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The Importance of Being Anglo: “American Dirt”

26 January 2020

I’ve speculated that this website, and my books, might have had a wider audience, or been better reviewed, had my name ended in a vowel, and not a consonant.  But they don’t, and I can’t … like Jeanine Cummins … claim — apparently on the semi-relevant fact that one of her grandparents was born in Puerto Rico — any particular ethnic ties to Latin America.  

It itself, that is not an impediment to writing ABOUT Latin America… in general, or about any specific country or region.  Or shouldn’t be:  assuming one is familiar with the region, and knows their limitations. Much of the criticism of “American Dirt” has to do with the “white lens” (as writer and designer Joaquín Ramón Herrera put it in an important essay) though which Cummins novel was apparently written, edited, and marketed.

In my modest career as a publisher and editor, we handled books in English, for English language readers about Mexico.  The assumption was our books might not entirely remove the white lens, but that they would at least bridge the gap between the assumptions and stereotypes presented by the mainstream press and media a little more clearly.  There was never that the authors were Mexicans (although we tried a few translations).  I handled three novels written by Anglos (both authors being long term Mexican residents) with Mexican characters.  Two were historical novels, which made it easier.  One had an Anglo protagonist, and we’d expect him to interact with the other characters in the novel through is white lens.  Editing was mostly a matter of rooting out neologisms, and errors in historical fact (we drove the author to distraction over minor details, forcing him to revise s paragraph mentioning a woman carrying a food tray… the tray itself made of material not available in rural Mexico in 1911).

The second… well… I did the best I could and haven’t heard any complaints so far.  The third featured a North American raised Mexican private eye, living in my own neighborhood and searching for a North American.  Whether or not the Mexican characters are “right” though, I can’t say.  Nor, whether I completely “got” the protagonist’s own “el norte lens” right, although I did outsource readings to Mexican Americans (and… the protagonist being trans*, to a trans* editor to ensure the medical and psychological details were within the realm of possibility).

The publishing venture was Quixotic, if anything, but besides losing more money than I could afford, it was also impossible to find manuscripts that said anything you couldn’t find north of the border, said by north of the border observers.  And, being a Mexican publisher of English language books meant Mexican writers in English, or in translation, had a much larger market available to them north of the border.  But then, most of the English language Latino writers have another bias… an “el norte lens” if you will.

But then, those novels and essays from El Norte DO deal with a Latin experience in an English speaking majority culture, or with the migrant experience, and are to be read through an El Norte lens.  Although the Latin press in the United States does once in a while let slip though some basic error (as a historian, I still am annoyed with an otherwise fascinating novel about 17th century Mexico that mentioned bougainvilleas,,, about a century before Bouganville was born and 175 years before the plant was introduced in Mexico).

I suppose a minor editorial slip in a historical novel is to be expected but “American Dirt” is supposed to be a contemporary novel, with a Mexican protagonist.  However sincere the author was and whatever her claims to having done her research might be, the editors did nothing to stop the howlers noted in Mariam Gurba’s joyously snarky review of the novel’s mangled Spanish and Spanglish, not to mention various archaic references to a Mexico of thirty or forty years ago. DId anyone, even someone reading through an el norte lens look at the manuscript?   Ms. Gurba rightly wonders why, when so many good Latin writers are pining for a decent contract with a major publisher, my question is much more basic:  didn’t they hire a Latin reader or editor?

That said, and giving Cummins a bigger benefit of the doubt than she probably deserves, assuming she honestly thought she had the background and knowledge to write her yarn, “American Dirt” raises some uncomfortable issues for any of us writing in and about Mexico.  I troll more than I comment on several social media sites for writers in Mexico.  Most of the participants are writing (kindle) murder mysteries, set in whatever tourist community they happen to live in.  Or, “How I Moved To Mexico” books… subjects I may not be particularly interested in reading, but which could be very well written for all I know.  What I found intriguing is the support and enthusiasm for “American Dirt”.

Cynically, I think some see a market for stories of Mexican mayhem seen through a white lens blurrily… and fully expect announcement of “thrilling” trauma porn novels (on kindle at 2.99 this week only!) appearing within a few weeks on my social media accounts. I’m a little less cynical about those who say they want to read the book (and plan to buy it) before deciding whether or not it’s “authentic”.  Or… more troubling… think because Oprah recommended it, it has to be worthwhile.  It seems they miss the point of the critics… that a “white lens writer”, no matter how “sincere” or how thrilling the tale, is going to get it wrong, and not create a Latin protagonist without a deep understanding of the country and its culture.

I stick to writing history and just observations of what is happening now.  First off, dead people cannot correct any motives on what they did or didn’t do, and secondly, while I might be able to say people do such and such in Mexico, or an individual or group holds this or that position, and even point to the likely historical basis for a position (or the modern rationale for it), but that’s about it.  Certainly, one can write about the lives of people not like themselves

Hell, Tolstoy wrote well about peasants, Paul Scott about Anglo-Indians, Marguerite Yourcenar about Roman nobility… to mention a few of my favorite authors), so it’s not impossible to create characters and situations outside our own experience, but what what was actually said and thought by peasants, by Anglo-Indians, by Roman nobles, or by Mexican migrants should have the ring of truth, no matter whose lenses we are wearing.

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