As the drugstore cashier bags my tube of bikini shave gel, she squints at me. A spark of recognition lights up her face, warning me that the privilege of anonymously shopping for toiletries won’t be mine today.
“You’re the lady who’s got beef with Oprah!” the cashier announces.
Sighing, I reply, “Yes, I’m the lady with the beef.”
My carne is large and literary. I’ve got beef with the entire publishing industry and Spanglishly calling out its racism landed me at the center of this year’s biggest literary scandal.
The shitstorm began in December when an academic blog, Tropics of Meta, published my essay “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.” This piece of cultural criticism examined the racism in Jeanine Cummins’ schlocky narco-thriller American Dirt.
The book’s plot follows Lydia Quixano Pérez, a “moderately attractive but not beautiful [Mexican] woman,” who dodges bullets during a cartoonish massacre in Acapulco. Lydia and her surviving son, Luca, flee to “el norte” to escape cartel assassins. They terrorize her by leaving a note on her car that reads, “Boo.”
Mexican ghosts do not say boo. They weep. Cummins would know that had she done proper research. Her publisher, Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, could have caught the book’s many gringisms had they hired a Mexicanist editor to correct her prose.
I’d suggested in my essay that American Dirt would be a perfect read for self-righteous gringa book clubs. On January 21, Oprah announced she’d chosen it for hers. Over the next several weeks, outrage against Cummins, Flatiron, and Oprah mounted. More than 140 writers, including Viet Thanh Nguyen, Roxane Gay, and Rebecca Solnit, petitioned Oprah to remove her book club imprimatur from American Dirt. A social movement, #DignidadLiteraria, emerged.
Dignidad Literaria seeks to hold the publishing industry accountable for its racism. It also seeks to promote Latinx voices, in particular Central-American and Mexican voices that often go ignored by the publishing houses making up the Big Five: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. On Feb. 4, the movement secured a commitment from Macmillan and Flatiron to increase Latinx representation among their staff and the authors they publish.
The Latinx demand to be part of the national literature shook White gatekeepers. From coast to coast, the most scandalized among them banged out editorials expressing panicked concern for themselves, Cummins’ safety, and the White imagination. People of color did the opposite.
By and large, thinkers and writers of color condemned the novel and Flatiron’s marketing strategy. We didn’t just call on the publishing industry to transform, we also urged the public to read responsibly, to read us in our own voices. Latinx reading lists proliferated. Booksellers reported that demand for our titles had spiked.
Our collective rage gratified me. I traveled the United States speaking with audiences about Dignidad Literaria at public forums. Many Latinx folks I met shared the frustration and rage they’ve carried since the day that a White supremacist committed the largest massacre of Latinx people in United States history. For many of us, it’s come as a relief to be able to shout that we’re tired, we’re scared, and we’ve had enough. Anger expresses our truth. Politeness masks it.
The students I work with at Long Beach Polytechnic High School are mostly Black and Brown, and some confided that the rise of Dignidad Literaria excited them. Young women of color claimed their voices and began writing first-person accounts about their experiences with intersectional oppression. “Our hurt empowered me,” one student said.
A student-led coalition with the goal of holding racist and abusive teachers accountable emerged on campus. Students self-published essays, fighting for dignity through prose. One of them accumulated their voices into an article writing, “Our words have fallen on deaf ears. We have spoken ― we have been silenced…” And when they staged a walkout in protest, that same student wrote, “We want justice. We are students and we are kids; but, most of all, we are HUMAN BEINGS.”
Reading their work, I thought to myself, “They’re teenage Foucaults!”
Some of my students asked that if I met Oprah, could I please petition her for a car? I would’ve done it, but the opportunity never came. Oprah produced an AppleTV program about the American Dirt scandal and didn’t invite me. Instead, she invited Latinx writers Julissa Arce, Esther Cepeda, and Reyna Grande to share the stage with her and Cummins. The women repeatedly invoked me as a literary provocateur, and I felt a sense of solidarity with Arce, Cepeda, and Grande, who pushed Oprah to admit to her failure. She did so, stating “Well, I am guilty of not looking for Latinx writers.” While Oprah shelters in place inside her California mansion, I hope she takes the opportunity to do so.
Myriam Gurba is the California schoolteacher and author whose takedown of American Dirt launched the controversy. She shares what it feels like to be in the center of that and her own thoughts on criticism and censorship.