Latino au­thors see book sales rise amid ‘Amer­i­can Dirt’ flap

Cam­paigns launched to bring at­ten­tion to over­looked works

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Rus­sell Con­tr­eras Rus­sell Con­tr­eras is a mem­ber of The Associated Press’ race and eth­nic­ity team.

ALBUQUERQU­E, N.M. — When Oprah Win­frey en­dorsed the novel “Amer­i­can Dirt” for her book club last month, many Lati­nos took to so­cial me­dia to de­cry the se­lec­tion for its stereo­types and car­i­ca­tures.

The novel about a Mex­i­can mother and her young son flee­ing to the U.S. border had been praised widely be­fore its Jan. 21 re­lease. But anger built over “Amer­i­can Dirt” by Jea­nine Cum­mins — a writer who pri­mar­ily iden­ti­fies as white — and Lati­nos shared read­ing lists and pointed to re­cent work that went over­looked, of­fer­ing “al­ter­na­tive” op­tions for those who wanted to read about the Latino ex­pe­ri­ence in the United States.

Across the U.S., Latino writers say they are see­ing a jump in sales of those works fol­low­ing so­cial me­dia cam­paigns to draw more at­ten­tion to Latino lit­er­a­ture as big New York pub­lish­ers face crit­i­cism for ig­nor­ing the work or not pro­mot­ing it enough.

Ni­co­las Kanel­los, founder and pub­lisher of Hous­ton-based Arte Publico Press, the largest pub­lisher of His­panic lit­er­a­ture in the U.S., said he no­ticed last month some of his books by im­mi­grant writers sell­ing out.

“I’m not on Twit­ter, but my staff told me some of our books were ap­pear­ing on these lists as sug­ges­tions,” Kanel­los said. “They are gone now.”

Jour­nal­ist and nov­el­ist Luis Al­berto Ur­rea, whom Cum­mins cited as an in­flu­ence, re­ported see­ing sales of his early 2019 novel “The House of Bro­ken An­gels” jump to his sur­prise. It was one of the books men­tioned on so­cial me­dia.

“Thank you. #14 on the LA Times best­seller list. Again,” Ur­rea, who lives in Naperville, wrote on Face­book. “Big An­gel keeps com­ing back.”

Wendy C. Or­tiz’s mem­oir “Ex­ca­va­tion” in Cal­i­for­nia’s San Fer­nando Val­ley also sold out on Ama­zon.

Oth­ers sug­gested read­ers buy the novel “Do­mini­cana” by New York-born Angie Cruz and El Paso, Texas-born Ser­gio Tron­coso’s short story col­lec­tion, “A Pe­cu­liar Kind of Im­mi­grant Son” — works re­leased last year.

PEN-award win­ner and Fresno, Cal­i­for­nia-born writer Daniel Cha­con’s “Kafka in a Skirt: Sto­ries From the Wall” also was rec­om­mended as a work to un­der­stand life on the bor­der­lands. The col­lec­tion was sought out as com­fort fol­low­ing the Au­gust 2019 killing of 22 peo­ple in a shoot­ing that tar­geted Mex­i­cans in El Paso.

In ad­di­tion, Latino ad­vo­cates told fol­low­ers to look out for new work from mem­oirist and es­say­ist Luis J. Ro­driguez, who last month re­leased “From Our Land to Our Land: Es­says, Jour­neys and Imag­in­ings From a Na­tive Xi­canx Writer.”

“I’ve seen in­ter­est in my new book. Yeah, peo­ple are ask­ing about it,” said Matt Sedillo, a Los An­ge­les-based poet and au­thor of “Mow­ing Leaves of Grass.” He’s also get­ting more of­fers to visit colleges to read his work.

Myr­iam Gurba, a Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia-based writer who has been a vo­cal critic of Cum­mins, said she saw “no sil­ver lin­ing” in the con­tro­versy of “Amer­i­can Dirt.” She said read­ers should have been pick­ing up books by Lati­nos writers any­way.

Gurba and a group of other Latino writers called #Dig­nidadLit­er­aria met with pub­lisher Macmil­lan (Flat­iron Books, which pub­lished “Amer­i­can Dirt,“is a di­vi­sion of Macmil­lan) to de­mand the pub­lisher hire more Latino staff.

Domingo Gar­cia, na­tional pres­i­dent of the Latino civil rights group the League of United Latin Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens, said he didn’t have a prob­lem with non-Lati­nos writ­ing about immigratio­n.

“But it’s im­por­tant to have a con­ver­sa­tion with pub­lish­ers about who is get­ting pub­lished and the lack of Lati­nos in the in­dus­try,” he said.

In New Mex­ico, the state with the largest per­cent­age of His­panic res­i­dents, the con­ver­sa­tion shifted this week from “Amer­i­can Dirt” to Levi Romero. The bilin­gual Span­ish-English poet was named as the state’s in­au­gu­ral poet lau­re­ate. He will doc­u­ment his trav­els around the state to pro­mote po­etry through a web jour­nal and pod­cast.

San­ti­ago Va­quera-Vasquez, an Albuquerqu­e-based writer and au­thor of “One Day I’ll Tell You the Things I’ve Seen,” said he’s happy Latino works are get­ting rec­og­nized, but he hopes the in­ter­ests don’t die down. “Let’s not be an­gry for two weeks and for­get about it,” Va­que­r­aVasquez said. “Let’s be an­gry for months.”

HEATHER CHARLES/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Luis Al­berto Ur­rea, who lives in Naperville, is among a num­ber of Latino au­thors who’ve seen in­creased in­ter­est in their books since the “Amer­i­can Dirt” con­tro­versy erupted.

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