Americans get Dirty

So, there’s a huge appropriation scandal gone nuts in the US around the white-woman-writes-about-Mexicans book American Dirt. It was supposed to be a huge triumph for the author and publisher and while I expect the negative attention hasn’t hurt sales so much, it does seem to have been a remarkably tone-deaf and bad-timing decision on the part of everyone involved. Was there no one at any boardroom table that went, “Really? Are you serious? Right now?” Anyway, before you conservative types start yapping about the artist’s right to cultural appropriation, it looks like the real controversy didn’t erupt until passages of writing started to emerge that showed the “author’s portrayal of Mexican culture [as] outlandish, littered with stereotypes, stilted bilingualism and an awkward peppering of italicized Spanish phrases.” Now there’s an open letter (!!) signed by 82 authors asking Oprah to reconsider her choice to pick this book for her club. Thoughts?

Its publisher, Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, paid a seven-figure advance after outbidding several competitors for the novel. It snagged a coveted selection in Oprah’s Book Club and had been shipped to key celebrity influencers, including Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros and Salma Hayek. A reported first run of 500,000 copies was printed. The film rights were sold.

But by week’s end, the novel “American Dirt” had garnered attention that its boosters likely didn’t expect: angry charges of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, insensitivity, and even racism against author Jeanine Cummins, who herself said in the book’s author’s note, “I was worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants.”

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