Yesterday, the public radio show "Latino USA" aired an interview its longtime host Maria Hinojosa (make sure you pronounce her last name right, by hissing like cat on that H, otherwise you're obviously a sellout) conducted with writer Sandra Cisneros about her endorsement of Jeanine Cummins' shitnovel American Dirt. Oprah chose the novel - a disingenuous and, it would seem, plagiaristic mound of dung - for her book club, and Cummins, who is not an immigrant and identifies as white - got an advance of a little more than a million bucks for it from Flatiron Books. The book's stereotyped depiction of Mexican immigrants has drawn ire from, well, anyone who's read the book, pretty much; so much so that others who've endorsed the book, including Salma Hayek (who admitted to not having read it before demanding we all buy it), have rescinded their support. Also yesterday, the publisher canceled the book tour, citing "safety concerns," invoking the same stereotype of Latinos as violent animals as did the book itself, and, like the book, without a shred of evidence to support their convenient and decidedly capitalistic xenophobia.
Many of us listened to the interview. Those among us hoping for Cisneros to have an epiphany were disappointed. She not only stood by her endorsement, but justified it by saying Cummins would be able to get "white people" to read about Mexicans - a statement that is breathtaking in its ignorance on many levels; it posits whiteness and Mexicanness as mutually exclusive, in a way that tells me Cisneros has never watched a single telenovela; it presumes "white people" are a monolith that only reads white writers, in anile defiance of her own career that has consisted mostly of being read by white woman in sparkly cowboy hats who are both afraid of and fascinated by her caramel-colored exoticism; it asserts that Cummins' writing is actually readable - look, I could go on. And on and on. You know me. But I came to this party for a totally different get-down, and I'd like to shimmy through it as quickly as I can, if for no other reason than I'm sick of thinking about Sandra fucking Cisneros and Jeanine fucking Cummins.
In the interview, Hinojosa, allegedly a journalist, states that no Latinx authors are getting the kinds of advances that Cummins got. This is untrue. And while untruths seem to be the gold standard of American journalism since the media deregulation act of 1993, I am compelled to address this particular falsity because of the problems it highlights not just in Hinojosa's ongoing journalistic sloppiness but also in the broader areas of publishing, academia, and Latinx activism.
In 2014 Diana Gabaldón, a Mexican American writer from Arizona, received a $6 million advance for the 9th book in her popular Outlander series. Hinojosa and many other Latinx activists pretend Gabaldón doesn't exist. Like, to the point of lying on National Public Radio about it.
The answer to this question is complex, so much so that it honestly just makes me want to go back to bed. Holding this thing in my hands feels like that time I found three of my fine-link fake-gold necklaces all tangled up in knots in the jewelry box. I had to get a needle, like a sewing needle, to tease out the twisted agglomeration. It took days. It was surgery. And so is this. In fact, you might want to take a few swigs of your favorite spirit before we continue.
God knows I will.
The first problem here is the relatively recent categorical divide created by US publishing and university MFA programs, between "commercial" fiction and "literary" fiction, and further trench-digging within both categories, between fiction aimed at "men" ("gritty") and fiction aimed at "women" ("fluffy").
Gabaldón, who writes popular commercial fiction read mostly by women, is just not taken seriously as a writer by the insecure herds of nerds (writing professors and alleged journalists) who would rather ignore her than risk being laughed at by someone like David Remnick. But she should be. She should be taken seriously. Gabaldón is a goddamned genius. But like most goddamned geniuses writing "commercial" fiction, and all goddamned geniuses writing "commercial women's fiction," she's erased from "important" literary conversations.
We'll get to that in a moment.
Capitalism, sexism, academia and book marketing departments can all be blamed for the manufacture of the literary divisions that drive "serious" writers, activists or academics to malign commercial authors wholesale. In truth, there are no commercial writers or literary writers. There are writers. Some writers connect better with readers than others, because they are better writers.
Capitalism, however, requires an illusion of distinction amongst identical products, to fuel its sociopathic manipulation of consumers. This is how we've become convinced somehow that Coca Cola is in fact extremely different from Pepsi. Writers, who in the past were merely ever-changing observers and chroniclers of the human condition, are now said to have "brands," just like laundry detergent, or cows. Or slaves. These brands are divvied up by book merchants like clothing in department stores - men's, women's, girls', boys'...it's the American way.
Author Jen Weiner has written with great power about the role sexism plays in the knee-jerk cultural dismissal of anyone seen to be writing romance or other "women's" stories. I recall attending a reading at Harvard by short story writer Ethan Canin, in which he answered a question about his literary influences by listing Danielle Steele. The audience laughed. He stared them down. How many of them had read any of her work, he asked. No one raised a hand. He said they should be ashamed of themselves. She had, in fact, been his writing teacher; and, he said, she was brilliant, prolific and talented. Which she is. When highbrow National Public Radio types ignore writers like Steele or Gabaldón, it is because they are comfortable with the dominant class' assumption that women, being silly and emotional, don't like things that are actually important.
Academia has a role in this, as well. In the same way capitalism requires false distinction to peddle product, MFA programs require a belief that "good" writing, "real" writing, can only be taught in MFA programs; this has led to the widespread myth that some fiction is "literary" (more authenticity policing), while the rest is "trash."
In 1936, in Iowa, the first Master's of Fine Arts program in creative writing was launched. Since then, it has become a requirement in universities that anyone desiring to teach creative writing hold an MFA in creative writing. (I have personally been told I could not be considered for a creative writing professorship at my hometown university, in spite of being the most successful Latina author from this state, ever, because I lack an MFA. My application was thrown away without consideration, for this reason.)
The problem with the MFA ruse is that while the fundamentals of writing can be taught, talent and artistry cannot. Bestseller lists are filled with writers who had the audacity to never require an MFA, including Gabaldón, who describes her own educational background thusly on her website:
I have a B.S. in Zoology, an M.S. in Marine Biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioral ecology (that’s just animal behavior with statistics, don’t worry about it). My dissertation was titled, Nest Site Selection of the Pinyon Jay, Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus , (or as my husband says, “Why Birds Build Nests Where They Do, and Who Cares Anyway?”).
So it is that our universities are filled with talentless creative writing professors who believed the pyramid scheme sales pitch: "For only $40,000 a year, you too can be a famous writer!" When it doesn't work, when that ponderous MFA you earned by learning how to write a book, from people who mostly don't know how to write a book, doesn't make people love that one slender volume of self-obsessed poetry you wrote as your thesis even though you paid good money for it, you get pissed. And no one pisses creative writing professors off more than successful commercial writers who didn't have the good sense to become pedigreed real writers by getting an MFA. As any good narcissist will tell you, it is much easier on the ego to tell yourself (and your students) that successful romance junkwriters and their ladyfans are girlytrash than it is to admit that no one actually, you know, likes you (or your terrible book of rhyming poems).
The other problem here is that Latinx spokespersons such as Hinojosa, who has hosted a program called "Latino USA" for National Public Radio for eons, are part of the whole construct that spawned Cisneros in the first place. Hinojosa, who once told my own publicist that I wasn't brown enough or serious enough as a writer to be interviewed on her show, only has personal interest in writers she views to be championing "la causa," which is to say, she only acknowledges Latinx writers who write about what she perceives to be an "authentic" Latinx experience - aka, a Latinx experience that looks like hers or cleaves to a very narrow ethnic-purity paradigm.
Gabaldón is not viewed as a legit Latinx writer by people like Hinojosa because she is not writing about Latino characters. By writing popular time-travel romance novels set in Scotland and Boston (some as long as 1000 pages each), by writing about non-Latino white characters, Gabaldón has stepped outside of the accepted (and, ultimately, racist) limitations the ethnic identity police place upon themselves and others. Even though Gabaldón proudly asserts her personal Latino identity on her website (in one of the best-written auto-bios I have ever read), her choice of subject matter makes her inconsequential and perhaps even antagonistic to Hinojosa, who requires we all stay in our Latinx lane - a slow, separate, colonial lane built for us by the dominant class but which Hinojosa has been driving in, all the way to the bank (as they say).
Fuck my life.
Gabaldón's dad, Tony Gabaldón, is from the same tiny town where my own mother was born and raised - Belen, New Mexico. Mexican American, he went on to become a state senator in Arizona, where Diana was born and still lives. She was raised in a political, activist household. She is a genius. Her Outlander series very cleverly examines the brutal nature of political and ethnic occupation along a contentious border; but she uses 18th century Scotland to tell the universal horror story. Scotland, and its brutal colonization by neighboring England, can be seen here as a proxy for the American Southwest, and our own border, our own contemporary issues, the ones her father battled. In approaching colonialism and history in this way, Gabaldón has taken what might have been a smaller and very personal polemic, and broadened it to include all human beings. (Interestingly, this is exactly what I think Cummins was trying to do, except Cummins is an idiot, so it failed.)
Gabaldón has said in interviews that many of her fans assume her last name is Scottish. Gabaldón isn't a common Spanish surname in much of the US, but here in New Mexico it is. I love the answer she gives on her website. It makes me want her as my new best friend forever.
Are you Scottish or English?
American. Raised in Flagstaff, Arizona. However, my ancestry is both English and Mexican-American (well, “Hispanic,” let us say, or latino, as you prefer. Los Gabaldones arrived in what later became New Mexico somewhere in the very late 16th century, and were peacefully acquired by the United States by the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, so that side of the family didn’t actually come from Mexico; they were just there when that part of Mexico became part of the US). The other side is Johnny-come-lately; one of my maternal great- grandfathers emigrated from England to Arizona in the late 1800′s, but two other English branches (and one German one) came over during the American Revolution.
German fans often ask if I know where in Germany the German branch originated. I don’t, but fwiw, the family name on that branch is “Switzer”—i.e., “the guy from Switzerland.”
Gabaldón is hardly alone, either. Linda Castillo, Michele Martinez, Daniel Silva, Melissa de la Cruz and others routinely get advances larger than the one paid to Cummins. Cisneros, too. All of this raises the question - what makes a writer (or person) "Latinx" for purposes of news stories in America? Who gets to decide what that means, and who is allowed to claim the label? What purpose do these labels serve?
And, most importantly, who is served most by their existence?