waitts and wrote a jingle to go along with this post. You're welcome.