Open Letter to Jeanine Cummins, Author of American Dirt

I’ve spent the week in the exhausting blowback against your book, American Dirt. I’ve been glad to be a small part of the resistance, because I don’t think the book should be held up as the Great American Immigrant Novel for many reasons. Those reasons have been articulated with passion and brilliance by writers like Myriam Gurba, Esmeralda Bermudez, and David Bowles

I assume you’ve seen those righteous critiques, so I won’t dwell on them here. The book is not the topic of this letter—your response is. 

I listened to the NPR story this morning and I hope you can really hear yourself, because that feeling of confusion about our anger could be a transformative educational opportunity for you. In that now-infamous New York Times article from a few years ago, you said you didn’t want to talk about race. That is the heart of white privilege: You don’t have to talk about race, confront race every day, or deal with minor and major life effects of racism, so you simply don’t

Well, we need you to talk about race and racism, because we are out here hurting in your stead. If you really are a Latina writer, then act like one. Use your abundant privilege to amplify our work and demand change. Acknowledge that you are not giving faces to the faceless or voices to the voiceless or starting conversations: Writers of color, immigrants, Latinx people are already over here with faces and voices having conversations—and writing books!—it’s just that the literary powers-that-be are not listening. 

You said in the NPR interview that you are not responsible for the publishing industry. But you are responsible for your own small piece of it, especially right now at your moment of highest empowerment. You have had opportunities to use your power and you didn’t. To take just one ugly example: When Flatiron threw you the party with the border-wall-n-barbed-wire floral centerpieces, you could’ve asked for them to be removed, destroyed. You could’ve paused the party and made a speech about why the prettification of brown suffering is not OK. 

You are not someone to whom things are simply “happening.” You are making choices and those choices are painful for many of us. Take responsibility for your power to do what you can to open up opportunities for others, to push the industry to listen and to learn.

I believe at my core in restorative values, which are, in essence: We are all valuable members of a community. Conflict is inevitable and human. The best outcome of conflict is greater empathy and justice, and restoration to the community of all who have been disconnected from it. 

My invitation is this: Do the hard work to repair the harm you’ve caused. To do that, you will have to endure a little pain and awkwardness, but that’s all—you’ll survive. After all, that’s what a writer of color would do: confront the pain and survive.


Jennifer Morales

January 24, 2020 Blog Posts