I finally got around to reading Oprah’s review of American Dirt. I have to say I didn’t read the book myself, because when I skimmed through it, it looked like a dozen other books I’ve seen about poor uneducated Mexicans living the immigrant’s struggle. So far that’s pretty much the total of what I’ve seen in the way of literature written and published about Latinas in the U.S. There seems to be a standard outline of “how to write a story about people of color from a white person’s perspective.” So, I didn’t buy it.
Oprah didn’t agree with me, apparently, and neither did the publisher, Flatiron, that out-did themselves in promoting this piece. I was at first surprised that it was also accepted in Oprah’s Book Club. Generally speaking, any book ending up there is not a tale about Latinas. Books about African Americans and poor whites who overcome failure through noble sacrifice are usually the norm. While I totally agree that the books selected for her book club fill a need to represent voices that otherwise are not heard, I often wonder why books about Latinos are not selected in the same way.
I base my question on personal experience, where the first novel I wrote, The Fortunate Accident, also dealt with an immigrant who fought his way into the appearance of “middle class,” but instead of presenting as the “noble savage,” he parlayed his intelligence and cunning into the victimization of other undocumented aliens through the use of our own government institutions and the legal system. My protagonist was a criminal and a con man, but a crafty and charismatic one who exploited a system favored by mainstream white society.
Oprah’s Book Club rejection, and that of a number of traditional publishers was based on the fact that The Fortunate Accident, was not a Hallmark type story. It did not depict “the struggle,” and instead mirrored the accepted conduct of many individuals who constitute today’s privileged white class. I guess my protagonist was unfamiliar and unidentifiable because he was not cleaning somebody’s house or washing their car. Without saying it directly, they let me know my novel “wouldn’t please white readers” or worse it might make them look at Latinos as individuals who live life on their own terms, morally or otherwise. Like real people.
Oprah’s Book Club and a number of traditional publishers ignored a very real character, because they focus on stereo-typed sympathetic characters whenever a protagonist is a person of color. (I should tell you that my protagonist was modeled after a real live Latino who did pretty much everything described in my story, illegal and otherwise). But they wanted a novel that fit their idea of someone who is poor and pitiful, the way they see most Latinos. They said my protagonist wasn’t realistic. Nobody would believe how he lived. Severely oppressed was the only description of a Latino character that was acceptable, unless he was a secondary character portrayed as a Columbian drug lord. Hasn’t that been overdone? Aren’t Latinos entitled to be real people? Just like you and me?
My take-away from this is that publishers here in the U.S. won’t permit anybody of color to write about anything other than the group that they are perceived to be a part of. Meanwhile, white people who portray Latinos as characters under the yolk of oppression are considered “thoughtful, and liberal writers.” They are lauded for writing about Latinos in the first place. Just look at all the attention given to American Dirt, written by someone with the last name of Cummings. She stuck to the Latino brand and is now celebrated for writing about Mexicans. It’s okay because her characters lived in the dirt and they met the expectations of the twenty-two-year-old white publishers from the East Coast who apparently knew “exactly how Latinos are.”
Now, I’ve finished my third novel, an anthology of short stories about Latina women from all walks of life, as told to me by real Latinas. All kinds of women; teachers, soldiers, rich women, wives of politicians, old women, gay women, graduate students, young mothers on welfare, women cheating on their husbands, women that we know. As far as I can tell, none of them are copies of characters from American Dirt. None of them are noble savages. Most of them won’t be characters that Oprah’s Book Club would label as “sensitive or downtrodden,” no more than any white woman living the same life would be.
Somehow I don’t think I’ll be invited to Oprah’s Club this time either. Most publishers and Oprah’s screeners were not happy with my second novel, A Woman Like Me, either. This is a story inspired by true events, telling the tale of a transgender woman who escapes imprisonment in the Philippines and becomes a cop in the United States. Publishers said it painted a poor picture of cops in the South, and a Filipino female cop, well that was too hard to take.
So, I’m going to start agent-shopping again, with a handful of tales about women who don’t fit the stereotypical picture of a housemaid, and hope that the very young, very white, female agent or publisher-representative, whose well-to-do East Coast family was able to put her through graduate school, is able to recognize that Latinas are real people too, with lives that don’t always involve polishing furniture and changing diapers.