Dude. Oprah's Love of "American Dirt" Sucks Colonialist Ass



Let me begin by saying: This is the last thing I want to be writing about.


This? Right. This: Oprah (and other media heavies) slobbering all over a somewhat stereotypical new novel supposedly about the quintessential Mexican immigrant experience, written by, you know, a non-Mexican, non-immigrant white woman in New York. Slobbering like Trump fingering a terrible taco. Slobbering like Mike Pence mistaking ketchup for salsa.


Let me further make clear that I can't believe I'm still having to write about this kind of crap. And I can't believe Oprah still doesn't get it about American Latinos. Like, at all. Doesn't get it that we are everywhere, writing our own stories, in English. Better stories than this one, which an actual Mexican immigrant writer has described as "immigration porn" designed to please white readers.


No, wait. I can believe it, in the same way I can believe Wal-Mart is now the nation's largest brick-and-mortar bookseller. I'm just goddamned disappointed, in all of you. Which isn't new for me, really. Anyone who has had the misfortune of actually knowing me in real life knows that most things disappoint me. Men. Protein bars. (Why must they taste like band-aid pads? Not that I've ever sucked a band-aid pad, but I've definitely been drunk enough to maybe, like, not remember if I did. Don't judge.) I come from a cruel and judgmental people, and by "people" I mean my Irish-Mexican mother, for whom I will always be a disappointment, and not just because I'm not Catholic. I am expert in the art of disappointment - both in being disappointing and in being disappointed. I just didn't need another reason to be disappointed today. It was hard enough getting out of bed as things were. But I did it. I got out of bed, to write this post. I'd rather go to spin class. Or get a tooth filled. Or get mugged. I'd rather try heroin for the first time, or eat Jell-O shots out of Cosby's navel. Something. Anything. But, you know. Here we go. America.


Again.


Let's recap, for the folks in the back who haven't been paying attention. There's this chick, Jeanine Cummins. She is a white Irish American from Maryland who, until she wrote this book, claimed to identify as only white, but who, since writing it, plays up her Puerto Rican grandmother (who, for all we know, could also be white, Latino is not a race or color, and we come in all shades and social classes).


Cummins lives in New York and writes "sensitive" novels about nonwhite people, and other "sensitive" white people (read: well-meaning yet still racist liberals [but don't tell them, they'll get angry and tell you about their black friend {and by "black friend" they will almost certainly not NOT mean Oprah}]) publish them, then a bunch of those weirdos who still have the attention span to actually read books buy them (how has Snapchat not ruined them for books yet?), because a bunch of mostly white (and black) American entertainment and news media automatons have, in mammoth feats of laziness, believed the press release and declared Cummins to have written the "new Grapes of Wrath," about people "no one else has written about before."


Except, we have. Reyna Grande has, and much better than Cummins did. All the women on this link here have. Shit, I have. Oprah just, you know, ignored us. Like the rest of America ignores us - because we don't write stereotypical stories that fit the ideas the dominant class has of "us" as poor, pitiful, terrified, ingorant, oppressed, quiet, invisible, mysterious almost-people who just want a chance to park your fucking car for you.


Cummins' new book is called American Dirt, presumably because American Hot Tamale Othermonsters, Brown Magical Negroes or Spicy But Almost Human were too obvious and only tested well with the sixteen people who can still read in Alabama and Kansas. It's about a family from Acapulco, Mexico, that has to flee (flea?) Mexico because of cartel violence. Reviewers are astounded because Cummins' Mexicans "seem like real people," who can read, and own bookstores, and take showers, and do stuff like that. I would like to note here that the book launch party featured centerpieces made of barbed wire, because of course it did.


It reminds me of the time I wrote about Mexican migrant workers for the Boston Globe, and when New England Cable News interviewed me on TV about the piece (which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by my editors) the white male host complimented me by saying, live on air, "You make them seem like real people," to which I replied with a stunned scoff, a cold stare, and, "Um. Okay? That's because they are real people."


Neat. Like, who knew?


Lots of us. Us. Me. I knew. Every time I wake up needing to take a piss and find the coffee, brokenhearted over another narcissistic dude, with a backache (oh the penance of bipedalism amongst mammals), having the audacity to be a regular old human, I am reminded that I'm, like, an actual person.


Let me be clear about something else. This is not just a matter of cultural appropriation. As a writer and a human being, I believe all writers should be free to write from any and all points of view. So this isn't about the writer herself, who is one-quarter Puerto Rican but not in any obvious way that might make some internet Karen call the cops on her for, like, standing in a public park. The problem is the way the American publishing industry not only allows (seemingly?) white people to write about non-white people, but celebrates them for being visionary and sensitive, while simultaneously DISALLOWING people of color to write about anyone other than the group they are perceived to belong to (to do otherwise is to be somehow an "inauthentic" person of color, you see.) It's like the way Hollywood gives Oscars to pretty actresses who get fat and ugly for a role, but doesn't let fat or ugly actresses play the love interest. It's just so amazing, how you totally identified with that hideous Other you'd never actually hang out with! You made her seem human! Wow, you've got a heart of gold!


The second novel I wrote, after my bestselling debut novel The Dirty Girls Social Club, was Story in B-Minor, an as-yet unpublished book about a young Irish American jazz saxophonist in Boston, and her elderly African American mentor; it was based on my own experience, as a quarter-Irish American jazz saxophonist who went to Berklee College of Music, and had Andy McGhee as my mentor. I was told by my editor at the time that "no one will believe you can write authoritatively about a white experience, it's not in your brand."


But writing about Mexican immigrants is totally in quarter-Rican, white-passing Cummins' brand, so much so that her book was bought, promoted and celebrated by the same publishing industry that literally told me I could not write about MY OWN LIFE EXPERIENCE because my life experience did not match the industry's "Latino brand," which is to say, the kind of Latinos Cummins writes about. TC Boyle, too, can write about Mexican migrants living in tents in the dirt of LA's canyons, and he's celebrated for his sensitivity to Others, but I, born condemned to be three-quarters Latina in a one-drop rule world, can't write about my own life. We can write about you, but we are never gonna let you write about us. That's what fake diversity looks like. It looks like being allowed in the door, but only if you're still gonna silently serve the coffee and not, like, drink it with that dirt mouth of yours.


Hang on. I have to clean up a little. A vessel just burst in my head, and it's spilling all over my beige sofa. Gimme a minute...okay. There. Nothing a little soda water and baking soda won't fix. A mere birthmark. All good.


I should mention, writing about this is risky for me. The Cummins book was put out by the same publishing house that put out a few of my novels, and which is, in fact, re-issuing Dirty Girls Social Club later this year. I'm straddling a fine line here, between diplomacy and honesty. Hell, who am I fooling? I am on the side of honesty, as usual, with all its predictable pitfalls. I believe my readers are, too. I hope my truth and talent will be enough to make my honesty okay with the hand that once fed me and which I hope can feed me again. I'm not trying to make the company fail; I'm trying to wake it up to more profitability, in new sectors. I'm trying to say it's awesome to keep putting out "Latino" books only white people can relate to, but maybe do other stuff, too.


Several years ago, I wrote a new book about a similar theme to the Cummins book, called Ana Walking North. Rich family in Mexico loses everything, has to migrate, and the lead character, a woman with her son, ends up lost in the desert of Southern New Mexico with a MAGA vigilante white dude patrolling around with his dog, Dubya, looking for Mexicans to kill. They end up learning to care about each other, and he changes. My New York agent at the time said it wasn't realistic because it was too unfair to rich white dudes. She felt my white guy character, Barton, was stereotypical and a caricature. (We Latinos have no idea how that feels, by the way. Eye roll.) This agent was about 23 years old and the misfit lesbian daughter of rich white racists. She was offended on their behalf because they are so much MORE than just rich white racists. She wouldn't even shop the book around. This, even though my first novel sold half a million copies in the United States, mostly to Latinas.


And maybe that's the point. Books like Cummins' aren't written for Latinos; they're written for people who like to pity Latinos but want to feel comfortable and benevolent in that pity while still feeling safe in knowing that we aren't quite living next door, yet. People like Oprah.


I haven't been able to sell that novel, or The Lost Boys of Havana, the one I wrote about kids in Operation Pedro Pan, based on my dad's life, or The Cities and the Sea, my literary reworking of A Tale of Two Cities, set during the civil rights movement and the Cuban Revolution, in Miami and Havana, that links both movements to their shared roots in Africa.


Watching this nightmare unfold around American Dirt, I have to wonder - if I were only a quarter Latina, instead of a quarter Irish, if I didn't have a pesky Spanish name like the city of Las Vegas, and I were writing these same exact books, would I, too, be an Oprah book-club pick, praised for her herculean effort to understand "those people"?





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