By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
A tiny part of me feels sorry for Jeanine Cummins. Remember her? The publication of her book “American Dirt” unleashed a storm of criticism and put in evidence the differential treatment writers of color and white writers receive. It also promised to spark a conversation precisely about said topic. I dabbled a bit on the theme in a column last week.
And a lot has happened since then. Cummins’ publisher Flatiron Books first canceled a couple of her readings, citing security concerns, then canceled the tour altogether. Salma Hayek walked back her endorsement of the book, admitting she actually had not read it. Upon closer examination, Latino writers began discovering the “research” Cummins did could have included “borrowing” some elements from the writers she cites in the book credits. Riding La Bestia? Sonia Nazario wrote extensively about that. A child killed by a garbage truck on the border? Luis Alberto Urrea wrote about that. A bookseller running for her life? Salma Hayek played that role in “Desperado.” The coincidences are hard to ignore, particularly in this atmosphere.
And yet, I feel for Cummins. I can imagine she must have been over the moon about the hefty advance she received, ecstatic about the early reviews (the Washington Post called it a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath”) and overall giddy with excitement. The book had been called among the most anticipated of 2020. It was launched simultaneously in English, Spanish and goodness knows in how many other languages. She was definitely flying near the moon.
But before I write more about why the feelings for Cummins, I want to tell you another story. This one is not self-serving, though.
During my previous life as a full-time reporter I covered the case of a woman who was suing her employer for racial discrimination. She was white, and up to very recently, she had been working as the top assistant to the organization’s top honcho, who was black. I’ll call her Agnes, a nice, stereotypical, older white woman’s name, and I will call the man The Boss. I won’t disclose any more details about the type of organization this was to protect me from unwarranted hate (which, as we will later learn, these days is demonstrated in the form of threats).
Agnes had served as executive assistant to The Boss for several years, a position that made her very proud. But The Boss decided to retire, the company hired another Boss, and the new Boss, a white lady, decided she wanted a clean slate so she moved Agnes to a different position with the same salary and benefits she had been enjoying. Agnes was deeply unhappy about the loss of status, so she sued, citing racial discrimination. I’m not sure what her logic was (really, it never made sense to me) but it went something like this: I serve a black boss, and when the boss retired, there was nobody else to discriminate against so the new Boss discriminated against me as retaliation for serving a black man. Or something like that.
It must not have made sense to the judge either, who ruled against Agnes. Undeterred, Agnes appealed the decision to the appellate court, and she lost again. The second loss may have convinced Agnes she was chasing windmills on Rocinante, but I lost track of her so I don’t know what happened.
What fascinated me about Agnes’ case, besides watching her lawyers turn themselves into pretzels, was to think that Agnes had no friends or family members to tell her she was out to lunch. Agnes sued her employer for something completely wacky, and nobody said anything to her: not a spouse (I don’t remember if she had one) her children (same thing) best friend (ditto) or dog (well, that one is understandable). I remember asking my best friend (who happens to be white) to please slap me if I was ever that dumb. Heavens knows I deserve those slaps more often than not, but she’s way too kind.
And for months I tried to understand: how do you get to a point in your life in which nobody speaks frankly to you? A point in which you see the sky is pink and everyone around you nods beatifically? A point in which nobody tells you perhaps the world is not exactly as it appears on your retina? Either everybody was too afraid to hurt Agnes’ obviously already hurt feelings, or nobody thought Agnes was doing anything wrong. Which brings me back to Cummins and her Frankenstein of a book.
We humans, all of us, surround ourselves with people we like and who like us and who think like us and who corroborate our view of the world. I remember a good friend who was dumbfounded – DUMBFOUNDED – when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California. “Nobody I know voted for him,” she told me. Really.
So I can see Cummins, surrounded by people who love her and support her and share her view of the world, even admire her for having been married to an undocumented immigrant (a man from Ireland who will never in a million years get caught in a raid or stopped at a traffic light for having a busted taillight, wink, wink.) I can see everyone telling her what a wonderful book she’s written, how brilliant she is, and can you please sprinkle more Spanish in your book to make it more “authentic.” Gracias, señorita.
Books take a lot of work to bring into the world (“A Fighting Chance” is my second, and I’m working on my third and I’m nowhere near being close to finishing either the first or third). When they finally see the light of day, it’s beautiful: they are your babies, you love them as such. Cummins must be very hurt, indeed, not just by the criticism, but by the aftermath. She received threats (or so she said), the tour was canceled, she’s been called to the mat for the similarities her book has with other Latino ouvres. She even appears to have deleted from her Twitter account pictures of the elegant centerpieces displayed at the book party with the barbed wire motifs. Pity.
So yeah, I feel a tiny bit sorry for her. I’m sorry her tour was canceled — really. As insulting as it is to see how Latinos writers are still not getting a fair share of money and attention (and actually, they got a lot more attention after the controversy, including a promise from Flatiron to substantially increase Latino representation among its ranks), it’s great for books to get any attention at all. I’m sorry the conversation turned to threats toward her and toward another stereotype — that of the violent Latino capable of callously hurting other human beings. And then it turned out the threats were a product of Jeanine’s imagination, but she’d already proven she’s very adept at fiction, so that wasn’t a surprise.
Something magical happened among all of this: united Latino writers were able to change the narrative every time, even to the point of getting a meeting with NY publishers through the #DignidadLiteraria campaign. After Cummins’ tour was canceled, Latino writers in cyberspace began sharing their own horror stories. Because, it turns out, most of us truly have been threatened. Héctor Tobar, former columnist with the L.A. Times, has been on the receiving end. Same with Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News. When Stephen King tweeted in Cummins’ defense, “this does not happen in America,” the Latinada busted out in an exuberant laugh. It happens way too often, just not to people who live in your bubble, Esteban querido. The most vile threat I ever received was not just physical and sexual harm against me, but also against my mother. I almost thought about canceling my book tour, but then I remembered I did not have one scheduled. Oh, wait, I had not finished the book yet. Never mind.
Yeah, I almost felt pity for Cummins for one tiny second. Then I remembered she got a seven-figure advance (that’s $1 million at least, for all you math-impaired) for a book that heavily borrows from Latino writers who received tiny monetary compensations in return. And then I remembered she’s on top of the NYT best-selling list (no publicity is bad publicity, right?). And then I remembered her publisher told untruths about receiving threats. And then I read that, in spite of all the egg on the publishers’ and editors’ faces, Flatiron will come out ahead financially (which is what they really care about. Money does a great job at cleaning egg off people’s faces). And then I remembered all the times I and hundred other Latino journalists have truly been intimidated, and by then, my compassion had dissipated like the stereotypical smoke of my abuela’s comal.
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