American Dirt: Dignity & Equity

David Bowles
Jan 30 · 5 min read

So many reactionary critiques of #DignidadLiteraria — activism centering the literary dignity of Latinx people spurred by the publishing of American Dirt are infused with either privileged blindness or deliberate disingenuousness.

I want to interrogate the attempted dismissal of our concerns.

First, authors definitely have the right to write outside of their identity. An absolute legal right. No one disputes that. But there’s homework to be done. Questions to be asked.

For secondary characters, especially from groups that exist in your own community or region, the work isn’t as strenuous. But for main characters who have a very different identity than yours— especially when you don’t live alongside them in our community or interact with them — the work is MUCH HARDER.

When writing about characters unlike you, living in an entirely different country and cultural paradigm, the labor required is Herculean.

Hence Writing the Other, the book and workshop crafted by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward to help authors write characters who are outside their own cultural identity.

Daniel José Older asks, “Have you considered The Why, and have you considered The No? Why do you feel it falls to you to write someone else’s story? Why do you have the right to take on another’s voice? And should you do this? The answer isn’t always no…”

But sometimes it is.

When you write about an underrepresented group, one whose own voices have been excluded from the world of publishing, not getting it right isn’t just disastrous: it’s harmful to people in that group.

Have you read all the Latinas describing the book’s hurt?

Believe them.

Like I said on NPR’s 1A: authorial autonomy is NOT sacrosanct. The author isn’t a shaman or priestess, possessed of a holy duty. It’s a JOB.

And there’s a need to balance the rights of the writer against the dignity of the people / cultures they write about.

Again and again, reporters ask me: “Why all the vitriol? It’s just a work of fiction.”

Ah, privilege. What a drug.

If you didn’t grow up Mexican American in a Mexican American community, you didn’t spend your childhood hearing about (& experiencing) the harm done to us.

  • lynchings (2000 in Texas alone)
  • 2 mass deportations (millions, including US citizens)
  • segregation
  • usurpation of family land

We’re keenly attuned to harm.

Trump’s anti-Latinx, anti-brown policies get enforced, and we see the writing on the wall.

It’s all happened before.

So what do we do? We stand together, forming an organic coalition of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, other Latinx folks, and allies, pointing out the harm that an inaccurate, objectifying book can do to a community already grappling with generational trauma.

#DignidadLiteraria

Imagine as well what it’s like to grow up with such horrible stereotypes and denigrating attitudes about your culture. Imagine the shame you’d begin to feel as a kid, how you would often want to pull away from your cultural roots.

Then imagine moving past that. Healing. Finding a path toward pride.

Finding a voice rich with the echoes of your ancestors.

Speaking with that voice. Writing with it.

Only to be told your voice isn’t good enough. Isn’t loud enough. Isn’t white enough.

And imagine someone else taking your story and telling it FOR you, for your “own good.”

Telling it wrong, as an outsider, blind to the nuances, deaf to the harmonics.

This happens more often than you might realize. I’m a writer and professor of kid lit. Here are stats I share with my students:

  • 37% of US population is POC (“people of color”)
  • 50% of school-age population is POC
  • 26% of school-age children are Latinx
  • 68% of those Latinx kids are Mexican-American

However, only 5% of the 3653 books published in 2018 for kids/teens featured Latinx protagonists. Just 1% featured Native Americans, 7% Asian Americans / Pasifika, 10% Black folks.

Numbers for adult books (though there’s less data because no publisher keeps track) are similar.

And it gets worse. Among those books featuring kids of color, white authors are systematically prioritized over #ownvoices. 2017 statistics:

  • only 29% of books w/ Black protagonists written by Black authors
  • only 34% of books with Latinx protagonists by Latinx authors
  • 39% of books with Asian American / Pasifika protagonists by Asian American / Pasifika authors
  • 53% of books with Native protagonists by Native authors

When a group of people is underrepresented in such a negligent, nigh-on criminal way, for someone OUTSIDE of their culture to take up SO MUCH space at the publishing table —

A MILLION DOLLAR’S WORTH

— is devastating. Especially when they get everything WRONG.

Why does the publishing industry let this happen? Why perpetuate marginalization and harm?

That’s the elephant in the room.

Behold them.

The gatekeepers.

The industry is overwhelmingly white, middle-class, non-disabled, cishet east-coast women — mostly progressive, with what folks call good intentions.

So what happens?

If you spend your life reading only the “received” works by people like you (the literary default), you equate that with quality.

If a manuscript written by a Chicana, for example, hits the inbox or desk of a white agent / editor whose notions of quality and voice have been shaped by white writers, then they are going to balk.

“This … doesn’t sound right,” they’ll mutter.

And reject it.

Latinx authors hear this a lot. “I just couldn’t connect to the voice!”

Uh, no shit. Really?

We get rejected for

  • voice and dialogue (not aping the industry norms)
  • use of Spanish
  • lack of white characters
  • “cultural inaccessibility”
  • not fitting stereotypes of the culture

That LAST ONE is key. Many white agents / editors have historically chosen ONE Latinx narrative:

Our pain. Our struggle.

Few want our breezy, fun, silly, sexy, adventuresome, creative tales.

They just want to feel sorry for us.

And — caray — we’ve complied.

We’ve told that story AGAIN and AGAIN.

Yet people like Jeanine Cummins think they need to swoop in and steal EVEN THAT DAMN NARRATIVE FROM US!

To humanize us for the white gaze.

Make millions off our tears.

And we? We’re to keep silent.

If we exercise OUR RIGHT to free speech, if we stand up and raise our voices in a collective “BASTA — NO MÁS,” then the Oprah Winfreys and Bob Millers of the world, the Flatiron Books and Macmillans call that defensive mechanism, that need for dignity — “vitriolic rancor.”

Wow. What a way to humanize us, to grasp our plight.

Of course, they dress their ubermensch rebuke in such schoolmarm language:

“We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to….”

Bob Miller, the road to hell, my friend.

Paved with good intentions.

YOU are the ones who’ve wronged US.

David Bowles

Written by

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

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