For readers of contemporary fiction, it would have been nearly impossible to miss the controversy swirling around Jeanine Cummins’ new book American Dirt. The novel, which sold for seven figures, earned a spot on Oprah’s Book Club, and has been optioned for a film, tells the story of a mother and son fleeing Mexican narcos to find safety in the U.S. It was positioned by its publisher Flatiron Books to be a bestseller and while it has received praise, others have found it reductive, shallow, and offensive.
I come to this controversy with a unique perspective as an author of colour, who has also worked in the publishing industry. I have seen, for lack of a better term, what’s behind the curtain. Specifically, I’ve been the only person of colour in a room full of white, book publishing professionals more times than I’d like to remember. I’ve been the assistant, digging my nails into my palms to keep from speaking out when some art director declares in a meeting that Black girls on book covers don’t sell; I’ve cried in bathroom stalls, tears muffled by my arms, when a white colleague claimed I was just a diversity hire; I’ve smiled instead of screamed when my boss made yet another racist yet “well-meaning” comment. I’ve also gotten to work with some incredible authors and helped publish books my younger self could only dream existed.
I am not alone in this.
According to Publishers Weekly, the book publishing industry is 84% white. It’s a number that barely fluctuates each year because even though many of us on the ground push to get more people of colour in the industry, so many others leave, frustrated with the lack of change. I eventually became sick and tired of people of colour not having the same support systems in the book publishing industry that our white colleagues did. So I founded People of Color in Publishing, a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting, empowering, and uplifting racially and ethnically marginalized members throughout the industry.
By our last count, People of Color in Publishing has helped over 40 people get jobs in publishing. But we can only do so much without the support of the industry itself. Correction: Without the support of the people in power within the industry — it’s not a coincidence that Amy Einhorn, who acquired American Dirt, also acquired the equally problematic The Help (as author L.L. McKinney pointed out), which went on to become an Oscar-nominated movie.
Simply put, the very senior publishing professionals who have power to truly change this industry for the better are the same people who are making things worse, again and again. In 2017, Keira Drake pushed back her debut, The Continent, because it faced criticism about racist character portrayals. But what most don’t know is that the same editor that acquired that book also acquired The Black Witch, another YA novel that received similar criticism. There are many more patterns like this.
Meanwhile, Cummins’ publisher, Flatiron Books, (which also published Angie Cruz’s fantastic novel, Dominicana, which unfortunately received half the publicity of American Dirt) is throwing dinner parties in honour of Cummins’ book with barbed wire fence centrepieces like a scene right out of a dystopian novel. It all makes me think a lot about what it means to do the work of telling our stories and about the state of this industry.
In his post, “12 Fundamentals Of Writing ‘The Other’ (And The Self),” Daniel José Older asks, “Have you considered The Why, and have you considered The No?”
Which is similar to Alexander Chee’s three questions he advises you ask when writing the other: “1. Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view? 2. Do you read writers from this community currently? 3. Why do you want to tell this story?”
What I love about these questions is that they don’t only apply when writing ‘the other.’ We are not from monolithic cultures, and we can all cause harm.
Before I even approached my agent with the idea for my first book, A Phoenix First Must Burn, I thought a lot about how “Black pain” is often what sells. I grew up mostly seeing Black characters in books about slavery, sharecropping, and segregation. It was exhausting —it still is.
I read a lot of Black writers. I know what’s being published, and because of that, even though I don’t represent all the multitudes within the Black identity, I was confident I had the background necessary to approach a “Black Girl Magic” anthology with care. I knew I could find the right writers; I knew they would trust me to edit them. I knew they’d let me know if I did something wrong. I also knew that I would take their comments to heart, listen, and make amends.
Most of my friends are authors of colour, and we work really hard just to tell our own stories. We doubt ourselves all the time. I was a book editor when the anthology sold, and, at the time, there weren’t a lot of Black YA fantasy and science fiction novels that were getting much attention. So when my anthology sold at auction, with offers from every major house, I had a massive panic attack. Fantasy and science fiction have traditionally been dominated by white men and here I was with something so Black and so queer, something I would have loved to give my younger self--that I became terrified that the first time a queer, Black girl saw herself in a book— my book — it would be a mess.
What did I do? I kept asking questions like the ones Chee and Older posed. My white editor and I had a lot of honest, sometimes uncomfortable but always necessary conversations. She cared a lot. The team cared from day one about getting everything right, even down to a single sentence of the marketing copy. That is how it should be.
Since then, the genre has expanded in beautiful ways. There’s been Children of Blood and Bone and Children of Virtue and Vengeance, The Belles, and Dread Nation — all by Black women, all instant New York Times best-sellers. There have also been best-sellers and big award-winners in the adult space. But those remain the exceptions, not the rule.
Once a book is published, you can’t say, as Cummins tried to do in her afterword to American Dirt “so what I meant was…” Readers bring their own lived experiences to your text. You have to do the work before the book publishes to get it right.
This goes for publishing professionals, too. Books are read by so many people in-house before they’re published. It starts with the editor (and the writer’s literary agent, if they have one). So if you are an editor looking to acquire something by someone writing “outside their ‘lane’ (or yours!)” you need to ask yourself similar questions like:
Why does this book need to be from this character’s point of view?
Why do you need to acquire this book?
Do you read writers from this community currently? Name 10. Look beyond your circles, in most cases, they’re not the “only” one.
Why does this writer need to be telling this story?
Are you the best person to acquire this book?
If not, what work are you going to do to ensure this representation, this story, is correct?
I don’t work as a book editor anymore. I’m an author and a literary agent with a client list of brilliant, diverse writers. But having held multiple roles within the industry, I can confidently say this: The book industry’s problem is not just this one book. The problem is that the industry is too comfortable with not being uncomfortable. We don’t ask ourselves questions, and we don’t question ourselves. We aren’t doing the work of going out into the communities around us and getting to know the people there: their lives, the books they truly want, and the stories they need to tell. We don’t ask ourselves, How can we help people tell their own stories?
Instead, it’s become common to take the first person — usually somebody who looks like you and makes you comfortable — somebody claiming she wants to be a voice for the voiceless, and you publish her instead. This controversy, the latest of many, has made it abundantly clear that the old model isn’t working. I’m ready for the change.
Patrice Caldwell is a graduate of Wellesley College and the founder & fundraising chair of People of Color in Publishing–a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting, empowering, and uplifting racially and ethnically marginalized members of the book publishing industry. Born and raised in Texas, Patrice was a children’s book editor before shifting to be a literary agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.