Step aside, Jesucristo. There’s a new savior in town. Her name is Jeanine.
December 15, 2019 7:28 PM   Subscribe

“Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature” Chicana writer Myriam Gurba received an offer to review a book about Mexican migrants, American Dirt, by writer Jeanine Cummins. Her honest, but brutal, review of the book was then rejected by the outfit that solicited it. In this blog post, she has posted excerpts from the review and personal commentary. Chicano writer David Bowles adds additional context to Gurba’s criticism in a recent twitter thread.

As detailed in the links, Cummins has previously identified as white and as someone who “didn’t want to write about race” in an op-ed in the New York Times in 2015, but has recently claimed Latinx identity because her grandmother is Puerto Rican.
posted by primalux (27 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- frimble

They head north, or, as Cummins’ often writes, to “el norte,” and italicized Spanish words like carajo, mijo, and amigo litter the prose, yielding the same effect as store-bought taco seasoning.
Ohhh I love this.
posted by hopeless romantique at 8:02 PM on December 15, 2019 [18 favorites]

It's a great takedown.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:17 PM on December 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't know. I felt I had trouble reading these links distinguishing between some very odd identity policing (we're deciding now that having a PR grandmother doesn't make you Latina enough?), criticism of the actual text of the novel as being unrealistic or weirdly fixated on serving up Mexican pain for a white audience (definitely more than plausible, I was completely ready to go along with the blog post on that, but it felt like this could have been filled in with considerably more detail), and anger at the publisher for publishing this book from this author instead other books from other authors, which doesn't seem to be the author's fault. (This has always struck me as one of the tougher issues associated with appropriation--the odds that you, as a white person, will, as a result of structural biases, probably get more attention talking about [x] than a person from the culture that produces [x]. What do you do with that?)
posted by praemunire at 9:22 PM on December 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

What you do with that is you don’t talk about x. If the inauthentic voices go quiet we’ll all be able to hear the authentic voices.

Effing great take down, thanks for the post.
posted by oddman at 9:33 PM on December 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

The thing about the grandmother kind of rubs me the wrong way, but then once I started reading it that cleared up pretty fast. This is exactly why I try to explain to people the difference between being "a Latinx person of primarily European descent in the US who still comes out of all of the generational cultural trauma" and being "a White Person". I can't imagine standing up in front of people and saying I don't know what the impotent rage feels like. I feel like I've been 75% impotent rage since I was about fourteen. If you stand up and you say you don't feel like you've been impacted like this and it doesn't resonate with you, and then a few years later, for a sufficiently large check, you try to argue that you understood all along... I believe the you that didn't have the book on the line.

If it were anything less than this, I could maybe see calling it not her fault, but the whole book is really there to be The Migrant Story and she had to deliberately write it and put it out there in that fashion. I do expect people who do not have personal association with this narrative not to write this book. I am not writing this book. The whole book is about Mexicans and your acknowledgements page has to be your thanks to the people who helped you write Mexicans, you shouldn't have written the book. If it even was half the story and the other half was something else, I would be so willing to read this generously, but not when it's the whole damn book.
posted by Sequence at 9:38 PM on December 15, 2019 [19 favorites]

If the inauthentic voices go quiet we’ll all be able to hear the authentic voices.

I'm not convinced this is true.
posted by Merus at 9:49 PM on December 15, 2019 [12 favorites]

Just think of it as a necessary rather than sufficient condition, then.
posted by Jpfed at 10:22 PM on December 15, 2019 [20 favorites]

Is it really "odd identity policing" that Mexican/Mexican-American people want their stories told by people from their culture or culture of origin rather than by someone from a very different one (much less by someone who has mostly claimed to be white)?

Latinx people are not a monolith.

Let's not pretend that the very way this post is framed, and your own comment here, is not intended to cast doubt on whether that author is Latina. Writers ought to be able to be responsible for their rhetoric. If you don't have the courage to say flatly that having a Puerto Rican grandmother, but apparently white appearance and ability to pass, and not feeling able to claim that identity before [x] age makes you not Latina, you shouldn't be insinuating it.
posted by praemunire at 10:26 PM on December 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

If you stand up and you say you don't feel like you've been impacted like this and it doesn't resonate with you, and then a few years later, for a sufficiently large check, you try to argue that you understood all along... I believe the you that didn't have the book on the line.

I understand what you're saying, but can we really, truly think of no other reasons a person might be reluctant to claim a stigmatized minority identity?

I don't know this person, I haven't read this book, I have no problem believing that it could belong in the very long and ugly tradition of outsiders mining a culture for profit and mangling the results, but, boy...this particular line-drawing. Does the critique only hold up if the author is unambiguously white, so that she must be pushed back across the line? Surely not, right? So why is it happening?

(I also find the critique of her for reading extensively in the relevant literature...a little strange. If she'd read nothing, she would've very rightfully been criticized for not doing research. Of course, if she actually plagiarized anything, that would be a separate issue.)
posted by praemunire at 10:35 PM on December 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Mod note: One comment removed. Engaging with the idea of representation or cultural appropriation as "[m]aking up crazy rules" isn't an okay tack to take, and conflating this specific situation with a much broader slate of intercultural and racial issues is mostly just a good way to spin a thread into a mess for no good reason.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:36 PM on December 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's funny that there at least two Latinx people here who understand the difference, but if you want to act like there isn't a difference that's on you.

I understand the difference. I nonetheless say it's a pretty aggressive move to claim that a person of a certain descent is barred from identifying with that group unless she does so before a certain point. And, again, an unnecessary move. If you're of the opinion that no one should write a novel about people of another nationality, her grandmother was Puerto Rican, not Mexican, so there's no need to attack her Latinity. If you just think the book is exploitative and especially so given an American author already of considerable cultural standing (or she wouldn't already be published in the NYT) (again, a position that I am ready to believe is wholly reasonable), then there's no need to define her back out of Latinity, either.
posted by praemunire at 10:44 PM on December 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

If you're afraid to claim a stigmatized identity until it's going to make you money, I'm still going to fucking critique you even if you're Latinx.

Critique the book all you want. The attack on the authenticity of her Latinity is not the same thing. David Bowles says in the second link, "Jeanine identifies as Latinx, has an abuela boricua, was born in Spain, etc. ¿Y luego? I sure as shit wouldn't accept seven figures to write a book from the POV of a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico." I don't think I agree with his major premise (though I recognize its force), but it doesn't involve unnecessary identity policing. Had all the framing been like that, I would've had nothing to say about it. I think I'm starting to repeat myself, so I'll step back.
posted by praemunire at 10:51 PM on December 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Not that I know Cummins' family history at all, but I've definitely also run into people who were on-again-off-again claimants to latinx heritage because their ancestors were white plantation owners in Latin countries...
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:03 PM on December 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

Can we just acknowledge that ignorant fe/males who become enlightened are one of the hardest/worst tropes going?

Daphne du Maurier did it with "Rebecca" - and after that, pretty much schlock

"The Comedians", Graham Greene - he is telling you - just shut up and get out of town.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 11:46 PM on December 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the “faceless” out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification.

By her own admission, Cummins lacked the qualifications to write Dirt.
And she did it anyways.
For a seven-figure sum.
A seven-figure sum.
As Bart Simpson used to say, “Ay caramba!”

That sequence took my breath away. This is brilliant. Thank you for posting.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 1:35 AM on December 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Jesus . . . this kind of white people's negation of PoC issues and tone policing of PoC is a major reason why I stopped coming to Metafilter years ago. It's fucking sad to see that there's still folks here so full of their entitled whiteness.
posted by anansi at 4:07 AM on December 16, 2019 [11 favorites]

we're deciding now that having a PR grandmother doesn't make you Latina enough?

Not when you're just using it to make yourself more interesting and less white, just like with Elizabeth Warren's alleged Native American 'heritage'.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:11 AM on December 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

This part of the quoted review stuck out to me:
That Lydia is so shocked by her own country’s day-to-day realities, realities that I’m intimate with as a Chicana living en el norte, gives the impression that Lydia might not be…a credible Mexican. In fact, she perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist.
I know this writing trick. Lydia is an audience-identification character from a sci-fi or fantasy novel. Her job is to allow the author to explain their world-building details and to provide a template for the reader's reaction. Good sci-fi and fantasy authors, however, will at least justify the character's ignorance. And using the trope at all when trying to write about the problems of an actual nation seems questionable. You're not writing about elves, you can just tell the story and trust the reader to respond.
posted by skymt at 4:32 AM on December 16, 2019 [10 favorites]

Latinos are not a monolith, which is precisely why I'd be reluctant to take a hard line down this road. I'd be skeptical of Cummins' self described cred for writing the book. Pulling out the "Latinx" card impresses me none. But my own 100% Chicano cred would be a poor measure for writing anything of authenticity on the subject. It's simply not my experience. Yet, would I get a pass were my name listed as author? Sure, I could do research, too. Once upon time, I know a few folks who absolutely would deny me the privilege. Why? Because I was never Mexican enough. My poor Spanish and good generic English, the thing that had white people assume I was "(American) indian", also put space between me and my ethnic peers. And even family. Back in the 70s, a little round faced, dark skinned kid like me who didn't "talk like a Mexican" was assumed to be an Indian. My own guera daughter speaks far better Spanish than me and has a much better handle on her roots than I did. So, yeah, going after someone for their self described ethnicity is not a hard rule of thumb I'd follow.

I get the feeling that the book was reviewed by Gurba with a pretty big axe to grind. Which is her prerogative. And what a glorious take down she penned. It just tells me more about her than about Cummins' book.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:33 AM on December 16, 2019 [10 favorites]

I haven't read the novel, so I'm not disputing whether or not it represents the Mexican American story well.

But I did want to suggest reading the entire NYT Oped for context. She's not saying "I don't want to write about race" as in she's diminishing racism. In fact it's the opposite - she's writing about the racist public response to a crime against her own family committed by a black defendant who was beaten by the police.

The closing lines of the op-ed: "No one is allowed to co-opt my cousins’ memory into their own racist narrative. We are not the poster family for “victimized” white people. No one can make us bigots by grafting ignorant presumptions onto our grief."
posted by schwinggg! at 8:50 AM on December 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

The interview where she didn't feel qualified to write in the voice of the Mexican migrant. It's different from the NYT op-ed.
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:40 AM on December 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

1. Gurba's takedown is brilliant and hilarious. Best of the web. Thanks for this post.

2. When people of color are explaining racist, stupid shit that white and white-ish people do and have done, white people need to listen and stop nitpicking.
posted by medusa at 11:44 AM on December 16, 2019 [16 favorites]

If the inauthentic voices go quiet we’ll all be able to hear the authentic voices.

I'm reading today's Metafilter posts in reverse order on my way home, and I just got through a series of pieces on how this is a complicated way to frame these situations when it comes to food/cooking and cutural foodways.

On the issue of somoene's ability to cash in on or otherwise come around to an identity, my ex-husband was a very closeted person who didn't write about his sexuality openly until he was in his 50s. When he was younger, he also wrote some things that were not nice about queer culture when he was still in the closet. He definitely got hit with some hard critiques that seized on this at the time. It's a point worth making, but people got savage with it. That aspect of the response has stayed with me for years.

In that piece where Cummins is quoted saying that she's white and didn't want to write about race, she says, "I'm terrified of striking the wrong chord, of being vulnerable, of uncovering shameful ignorance in my psyche. I'm afraid of being misinterpreted. ... And it's imperative for white people to join the conversation about racism. Discomfort is the least of our obligations." Welp, this is at once prescient and accurate.

This stuff is so complicated, with so many intersecting lines, I wish it were easier for the hashing out to happen without making people feel even more ashamed of their shame. I don't know how that happens, though, or how it competes with a takedown. I mean, Bowles even goes after the Mexican American writers "who I otherwise love" who wrote blurbs for the book cover.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:57 PM on December 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Has anyone in this comment thread read the book?

It doesn't come out for a month, so you wouldn't have unless you received a review copy.

I probably won't read it, based on Gurba's review and my own lack of free time. I (and the review) could be wrong, but it seems like Bowles' "torture-porn" description is a good way to sum up the book. "Torture-porn" is pejorative but apt; a work is meant as drama but really served for titillation. In 2019, my view of the Academy Awards has gone from the gentle mockery of Wayne's World's "I never learned to read" bit to my current zero-confidence view that the Oscars could ever indicate anything but self-applauding white culture, let alone quality. From the book's description, Gurba's review, and the mainstream ooo-ing and ahh-ing, it sounds like American Dirt falls into this category.

But again, I haven't read the book. My comment (and the other comments in this thread) tells you more about my outlook and expectations than the it does about the book. And this is why bringing the author's race, while not irrelevant, isn't itself problem-free.

I'm biracial asian and white, and I know EXACTLY how much of a catch-22 walking that knife's edge can be. "You aren't asian enough" isn't something I hear every day, but hasn't been absent from my life either. Most of my social circles are techie/nerdy/burner/metalhead ones, which is to say, pretty white. If you closely examine my posts and comments, you'd probably find me saying the words "I am white" just like how Bowles dug up Cummins' unrelated op-ed from four years ago. I'd hate to have that interpreted as "I am renouncing my asian ethnicity" though. Bowles and Gurba seem to give Cummins' words weight when she identifies as white, but not so much when she identifies as latinx.

(Oh, when Cummins says "I am white [...] I'll never know the impotent rage of being profiled." in that op-ed, the context is about what black men face in the American justice system.)

Anyway, it sounds like a bad/overrated book, a la 2019's Green Book movie. But wouldn't it still be a bad book if it was written by someone who is, in fact, "Mexican enough"? Bowles' "I'm shaking my head at the two Mexican American writers who blurbed this, btw." tweet seems to show that some Mexican American writers had something positive to say. I don't know if the graphic depictions in Cummins' novel are to relate a compelling narrative or just schlock exploitation. Gurba has written about her own experience with violence and sexual assault in her memoir, "Mean". But if I were to categorize her work as torture-porn Oscar-bait written for a payout, that'd be pretty fucking disgusting of me.

It seems like many are basing their decision on whether American Dirt is one or the other on the author's ethnicity, and that is... yeah...

I'm sympathetic but skeptical of cultural appropriation concerns. Cummins' book is being elevated by a system that privileges white voices over minority voices when it comes to racism so it can privilege white comfort over minority justice. But is this the same thing as deplatforming and censorship? (I'd say "Yes*" and "No*", respectively, with a forty-page footnote because that's not the same as "Yes" and "No", respectively.) Are authors who write about X but are not X themselves likely to make embarrassing and insulting blunders? ("Yeah" is my answer.) Should this outright prohibit them from writing novels about X? ("No, but tread carefully.") Prohibited from writing non-fiction about X issues? ("Hell no.") AND IF THEY SELF-IDENTIFY AS X, WHO DECIDES IF THEY ARE "X ENOUGH"?

If you want to guess the ethnicity of the folks who've told me I wasn't "asian enough", the answer is pretty much all of them at one point or another.
posted by AlSweigart at 2:45 PM on December 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

Maybe I'm missing something, but is any number of Puerto Rican grandmothers sufficient to make one Mexican?
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 6:47 PM on December 16, 2019 [27 favorites]

I'm very sympathetic of this frustration, because American mainstream pop culture can't even tell apart mainland Chinese from Southeast Asian Chinese during the Crazy Rich Asians promo cycle, so I remain unsurprised in my sympathetic frustration.
posted by cendawanita at 9:05 PM on December 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I very much appreciated this post, which I did not see till after the holidays. I did read an advance copy of the book, and have tempered my initial enthusiastic reaction since reading all of the above. Interestingly, this week librarians got this email from NextReads, a library newsletter service:

For NextReads, we select books several months in advance, which means that sometimes concerning information about a book is made public after it’s been selected. That’s the case with February’s Fiction A to Z book American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, and February’s Kids’ Books’ pick Race to the Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse.

We selected American Dirt for its perspective on immigration, and for the stellar professional reviews it had generated; we chose Race to the Sun because it was an #ownvoices fantasy gathering positive early buzz. It was only later that we saw concerning reviews by Chicana authors for American Dirt; and deeply critical reviews of Race to the Sun by Indigenous reviewers (we particularly recommend Naomi Caldwell’s School Library Journal review).

In light of these critiques, we've removed these titles from the Advance List, and we want to offer you with some suggested replacements.

Tomas Moniz’ Big Familia
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Meng Jin’s Little Gods

For Kids' Books
Sara Pennypacker’s Here in the Real World
Christine Day’s I Can Make This Promise
Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis with Traci Sorell.
posted by lyssabee at 9:59 AM on January 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

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