By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Let me begin this piece with a self-serving anecdote.
After finishing the first draft of “A Fighting Chance” (back then I called it “West of the Gabilans”), I was lucky enough to get an agent. Agents, you see, are a key piece of the U.S. Publishing World puzzle. They’re gatekeepers: hardly any publishing company will accept a book straight from an author. We authors need an agent, a person who believes in our work, will shop it around and lobby on its behalf. (Either that or self-publish, which has now become less looked down upon, but which I was not ready to contemplate.)
Having scored an agent after just one try was like winning the lottery. Unbeknownst to me, I had just entered the second circle of hell (I entered the first one when I decided to write a novel).
The person who agreed to take my book on is a very reputable agent with offices on both U.S. coasts. The authors represented by this agency routinely land on the NYT best-sellers list, so I was ecstatic, already seeing the royalties piling up at my doorstep. This person, who shall remain anonymous, asked that I make a few changes to the book, some small and some substantial, which I did happily. The book got stronger with each revision I made, although there were times when I questioned whether the changes I was making were true to the story (those were other circles of hell).
The book made the rounds of my agent’s office for a couple of years. Eventually we met again, and the agent told me one of the agency readers (a young guy not from California) detested it, which had prompted the agent to decide to drop me. At the writer’s workshop where we had met, all attendees had been warned that a writer-agent relationship was like a marriage: sometimes they don’t work out. So I was perfectly ready to accept the inevitable: the end of a relationship in which we had not even held hands or gazed into each others’ eyes for about two years. No love lost, really.
But I wasn’t prepared for the eviscerating review of my soon-to-be former agent’s reader: The young guy (in my head he was white, a recent college grad from an Ivy League English lit program) wondered if students in California were already in school during Labor Day — yes, I faced that level of scrutiny. And why was it so foggy in California in the summer, isn’t it always sunny in the Golden State? The guy had obviously never been to Monterey. And how is it that a Mexican man owns so many houses? And a million other things petty enough for me to continue storing them in my already overworked brain. But what I will never forget was that this kid thought there were no sympathetic characters in my novel except for Britney, the white girl from Pebble Beach.
Let me pause there for a second. The only character this white kid from New York liked was a rich, spoiled teen from one of the wealthiest regions in the United States. He didn’t like the working-class Latinos in the novel, the people who look like me or my mother or my siblings or my neighbors. He did not like Miguel Ángel, the 17-year-old who’s training hard to be a boxing champion, or his mother, a hard-working strawberry harvester, or his five-year-old sister, the sweet Pan con Mantequilla who loves to have books read to her. No. In his Ivy league-educated mind, these characters did not deserve the time of day. (In retrospect, I totally get it about Miguel Ángel. After surviving a teenage boy of my own, who wants to spend time with insufferable hormonal adolescents if they’re not your own?)
I’m not saying my novel is a literary jewel that deserved a million-dollar advance. But when this kid didn’t even like the main characters, I had serious questions about the system’s fairness.
I’m retelling all of this because it’s illustrative of the problem that exists in the publishing industry and why books like “American Dirt” — crappy, exploitative, inauthentic — garner seven-figure advances while books like Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Devil’s Highway” barely make a dent in the nation’s psyche. White authors and their view of the world appeal to white New York agents and their readers, to book editors and everyone in the publishing world. Their characters are “likeable.” That’s why it’s so hard for writers of color to make it, as explained masterfully by Esmeralda Bermudez in her column for the L.A. Times.
If you haven’t read anything about the controversy that exploded after Oprah Winfrey selected “American Dirt” for her book club, I’ll give you a primer and refer you to other pieces that explore the issue in depth and much better than I ever could. (I’ve made a promise to myself that I will only write about an issue if I have something different to offer).
Author Jeanine Cummins had her book, “American Dirt,” picked for Winfrey’s book club last week. Way before then, kick-ass writer Myriam Gurba wrote a scathing critique — one that was turned down by a magazine because “she lacked the fame to write something so negative.” In other words, a well-educated Latina did not have the gravitas to criticize the work of a white woman. To quote Myriam: Bitch, please.
Girl, you rock my world.
Social media exploded. The Washington Post said Cummins was being criticized because she is not Mexican. No. The book was being criticized — is being criticized — because it’s trashy, full of stereotypes, and gives a completely distorted view of Mexico, the border and Mexicans. And the writer got an incredibly hefty advance, and received rave reviews from critics when there are dozens of other works that do a much better job at describing the border and its complexities. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, best-selling author of “The Dirty Girls Social Club,” wrote splendidly about that topic in her blog post. (She also wrote this hilarious story about a family member being kidnapped by the cartel. Another girlfriend who rocks my world.)
And then, Latinx writers on Twitter went to town with the thread “Writing my Latino Novel.” I read it out loud to my Latin Lover (eh, I mean, my other half) and laughed so hard my stomach hurt.
My head has been spinning over the controversy, but the most remarkable thing for me is this: how could Cummins get away with writing such a stereotypical story (read: unbelievable)?
Where was my white New York English lit major, the one who questioned whether there’s fog in California, to ask whether a middle-class Mexican woman (read: sheltered to a T) would jump on La Bestia to escape Mexico? Did she not know there’s excellent service in ADO GL? How about getting a Lyft? Answer: clueless white New York agents who don’t question their own kin.
The last thing I want to say about this controversy is that, for Latinx writers and other writers of color to make it into the “mainstream” we will need to be supported by white audiences. Our books may not have tense, high-stakes car chases that appeal to “mainstream” audiences because that’s not how we live. We’re writing about our experiences in the United States, which are quintessential American experiences. We deserve to tell our own stories the way we want them told without white interlocutors to reap the glory and the monetary rewards.
There are books out there that already do this, but it will involve research and energy to find them, as they have been mostly put out by small publishing houses with little promotional budgets. They won’t appear on your FB ads column or your Twitter feed. But this, like every other undertaking to make our society more just, will require work and real emotional effort. Here,., let me make your research a bit easier.
And when I say white audiences, I’m not just referring to readers, who are the ultimate purveyors of support, but also editors and publishers. They truly are the gatekeepers, and we have no choice but to go through them to reach wider audiences. In order to really understand our country, this evolving experiment of ours, writers of color need to receive more support and nurturing.
It won’t be easy, especially when many of us continue dealing with a system that was not built for us, especially when the publishing industry is suffering from the Amazon effect and a million other maladies. And yet, in spite of it all, we continue to create books that lovingly and faithfully reflect our own challenging realities. Please support these authors. Your life will be richer for it.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.