I have to admit, I feel relieved that tonight’s American Dirt event at the bookstore was cancelled. By the publisher, so please don’t go pointing fingers at booksellers and crying censorship. We fielded a lot of phone calls from a lot of angry people, some threatening to boycott if we didn’t cancel the event, others threatening… well, something vague… if we did cancel the event. I didn’t personally take any calls credibly threatening violence, though the publisher’s narrative implies some of those sorts of threats were made somewhere, which I feel is a dangerous attitude for any publisher to take, particularly with a book like this.
American Dirt strikes me as a book similar to Hillbilly Elegy and other think-tank titles designed to rope in the NPR crowd while reinforcing right wing stereotypes. But I haven’t read it beyond the flip-through that backed up much of what I’d been hearing, that it was at its heart a pulpy thriller marketed as something upscale, that really could have used better editorial attention. Maybe a few sensitivity readers, or, better yet, someone with a functional understanding of Mexican Spanish. Instead, the acquiring editor (who also acquired the rather problematic novel The Help) solicited many, many blurbs from many, many famous authors. And Oprah! And, well, it’s a train wreck.
Much love to David Bowles, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and John Picacio, whose sharing of facts and articles and a lot of speaking truth to power have provided a lot of perspective. If you want authentic alternatives to American Dirt, grab anything by David, Silvia, Rios de la Luz, Tiffany Scandal, or Gabino Iglesias, just to name a handful of amazing authors.
Finally, no one is saying you can’t write outside of your culture. No one is saying only _______ can write about the _______ experience. What they are saying is that if you do, endeavor to get it right. Make it respectful. Make it authentic. Last year, I published Jeffrey Thomas’ The Unnamed Country, a mosaic novel of interwoven contes cruel set in what is basically Vietnam. The difference between American Dirt and The Unnamed Country is that Thomas knows the land and her people, and his characters, heroes and villains alike, are created with care and respect, and never regarded as mere faceless masses or grotesque stereotypes. The difference, I would say, is love. And that makes all the difference.
Let’s see Don Winslow stick a blurb on that. Let’s see Stephen King read something outside of his comfort zone. And Oprah, we’re right over here if you need a better choice for your book club.