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Jeanine Cummins addresses the American Dirt controversy.

Emily Temple

January 22, 2020, 1:16pm

Today, Jeanine Cummins appeared at Winter Institute in Baltimore, and as Michael Cader reports for Publishers Lunch, commented on the ongoing controversy over her new novel, American Dirt. Bookseller Javier Ramirez, who introduced Cummins, brought up the topic at the end of the formal interview: “Many people are asking, what gives you the right to tell the story?” Cummins replied:

This is a hard question to answer. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to answer it. The fact is that that is a question that I asked myself for five years. I struggled with that question for a very long time. I resisted writing this book. I threw out two complete drafts. And I lived in fear of this moment, of being called to account for myself: “Who do you think you are?”

And in the end, the people who I met along the way, the migrants who I spoke to, the people who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect vulnerable people, they showed me what real courage looks like. They made me recognize my own cowardice. When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice.

. . .

I think this is an important conversation. I feel like it is a question that needs to be directed more firmly toward publishers than at individual writers. I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write.

I acknowledge that there is tremendous inequity in the industry, about who gets attention for writing what books . . . I’m aware that in the court of public opinion on my ethnicity at this point I am the white lady. I am also Puerto Rican. I am a Latinx woman. And I’m not a migrant. But I feel like putting that so central to the conversation makes me—I’m in such an uncomfortable position about how to identify myself and how to account for things that are beyond my reckoning.

When “asked to respond to the accusations that the book is inaccurate, hurtful, dangerous, made for the white gaze and ‘a kind of celebration of trauma porn,'” Cader writes that Cummins “paused and responded a little pained.”

“I don’t know if I want to say anything to that,” she said. “I feel like it’s for the reader to decide. I understand where the criticism comes from, I think I understand where it’s born. I feel like the book needs to stand on its own merits. If people read it on its own merits and then decide that they hate it based on what is in the pages, that’s OK; not everyone needs to love my book.”

As far as the subject of immigration itself, she said: “The thing that changed the most in my experience isn’t policy itself but rather than tenor of the policy. This incredibly inhumane way that we are treating people at our Southern border predated the current administration unfortunately and I fear it will continue into the next administration. And I do think rhetoric matters in that regard. I don’t think I was deeply influenced by the person in the White House in any way. I started writing this book in 2013. My influences were more personal and intimate than they were on the policy level.”

For a full transcription of Cummins’ remarks, head to PublishersLunch.

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