American Dirt (2020) is a novel about a Mexican mother and her son who are forced to join the hordes of immigrants to try to enter the USA. The controversy around it rests on not just a white woman writing about a brown woman, and a writer who doesn’t understand the plight of ‘the other’, but critics are also questioning her writing skills.
The two sides are simply described by NBC journalist Gwen Aviles:
The novel’s defenders maintain that Jeanine Cummins’ book, released on Jan. 21, is an important narrative confronting a topical issue, U.S. migration from Mexico and Central America. The book has been championed by high-profile celebrities, like Oprah who named it her bookclub pick.
The novel’s critics, however, primarily consisting of Latinos and other people of color, have deemed the book opportunistic and racist and are questioning why Latino authors often don’t receive a similar level of support for their projects, which touch upon similar themes and are written from an insider’s perspective.
This white-privileged use of people of colour and from other cultures as ciphers in novels has been around for hundreds of years: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) are the most famous examples and both spurned novels that ‘wrote back’ to the colonial centre with Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea respectively. The characters: Dickens’ Abel Magwitch, a convict escaped from Botany Bay, and Bronte’s creole and unnamed mad-woman in the attic were used as plot points and not as rounded characters and it took Carey and Rhys to give these characters a voice and their own power and agency. These latter books are part of a literary genre known as Post-Colonial literature.
It’s not that a white writer cannot write about a brown character, it’s that when a white writer does they must do it with an understanding that that brown character has agency, honour, a past, and future. In other words the brown character must be respected.
The publishers of the American Dirt, Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan have cancelled their planned national book tour because of the controversy.
An open letter signed by 138 writers has been sent to Oprah Winfrey asking her to rescind her support for the book. The letter succinctly explains the criticism and you can read it here.