Oprah’s book pick American Dirt, a story about a middle-class Mexican woman and her son fleeing to the U.S broader has sparked a debate not just in publishing fields, but the entertainment industry.
The book was a huge success and recently gone viral- I am sure you’ve spotted the ad banners in the underground. The writer Jeanine Cummins has received a lot of backlash for writing from a migrant’s viewpoint, even cancelling the promotional tour of the book- something that is rare in the publishing industry. It has provoked a larger argument of who should be profiting from stories that are not their own. Domino Perez, a professor of Mexican American Studies told the BBC: “When writing about a community to which one does not belong, authors have an obligation to think about the social and cultural politics of what they are doing,”
Ok let’s get this straight- I’m not here to go into the full politics of if American Dirt should or should not have been written by a woman who identifies as white- I am here to look at the larger debate this brings up. Why is it 2020 and as white people we still continue to take up so much space with stories that are not ours to tell?
Look I am not here to exclaim what you can and cannot write about as a white person. Ironically I am writing this as a caucasian, in my fourth year of American Studies. A course that has race history at the heart of its interdisciplinary study. Yet I am white, 98% of the lectures are white, including the head of the department and the same goes for the other top three universities for American Studies in the U.K. It is only as I come to the latter years of my degree that I have truly begun to question how odd this is and after EVERYTHING that’s gone down, that white historians, writers, artists, scholars speak or enter spaces that quite frankly are not for them.
Now do not get me wrong- I think it essential that as white people we educate ourselves on new perspectives and start to be a lot more aware of the untruths mainstream history produces. I also wanna be very cut-throat clear on one thing too- it is in no way the job of any minority group to educate white people. But it is no secret that many minority groups never got the chance and still do not have the chance for their work to be seen-, nevermind in the publishing industry. In an article written by the Guardian, it was found that only 1.96% of authors and illustrators between 2007 and 2017 were British people of colour, compared to 13% of the population.
A positive to take out of the controversy of American Dirt is the fact that it has people talking about this topic. Despite its celebrity endorsement and critically acclaimed reviews from writers such as Stephan King, people still spoke out against it and it got mad attention. This shows a shift in how vigilant consumers are getting in questioning who is behind the narrative they consume: and this is essential!
Just to be crystal clear: I am not saying people should not dare write about an experience they have not lived, of course, they can. Just make room for people. Something as white people, we have not quite get our heads around.
I think it is essential to learn, read and engage with history, art, politics- anything of different cultures. And yes it may give you a tiny glimpse into what people go through but that’s all it is: a tiny glimpse. You will never know what it is like to walk in their shoes. So please for god sake, don’t write like you do. I think one thing is pretty simple: sometimes stories are not ours to tell. So step aside.