American Dirt draws attention to authentic Chicano and Latinx literature

12/02/2020
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15:53
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AP
American Dirt draws attention to authentic Chicano and Latinx literature
American Dirt, the book by Jeanine Cummins tells the story of a Mexican woman who escaped as an illegal immigrant to the United States with her son - Photo: Laura Bonilla/AP

American Dirt draws attention to authentic Chicano and Latinx literature

12/02/2020
15:53
AP
Mexico City
Russell Contreras
-A +A
When Oprah Winfrey endorsed the novel American Dirt for her book club last month, many Latinxs took to social media to criticize the novel by Jeanine Cummins for its stereotypes

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When Oprah Winfrey endorsed the novel American Dirt for her book club last month, many Latinxs took to social media to criticize the novel by Jeanine Cummins for its stereotypes and caricatures.

The novel tells the story of a Mexican mother and her young son who flee to the U.S. border and had been praised by the non-Mexican, non-Latinx, non-migrant community before its January 21 release. However, journalists, writers, and academics started to criticize American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a writer who primarily identifies as white, which also prompted Latinxs to share reading lists and many also pointed to recent work that went overlooked, offering alternative options for those who wanted to read about the migrant experience in the United States.

Across the U.S., Latinx writers say they are seeing an increase in sales after a social media campaign to draw more attention to Latinx literature as big publishers face criticism for ignoring their work or not promoting it enough.

Recommended: American Dirt: How a non-Mexican, non-migrant author profited from human tragedy

Nicolas Kanellos, founder and publisher of Houston-based Arte Publico Press, the largest publisher of Hispanic literature in the U.S., said he noticed some of his books by immigrant writers selling out last month.

“I’m not on Twitter but my staff told me some of our books were appearing on these lists as suggestions,” Kanellos said. “They are gone now.”

Journalist and novelist Luis Alberto Urrea, who Cummings cited as an influence, reported seeing sales of his early 2019 novel The House of Broken Angels jump to his surprise. It was one of the books mentioned on social media.

“Thank you. #14 on the LA Times bestseller list. Again,” Urrea wrote on Facebook. “Big Angel keeps coming back.”

Wendy C. Ortiz’s memoir Excavation in California’s San Fernando Valley also sold out on Amazon.

Others suggested readers buy the novel Dominicana by New York-born Angie Cruz and El Paso-born Sergio Troncoso’s short story collection, “A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant Son,” works released last year.

PEN-award winner and Fresno, California-born writer Daniel Chacón’s “Kafka in a Skirt: Stories from the Wall” also was recommended as a work to understand life on the borderlands. The collection was sought out as comfort following the August 2019 killing of 22 people in a shooting that targeted Mexicans in El Paso, Texas.

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In addition, Latinx advocates told followers to look out for new work from memoirist and essayist Luis J. Rodríguez, who released “From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys and Imaginings From a Native Xicanx Writer” last month.

“I’ve seen interest in my new book. Yeah, people are asking about it,” said Matt Sedillo, a Los Angeles-based poet and author of Mowing Leaves of Grass. He’s also getting more offers to visit colleges to read his work.

Myriam Gurba, a Long Beach, California-based writer who has been a vocal critic of Cummins and her novel, said she saw “no silver lining” in the controversy of American Dirt. She said readers should have been picking up books by Latinx writers anyway.

Gurba and a group of other Latinx writers called #DignidadLiteraria met with publisher Macmillan to demand the publisher hire more Latinx staff.

Domingo García, national president of the Latinx civil rights group the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he didn’t have a problem with non-Latinxs writing about immigration. “But it’s important to have a conversation with publishers about who is getting published and the lack of Latinxs in the industry,” he said.

In New Mexico, the state with the largest percentage of Hispanic residents, the conversation shifted from American Dirt to Levi Romero. The bilingual Spanish-English poet was named as the state’s inaugural poet laureate. He will document his travels around the state to promote poetry through a web journal and podcast.

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez, an Albuquerque-based writer and author of One Day I’ll Tell You the Things I’ve Seen, said he’s happy Latinx works are getting recognized but he hopes the interests doesn’t die down. “Let’s not be angry for two weeks and forget about it,” Vaquera-Vásquez said. “Let’s be angry for months.”

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