Backtalk: Cleaning Up After “American Dirt”

This week, Dahlia and Amy get into the controversy over the publishing industry and the book that’s too big to fail. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, and her publisher, Flatiron Books, have been at the center of discussions about how the industry decides who deserves huge advances and to have their books championed, and what writers get left behind. Will this literary drama change the publishing landscape?  



Gloria Bell stars Julianne Moore as a middle-aged woman living her ordinary life in this tender film.


I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi by Gina Siciliano is a gorgeous look at the life of the seventeenth-century painter.


“religion (u can lay your hands on me)” by Shura


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DAHLIA BALCAZAR: Are you exhausted from trying to do everything perfectly? Do you hold yourself back because you’re scared of failure? Then I wanna tell you about a podcast you should be tuning into. You can break away from the cult of perfection by subscribing and listening to the Brave, Not Perfect podcast. It’s hosted by Reshma Saujani. She’s the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and author of the international bestseller Brave, Not Perfect. Her TED Talk about teaching girls bravery instead of perfection has over 5 million views. Join Reshma as she shares her secrets about bravery and success because she wants to help you fear less, fail more, and live bolder. She’ll even answer your questions and give you tips about how to get a little braver every day. Plus, she has revealing conversations with other changemakers about their complex journeys and what we can take from them to improve our own lives. If you’re enjoying Backtalk I have a feeling you’re gonna love Brave, Not Perfect with Reshma Saujani. You can tune in and subscribe to Brave, Not Perfect wherever you listen to podcasts.
[theme music]
Welcome to Backtalk, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Dahlia Balcazar.
AMY LAM: And I’m Amy Lam.
DAHLIA: We start every episode by talking about a pop culture moment. Amy, what is yours this week?
AMY: My pop culture moment kind of harks back to something that we talked about in a previous episode, and it’s about the one and only Joaquin…Joaquin Phoenix. Why can’t I say [laughing] his name?! Joa-qui—
DAHLIA: Well, I think the trouble is there’s a degree of how much authenticity you wanna put into it, you know, so.
AMY: Yeah. Uh-huh.
DAHLIA: So like Joaquin (pronounced H-wakeen) or like—
AMY: Uh-huh. Okay. Joaquin (pronounced H-wakeen) Phoenix.
DAHLIA: [laughs]
AMY: I stand loud and proud in the way I pronounce his name. [Laughs.] He recently won an award at the BAFTAs. And the BAFTA is essentially like the British Oscars. And he went up to accept it, and it’s for his role in the Joker, which was also a very controversial role. Sometimes people felt it was sort of like had, you know, men’s rights activist vibes or disillusioned white male vibes to it. And so, I think that when he won the award, people were expecting sort of like a rehash of his speech that he made at the Golden Globes that Dahlia and I actually critiqued here on our show. But! At the BAFTAs, does he made a really great speech calling out how all of the acting nominees at this awards ceremony were all white. And I feel like it’s the first kind of this type of speech that has made with such clarity and saying very forthrightly what the issues are.
In part in his speech, he says, “But I have to say that I also feel conflicted because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have the same privilege.” And he’s talking about the privilege of being honored that night. He says, “I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here. I think that’s the message we’re sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from.” And then he went deep, which I highly respected. He says, “I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment, although that’s what we give ourselves every year,” a.k.a. white supremacy. That’s my editorial [laughs] ejection. He says, “People just wanna be acknowledged, appreciated, and respected for their work. This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem. I haven’t done anything in my power to ensure that the sets I was on are inclusive. But I think it’s more than just having sets that are multicultural. We have to do the really hard work to truly understand systemic racism.” And then he says, this is the thing. This is such a amazing kicker. He says, “I think it’s the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So, that’s on us.”
What an amazing and powerful speech. And I think for me, I think that people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, people who are marginalized have been saying this for a very long time, saying it for decades, that it’s like it shouldn’t be our responsibility to dismantle systems that oppress us. In order for this to truly work, we need the people who are oppressing us to dismantle their own systems! And I think for him to say it with such clarity and from his position of power—’cause he has a ton of power, and I think he’s finally recognizing that—was so amazing and so refreshing to hear. And I think that one of the models that we say often on Backtalk is I guess it remains to be seen what change can come of it.
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
AMY: Right?
DAHLIA: Yeah, right.
AMY: But I mean, we’ve seen amazing change come off sort of like offhand remarks or…. Like the thing with Bill Cosby’s history of abuse and assault of women came about because Hannibal Buress made a remark during one of his stand-up sets, you know what I mean? So, like here is Joaquin Phoenix at a podium, accepting an award, calling out the entire industry and saying, like, wow. We can’t expect people of color to come into our industry and change it. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and fix this. So, this is amazing that he was able to say that.
And while we’re on the topic of Joaquin Phoenix, I wanted to bring up a review that we got that I really, really appreciated. It is from the user Fruit Salad Yummy Yummy. [Laughs.] And I hadn’t seen this review in time to talk about it in our last episode, but they were talking about Dahlia and I’s conversation about Joaquin Phoenix’s other remark during the Golden Globes award. You know, Dahlia and I, I think sometimes, maybe I’ll speak for myself.
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
AMY: Maybe I’ll also speak for Dahlia on this. [Laughs.]
DAHLIA: Okay, we’ll see.
AMY: Sometimes we’re very cynical. [Laughs.]
DAHLIA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Okay.
AMY: And I think that in our cynicism, you know, we—and we’ve been talking about these types of topics for so long that—it’s sometimes hard for us to see out of our cynicism. And one of our listeners called us out on it because during Joaquin Phoenix’s Golden Globe speech, he had mentioned you know, we need to reduce our carbon footprint by like eating a plant-based diet and not taking jets to Palm Springs. And so, we kind of poked fun at that. But one of our listeners made a really cogent remark about it, and they left a really, I think, kind review in that they’re calling us out in a way that I appreciated. And, in part, the review said, “I was also frustrated that you felt frustrated because you felt like you had no personal influence over the situation,” situation being climate change, “and that it’s just corporations’ fault, which I totally get the feeling. And I agree that they make up the bulk of the damage. But without mentioning that those corporations are fueled by consumer demand and that they destroyed the Amazon and factory farms contribute massively to climate change, and they wouldn’t do this if it didn’t make money.
So, I take that point completely. Consumer demand definitely drives how corporations behave. And it also drives their profit margins and the ways in which they would contribute to climate change without thinking anything of it. And of course, I agree with the sentiment that we can live lives on a personal level that are less impactful to the climate. So, I take this feedback completely, 100 percent. And it’s also a reminder to me, I think, to rein in my cynicism. [Laughs.] And sometimes I need that reminder. And so, I really appreciated it. So, this was my favorite pop culture moment. And also, a thank you for our review moment. So, Dahlia, what is your favorite pop culture moment?
DAHLIA: [Laughs.] My favorite pop culture moment this week concerns the innocence of gritty. Gritty is the googly-eyed orange Muppet mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers. He has won my heart and the hearts of many. He’s like a newish mascot who was announced and introduced to the world just a few years ago. He’s actually very, very funny. He does a lot of phys-, I mean, mascots do a lot of physical comedy. But he’s become virally famous and has also really funnily and creatively been adapted into protest signs and antifa-related stuff online. And it’s just so pleasant to see him everywhere he goes. So, of course, I and so many people were very upset to learn that he had been accused of punching a child in the back of his head during a photo op by the child’s father. And of course, I was like, no! Gritty couldn’t have done that! Gritty would never do that.
AMY: [Laughs.]
DAHLIA: And so, I’m happy because this week, Gritty’s innocence has been announced. It was actually investigated by the Philadelphia police.
AMY: Wow.
DAHLIA: And the Philadelphia police concluded that, in fact, Gritty did not punch a 13-year-old in the back of the head.
AMY: Wow. I like our Gritty news. This is not the first time we’ve mentioned Gritty [laughing] on Backtalk, I think. This is…. [laughs] I think that when he was first revealed, we were really excited about him.
DAHLIA: I think it’s like I can’t help, like I’m just so surprised by myself that I find him so charming and so funny. And I can’t help but be like, he is actually very funny and charming!
AMY: Ah. Well, yes, it is really welcome news to think that one of our beloved characters did not harm a child. I think because every day we learn about problematic faves who do really bad things, and we don’t know what to do with ourselves after we realize they’ve done it. So, it’s really good to hear that he’s been cleared of this.
DAHLIA: That Gritty is not a problematic fave. [Laughs.]
AMY: [Laughing.] Yes! Can you imagine if this big orange furball was [laughing] was our problematic fave?!
DAHLIA: It’s just there’s no way. I just couldn’t believe it. Because you know whoever does that is an actor and is very talented and works hard. I’m sure they have a style guide of what they are and aren’t allowed to do. And their mascot, I was like, there is no way that Gritty punched a kid during a meet and greet.
AMY: No way.
DAHLIA: No way.
AMY: And now we’ve heard definitively.
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
[cutesy bells ring]
AMY: And I wanna take the time now to thank folks who are rating and reviewing us on iTunes. Like I said, I read that review that we got about our Joaquin Phoenix discussion from a couple episodes ago, and we really appreciate criticism that helps us to think deeper about the things that we’re discussing. Oftentimes, I don’t think that we think that we’re like the arbiter and the final say on anything and that we’re also growing and learning with you guys as we’re learning and reading about these types of stories.
So, another thing that we got was a piece of email about a recent, our last episode about Harvey Weinstein. And I also really appreciated this point of view, also. When Dahlia and I were talking about how Harvey Weinstein showed up at court, we mentioned that he was using a walker. And we got a really good email sort of pointing out something that we should’ve discussed on the episode while we were talking about that. And this email’s from somebody who’s anonymous. And part of that email says, “The overarching message being there is a very harmful, ableist trend that impacts so many disabled people where able-bodied folks accuse people of faking disabilities. It harms me regularly as a disabled person trying to be taken seriously in order to get the care I need to live. I totally understand that this has been used as a tactic by lawyers to garner sympathy for their clients, and that needs to be critiqued for harming disabled people.”
That is such a great point that we overlooked while we we’re talking about Harvey Weinstein using a walker. It isn’t so much just that like it was really manipulative for him to perhaps fake a disability to garner sympathy. But it also very much impacts actually disabled folks who sometimes are not taken seriously. In this message that we got, the person says that like they live their everyday lives with a disability, and sometimes people don’t believe that they are as disabled as they are and will not accommodate them in ways that they need to be accommodated. So, I really appreciate that. It helps me reframe how we talk about not just Harvey Weinstein, but about conversation around who do we think are disabled, and how does it harm folks who are actually disabled when we talk about the, I guess, the appearance of disability. So, we appreciate that feedback. And please let us know if you have any other thoughts. You can email us, and you can find out how to contact us at Or you can leave a written review, which I would totally appreciate, on iTunes.
[cutesy bells ring]
DAHLIA: Picking topics for Backtalk can be very tricky. We wanna be on top of what’s current in pop culture, but we’re also at this disadvantage because we record our episodes a few days in advance of the air date. And as we recorded our last episode, we were just at the very beginning of the public controversy over the novel American Dirt, an Oprah’s Book Club pick that launched to rapturous advance praise. Its rise to fame has been a storied and strange one because in spite of a lot, a lot of marketing and advanced promotion, it got a crushing review in the New York Times that we talked about in our last episode, and a very thoughtful and equally crushing review by Myriam Gurba, who wrote that the book is “fake social justice literature.” We mentioned the beginnings of this publishing scandal as our joint pop culture moment in our last episode, but so much has happened since then. And Amy and I were still texting about it, and the conversation really kept going. And we were like, I think we can maybe make it into another, a whole episode.
And I’ve been surprised, really, by how many different directions the public conversation has gone in. The book tour for American Dirt has been canceled by the book’s publisher, Flatiron, because of safety concerns for the author, they’ve said. More than 100 writers have signed an open letter asking Oprah to reconsider picking American Dirt for her book club. And this week, Dignidad Literaria, a movement founded by the writers Myriam Gurba, David Bowles, and Roberto Lovato met with Macmillan, who is the parent company of Flatiron, to discuss diversity and discrimination in their hiring and publishing decisions. And through all of this, American Dirt has remained no 1. on the New York Times bestseller list.
AMY: [Heavy sigh, pause, tired laugh.] I mean, I think that when we talked about this very briefly last week, so much has changed. A lot of things have come out. A lot of new details have emerged. There’s been a really, I think, interesting and insightful episode about this from the podcast Latino USA.
DAHLIA: Mmhmm.
AMY: And in that podcast, the host interviews Myriam Gurba, Luis Alberto Urrea, Sandra Cisneros, and Jeanine Cummins. And so, I think that episode of the podcast really sort of gives us a 360 view of a lot of the people, not so much in terms of publishing that’re involved, but sort of the reaction to the book and a defense of the book from Sandra Cisneros. And you can hear from Jeanine Cummins herself, how she feels sort of being embroiled in all this controversy. At the very top level for me, and in listening and reading all about this, what it really comes down to is that the publishing industry is very reflective of other parts of our culture and other industries in that they—I mean, I know it always sounds harsh when we say this, but I truly believe it in my gut—but that they reflect sort of white supremacist ideology that’s deeply entrenched in all the other parts of our culture.
And when we talk about white supremacist ideas and sentiments in the publishing industry, it’s reflected in the way that their statistics about the industry and how it’s overwhelmingly white and how, because it’s so overwhelmingly white, then the gatekeepers are white, and they’re the ones that make the decisions on who to pay $1 million advances to and then who to put out gigantic marketing budgets for in order to promote a book. And it isn’t just any book that they decided to do this for. They  decided to do for this book. And this book is written, and I think a lot of people have said this, is written for a white gaze. And it’s written for a white audience to, quote-unquote “sympathize with the faceless brown masses of people” who are clamoring to get into the United States of America at the border. And I think just in all of that framing, it puts white people, white experiences, white ideas of the other, a.k.a. it puts white supremacist feelings at the center of it. And I think that’s the thing that I think a lot of people in publishing are having to wrestle with.
And it’s not surprising for writers of color or people of color who are in the industry. They’re like, yes, it’s been like this forever. And this is how the industry’s run. I think that a lot of people are also having discussions well like, oh, Jeanine Cummins shouldn’t have written this because she’s not Mexican. She’s not a Latina. And it’s like I think this is kind of beyond that, because even some Latinx writers have said this is not the point in the conversation. There have been non Latinx writers who have written about Latinx countries and Latinx people and communities unproblematically because they’ve done it in such a way that respects them, that tells their story in a three-dimensional way. So, it isn’t about so much identity politics in that it’s trying to police or censor white writers so that they cannot write about Mexican experiences. But it’s more so about who the publishing industry chooses to highlight to tell the stories of Mexican people and perhaps the plight of migrants at the border.
DAHLIA: I really enjoyed that podcast episode, Amy, that you mentioned. I’ve listened to it several times, and I do think it gives this really, like you said, a full view of what went into this publishing scandal happening. And I think really thinking about and looking at the amount of work that went into shooting this book into notoriety. You know, the show says, the podcast episodes said it must’ve been, you know, a multimillion dollar marketing budget. And to think about the amount of effort and the energy that put into, like you said, picking this story. And what was just the most head shaking, for me, moment in a really despairing kind of way is that that episode, they interview Luis Alberto Urrea, who’s written a book called By the Lake of Sleeping Children, which is about migrants, migrant children, children living near the border. And it seems as if Jeanine Cummins has lifted a bit of material from that book for her own book. And so, they talk about that a little bit, and Louis Alberto Urrea says, you know, I tried to get my book published for 10 years, and I got rejected for 10, not only was I rejected for 10 years, but publishers said to me, no one cares about Mexican children.
And it’s really devastating, you know, to see, to hear of course, you know, I think Amy and I both know that things like this are happening. And I think like we’ve talked about issues like this so much on this show that of course, we know that all kinds of fucked up decisions are getting made in the backrooms of all kinds of media corporations. But just to like, I think that this story has gotten so much bigger because it is more than just this book, which is, you know, everything that the negative reviews have said it is. But it’s also the money and time and mailing advance copies of this book to Stephen King, getting a blurb that says that it’s, “The new Grapes of Wrath,” all of that effort put into this story instead of so many other Latinx writers’ works for decades and decades.
AMY: I mean, it’s apparent now that there was an entire machine that was grinding its gears and doing its work to make sure that this book is a success. In addition to all the things that you said, like getting all those blurbs from amazing commercial best-selling writers—and I think we also mentioned this—it was also a Oprah’s Book Club Pick.
DAHLIA: Right.
AMY: I mean, it still is an Oprah Book Club pick. And that’s a huge deal! That can change a writer’s life overnight. But like you said at the top of this, amidst all this controversy, it hasn’t diminished the sales.
DAHLIA: Right!
AMY: In fact, people are buying it because, for multiple reasons. I’ve read tweets from people who are working in bookstores. And oftentimes, white folks will come in and be like, oh, this is the book that’s written by that poor white lady who’s being— Actually, they don’t say “white lady.”
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
AMY: They say “lady” ‘cause the white is assumed. But they say, oh, it’s from that poor lady. You know, people are trying to censor her, and she’s getting attacked. And she’s like, her life’s being threatened, so let me get this book and see what it’s about. And the thing is that now there’s this narrative that because of the criticisms she’s getting threats against her safety. And that narrative is being pushed by Flatiron Books, the publisher, because they’ve actually had to cancel, they’ve ended up canceling her entire book tour. And in the statements that are being released by these individual bookstores, some of them, or most of them, are small bookstores. They’re saying we had to cancel them because Flatiron books are saying that, there are quote-unquote “safety concerns.” So, in that framing, it’s really lowkey/highkey fucked up because who’s criticizing the book?
DAHLIA: [Chuckles.]
AMY: Mostly people of color, mostly Latinx writers or Latinx readers. But a lot of people who are criticizing the book are people of color. So, now you’re saying that because it’s being criticized by people of color, then that means this white woman and her safety are of concerned. Without talking about how a lot of these people who are criticizing the book have been at the receiving end of safety, you know, death threats for a lot of their careers even.
DAHLIA: Did you see that Stephen King tweeted like, we don’t threaten writers with violence! not in the United States of America!
AMY: [Laughs.]
DAHLIA: And I was like, Steven King! Where have you been?!
AMY: [Delighted sigh.]
DAHLIA: I mean, I totally agree that we should not.
AMY: Yes.
DAHLIA: But what are you talking about?! [Laughs.]
AMY: Yes. I think, you know, when I see statements like that, I think the sentiment was we should not, right?
AMY: I think that’s what he felt when he wrote it. I don’t think he was saying that this does not exist, but he did not choose the words correctly. And he should’ve known better, honestly. He should’ve known better, like time or place. And if you’re gonna say something like that, you should put the “should not” because you must, he, I don’t think he’s ignorant to the fact that people get death threats over minor things, especially as somebody who’s on Twitter. He’s on Twitter. I’m sure he gets death threats all the time, honestly. I think everybody gets fucked up threats to their humanity all the time when you’re that famous or that well-known. So, I think he was trying to say, this country should not threaten this writer, and I think that’s what he’s trying to say. But I don’t know which America of United States does he live in, you know?
AMY: Like people at the margins have been threatened, have had their lives threatened, for a very long time for things less than this, just for mere existence, not for producing their art, but just for mere existing and breathing and paying taxes and going to school and having jobs. They’ve been threatened in myriad ways. So, I think it was very naive of him to tweet something like that, especially when Flatiron Books has been putting out this narrative that now Jeanine Cummins’s safety is in question because these brown writers are attacking her with their words. I just think that this entire controversy is showing so much about, not just the publishing industry, but about white folks protecting white folks when it comes to white folks’ money. Because this is also a lot about money.
Another thing that came out about Flatiron Books and about Oprah’s Book Club pick is that Oprah Winfrey has a deal with Flatiron books in that she’s writing her memoirs with them.
DAHLIA: [Growls softly.]
AMY: You know, and people went through her lists of book club picks, and there’s only one other book from Flatiron that’s on that list. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not somehow in cahoots! You know, when they have a business relationship.
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
AMY: I wouldn’t put it above them to be in cahoots. I’m sure Oprah Winfrey was moved by this book. I don’t think that she’s the type of person who would put her brand behind a book that she didn’t believe in. But I’m also sure that she was sold on the book because the book was, a lot of money was paid for the book. So, I think that this is a lot about money and a lot about who gets to receive this money. Who gets to, who’s promised this type of promotional and marketing package, that Jeanine Cummins received. And how does she benefit from it? I will not ever get over the fact that, even though we’re all talking about how this is not a good book, that the book is about a mother and a son. I mean, full disclosure, I haven’t read it, but it’s about a mother—
DAHLIA: Oh, I’ve read half of it. [Chuckles.]
AMY: Okay, then you can tell me how awful. ‘Cause I’ve heard nothing but awful things about it. But the premise is that it’s about a mother and son who are trying to flee their home and country because there’s a head of a cartel who’s attacking them. Because the wife, her former husband, who’s dead now, right, ‘cause he was like assassinated or something.
DAHLIA: Yes. Yeah.
AMY: He wrote some not great things, about the head of the cartel member. And so, now they’re trying to flee to America. And I think that I’ve just heard so many awful things about the book, not just thematically, but just on a sentence level, too. But what has your reading been of it?
DAHLIA: What’s really struck me is how clearly it is, for a Spanish speaker, how clearly it is an American gaze. There is little sprinklings of Spanish that a little bit seem as if words were just randomly Google translated. And there’s just a lack of awareness. Like there are references to pies on windowsills or using “the phrase the boogeyman,” instead of using the Spanish name for the boogeyman, “el cuco.” They’re just like all of these instances where you’re like, oh, I think that’s because you don’t, you know, you’ve done your research in books, but you don’t know how this language sounds, or you don’t know that doesn’t make sense that someone would act in that way. And I think what really struck me is that the book itself, the text itself of the book, is so different than you would, I would think from the kind of campaign it had around it. The book itself is like I mean, I would call it airport fiction. It’s like a romance-thriller-adventure sort of book. It sort of like is nowhere at all like the new Grapes of Wrath. It’s not, I don’t think, literary fiction.
But as we mentioned in our last episode, there is this rather extensive author’s note from Jeanine where she sort of sets out this challenge of like, I wanted to put a face to the faceless brown mass! I wanted to say, you know, hey, they’re not all just one horde! They’re individual people. Like she really lays out that challenge for the book. And she says, I didn’t know if I should be the one who tells this story, but I thought if I have the power to be a bridge, I should be that bridge! And I see how that led or was part of this framing of this book as sort of like social justice literature. But it’s so striking to me how, in no way to me, does the text fit that description or that rollout out or the sort of praise that it’s getting. I mean, it’s like…. Yeah, I don’t even think I’ll finish it, you know? It’s just like intense action sequence after action sequence in which Mexico is portrayed as just like constant violence, mostly at the hands of men. Yeah, just constant violence and murder.
AMY: Maybe it’s unsurprising then, when you think about maybe why this book was chosen to be the one book to talk about the migrant experience and why people are lining up at the border to try to come in this country! ‘Cause they’re all living in these very awful, violent places where there’s no humanity left. And look at this mother and her son trying to escape it. And that’s the narrative we wanna portray for white Americans, you know. And I think it’s the idea supposedly is that it’s supposed to help middle America or conservative Americans understand their plight and why they would wanna come to this country. But that’s a gross generalization and also completely flattens the lives of these people in their country of origin, why they would want to come to the U.S. Sometimes it doesn’t have to do with just abject violence all the time. Sometimes it does have to do with that. But I think that the portrayal that you’re talking about sounds like it’s just lacking any sort of nuance whatsoever. And the thing that’s propelling the narration and the narrator to move north to the United States of America is just pure violence without sort of like sitting back and thinking about like, wow, what’s driving, what are the systems and institutions that are driving that violence? What kept her and her family in that country for many, many decades? And her ancestors there for many, many decades. Like why flee now? Why is this new type of violence something that’s happening? And it sounds like it was being created to drive a plotline to move this person to go north without thinking more outside of that one small idea of what could be driving people to go up north.
And I think that another thing that was revealed recently was that the publisher also released a sort of readers’ guide to help lead discussions about the book, because they really did want this book to be widely read and widely discussed. And there’s a PDF that you can find online if you wanna find it. And some of these questions are really telling about who they think the reader is.
DAHLIA: [Laughs.] It’s unreal.
AMY: Yes. Like question number one, you know, is they lead into it. They talk about Lydia, who’s the woman in this story, the main narrator about, “Do you think the author chose to make Lydia a middle-class woman as her protagonist for a reason? Do you think the reader would have a different entry point to the novel if Lydia started it out as a poor migrant? Would you have viewed Lydia differently if she had come from poor origins? How much do you identify with Lydia?” I think that the fact that the first question was like, what do you think about her being a middle-class woman is so telling because they’re expecting droves of middle-class women picking up this book and identifying with her plight. And it’s just it’s so obvious in these questions and how they are framed. There’s another question about how they talk about how Lydia looks at her son and thinks “migrante.” Is that how you say it? I’m guessing that means migrant.
DAHLIA: Mm. Mmhmm.
AMY: It says, “She can’t make the word fit him, but that’s what they are now. This is how it happens.” Wow. [Laughing.] This is so fucking dramatic! But the question that follows is like, “Do you think language allows us to label things as other that is, in a way, tantamount to self-preservation?” Saying like, oh, Lydia never thought of herself as a migrant because an other. So, now does she not think of herself as a migrant to protect herself? And it’s like, you know, it’s really trying to put the reader in the mother’s shoes and how they often think of the migrant as the other.
And I think one of the most jarring questions in this reader guide is they talk about the border and what do borders enforce in this world? And one of the questions is, “Do you think borders are a necessary evil, or might their delineation serve a societal good?”
BOTH: [Laugh.]
AMY: I mean, to ask a question that has the words border and “necessary evil” within words of each other, while there are literal children, literal families being jailed at our borders is soooo mind-boggling and so myopic and not looking outwards and not thinking about the people who are at these quote-unquote, who are being housed at these quote-unquote “necessary evils,” I mean, I just can’t get over it. You know, it’s like, oh! [laughs] I mean, when I saw a reference to a question, I was just like, I don’t know what the publishing house was thinking besides that they just wanted to sell these books and to start a quote-unquote “conversation.” When in fact, you know what? Brown folks, people of color, immigrants, children of immigrants, we’ve been having this conversation about the fucking border and about the violence at the border for not just like this year because it’s been happening, but for decades! You know, there’ve been discussions about how this country treats its immigrants and who they let in or don’t let in or kick out and deport for a very long time. This is not new for us. This is part of our lived experiences. This is part of our family histories. This is part of our communities. These aren’t questions that we wrestle with on a hmm! What do you think basis? How do you feel about the spaces while we sit around in a fucking a book club circle eating snacks? This is like real life reality that harms people. This is like this is the serious violence against us.
And I think that for Flatiron Books to publish this book with such naivety, I think, about the impact that it would have thinking because there’s this moment now with so much real, incredible, awful, shitty, deplorable violence at the border, thinking this is a moment to highlight a book like this? It’s just heart-, I mean, it’s heartbreaking in so many ways, but it’s so infuriating because of the amount of money that’s been going behind this and that they chose this book to highlight when, in fact, Mexican writers have been writing about migration for decades, for literal decades. But are those the books receiving seven-figure advances? Are those the books receiving these ridiculous rollouts with these marketing plans and everything? No! They’re not! Those are not the writers that are at the center of these discussions. It’s this lady who wrote not a good book, just even on a literary writing level, not a good book as far as I can hear.
AMY: And to think that she is now being sort of cast as the victim is just, it’s, it’s, it’s! Blargh. My heart. [laughs] I don’t know if you can tell, but my blood pressure is rising as we’re talking about this.
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
AMY: [Laughs.] Recently, the president, Bob Miller, of Flatiron Books, he did release a new statement where they realize the optics of everything that they’ve been doing has been really fucked up. And it’s a very long statement, but there’s a sentence where it says, “Simply put, we wish to listen, learn, and do better.” And I think this is sort of happening a little bit.
DAHLIA: Yeah. So, Dignidad Literaria met with Macmillan, who is the parent of Flatiron this week. And they made a commitment, actually, to work on increasing representation of Latinx authors, titles, staff, sort of reassessing their whole sort of ecosystem in terms of Latinx representation and that they would all come back together in 30 days to discuss that plan. And then the plan would be put in motion in 90 days. So, I think, again, this is, as usual, a case of like we’ll see what happens! I mean, but it does seem like— I watched the press conference from Dignidad Literaria, and they’d seemed really confident that Macmillan was committed to doing something real, quantifiable and that, in fact, that they’re gonna all meet again to make sure that they are working on something real and quantifiable. So, that seems really exciting!
And something that they were saying, something that the founders of Dignidad Literaria were saying in this press conference were like, let’s stop talking about this book. It’s about so much more than this book. This is about big publishing and not just increasing book titles and authors, but staff just working at every level, because that’s what’s needed to make sure that, I can’t even describe, this kind of horror show doesn’t happen again.
AMY: Yeah, it’s a kind of accountability check, right? We’ve talked a lot about this in terms of Hollywood and the filmmaking and television-making industry in that it’s sometimes not enough to have people of color or to have marginalized folks in front of the camera. They also have to be behind the camera.
DAHLIA: Right.
AMY: And they can’t be tokens. They can’t just be the one. They can’t just be a couple. It needs to be enough so that there are a variety of opinions to inform something. And yes, it remains to be seen what will happen. And it’s really fucked up that it took this much effort to get the ball rolling. And also, I’m really hoping that the other publishing houses who are all probably like, phew! Thank god we didn’t win that bid for the book. ‘Cause there was like a bidding war.
DAHLIA: Oh, yeah, right. It was a bidding war. Yeah, exactly.
AMY: Yeah, a fucking bidding war.
DAHLIA: Yeah, that was a close one.
AMY: Yeah! I hope that they’re sitting there being like, Okay, now we need to be conscientious so that we don’t, this fucking shit doesn’t fall on us when we publish the next book because it’s a hot moment for something that’s controversial. And that it isn’t, ‘cause it isn’t just about Flatiron Books. It isn’t just about Macmillan. It’s about an industry-wide problem. And yes, sure, it’s great that Macmillan has pledged to do this. But what about all the other publishing houses? Have they also thought very hard about what their staffs look like and the decisions that their staffs are making? What books to acquire, which books to offer amazing deals to. And I think that it’s really awful that it had to happen this way. But I think that as an industry, it needs to have been called out eventually, and this is how it should happen.
And like I said earlier, I do wanna be clear about this for me, when I’m talking about American Dirt, it isn’t about the fact that a white person cannot write this or that what people can or cannot write. It’s about all of the other things around it, like is the writing good? [laughs]
DAHLIA: [Laughs.] A key factor.
AMY: Is it telling a compassionate, a three-dimensional, nuanced story? And I think that those are the things that we are also thinking about this. ‘Cause I hate when discussions about this turn into like identity politics, a pissing contest of, well, okay, then, does it have to be like a Mexican writer? Does it have to be a Mexican writer who’s just recently migrated? Does it have to be a Mexican writer who’s done this, this? It isn’t about that. It’s about the fact that on a writerly level, she didn’t do a good job, and she was rewarded for it.
DAHLIA: Amy, I saw this funny headline in a conservative newspaper that was like, “Writer is being discriminated against based on her genetic background.
BOTH: [Laugh.]
AMY: I think I actually saw somebody quote that. I was like, why is this so funny?
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
AMY: It’s also funny because even when white people are complaining about being called out on their whiteness, they also refuse to name their own whiteness,
DAHLIA: Yeah, they can’t even say it in the headline!
BOTH: [Laugh.]
AMY: White people, do better!!! I think that’s like the thesis of our show! [laughs]
DAHLIA: I was gonna say earlier, remains to be seen/white people, do better. Both of those are the dueling take away. [Laughs.]
[cutesy bells ring]
At the end of every episode, we recommend something we’re reading and watching and listening to. My recommendation to read is actually, it was a recommendation from Backtalk’s former cohost Sarah Mirk. And so, shout out to Sara and her impeccable book taste. It is I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi. Artemisia Gentileschi was a 17th-century Italian baroque painter. She became, she’s sort of famous in kind of feminist art history because she was raped by her painting tutor when she was a teenager and then, in fact, testified against him in court, which was very unusual for the time. And he was convicted, which was also very unusual for the time. I feel like that’s sort of the extent to which a lot of people know about her and her work. But this book is actually a graphic biography, goes into her life so much further and really shows how influential she was in 17th-century artists circles. She was like one of the only or the only woman in her painting guild. She was actually very, very renowned during her time. And the book is just beautiful. The illustrations are all in ballpoint pen, which is like when I see things illustrated in pen, I just, I don’t know. It’s like especially it just seems so incredible. Really fascinating history and detail about her life. So, it’s called I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi by Gina Siciliano.
AMY: Wow, what a great rec. I’ve never heard of her before.
DAHLIA: Oh, you should Google her work.
AMY: Yes. I just did. It’s just as good as the other painters that are highly celebrated during that time period. And I’m looking at some of the images from the book that you’re recommending with the ballpoint pen drawings, And those are equally amazing!
DAHLIA: Yeah. Oh, yeah! I forgot to say that she paints some of Artemisia’s—or sorry. I guess she draws in pen—some of Artemisia’s paintings. Exquisite! Incredible!
AMY: Ooh, this is amazing. I’m gonna check this book out for sure. I especially love graphic novels, but in this instance, it’s amazing because it’s a graphic novel about an artist and the rendering of their story. Oh, what a great rec.
DAHLIA: Oh! [Laughs.]
AMY: Yeah. I think that like I took a couple art history classes. I took one in high school, and I took one in college. And they just sort of keep rehashing the same male artists of that time period and that canon over and over again. I think artists like this are overlooked all the time, and it’s never too late to learn about older artists of a time period just because we weren’t taught about them in school.
Okay. So, I have the watch pick, and my watch pick is a movie called Gloria Bell. It came out a couple years ago, and it stars Julianne Moore. I actually watched Gloria Bell on the Kanopy app. [Laughs.] I feel like I’m gonna about these library apps that I get on every episode I have! The Kanopy app is the one that I download for free, And you get to watch movies for free on whatever device you want. And it was on there, and I was so happy to watch it. So, actually, it’s a remake of a Chilean Spanish film that came out in 2013, and that film was called Gloria. And Gloria Bell, the one starring Julianne Moore, was directed by the same director of both the films. Hi name is Sebastián Lelio. So, he directed the American version. He also directed Chilean Spanish version. And actually, I’ve watched some clips of the Chilean Spanish one, and the director did such an amazing job. I think some of the scenes he kind of cut so that they’re very, very similar, and that’s super interesting to me.
AMY: So, Gloria Bell tells the story of Gloria, who is a middle-aged woman who’s, I think, just sort of trying to find where she fits into her own life after sort of like fulfilling roles like being a mother and a wife at one point. Because now she’s been divorced, I think, for quite some time now. And so, she’s divorced, and she’s trying to seek companionship. And she meets this character played by John Turturro, and they have a very interesting relationship. It’s just like a really tender film. And I really like this film because I’m realizing we need more films about middle-aged women just being like normal-ass middle-aged women.
BOTH: [Laugh.]
AMY: You know? Of course, I appreciate a film where middle-aged women are literally kicking ass or whatever, being superheroes, you know?
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
AMY: Like when I saw Widows.
DAHLIA: Right, okay.
AMY: But to see just a middle-aged woman in a quiet film about her life, and it isn’t like a life about her being a divorcee. I don’t like it when women are called divorcees. But it’s a life about a woman who’s divorced and moving on with her life and seeking new relationships and trying to figure out what it means to still be a mother to her adult children, her relationship with her ex-partner, her relationship to her work, her job. It’s just, it’s just great. I don’t know. Just to see that depicted lovingly and with generosity on film was really, really nice. And more movies about middle-aged ladies, doing middle-aged ladies’ things.
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
AMY: I think that especially in an industry where oftentimes, people talk about wow, after an actress or a woman actor turns a certain age, you don’t see them anymore. It’s such a shame. And I think that if we had more roles about middle-aged women, we would see more of them do amazing work. So, that film is called Gloria Bell. And you know what? You can watch it for free on Kanopy.
BOTH: [Chuckle.]
DAHLIA: My song recommendation for this week is called “religion” by Shura. I was just clicking around on music reviews, and I read her music described as melancholy electro-pop.
AMY: Whoa!
DAHLIA: And I was like, check, check!
BOTH: [Laugh.]
DAHLIA: Yeah. So, it’s both melancholy and pop at the same time, which I feel like again like, check, check. That’s me on the inside and on the outside: Melancholy electro pop. So, this is “religion” by Shura.
♪ “It’s human/
It’s our Religion/
No preacher to teach us to love/
Two bodies/
One vision/
No one’s watching over us….” ♪
DAHLIA: Thanks for listening to Backtalk. This episode is produced by Emily Boghossian. Bitch Media is a reader- and listener-supported feminist nonprofit. If you wanna support the show and our work, please head over to and donate.
♪ “I want to consecrate your body, turn the water to wine/
I know you’re thinking about kissing too/
Oh girl, don’t stop, please/
You can lay your hands on me/
Oh girl, don’t stop, please” ♪
by Amy Lam
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Amy Lam was a contributing editor and co-host of Backtalk at Bitch Media. Find her at & Twitter / Instagram.

by Dahlia Balcazar
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Dahlia Balcazar was a senior editor at Bitch Media, the co-host of the podcast Backtalk, and the host of the live show Feminist Snack Break. She’s passionate about horror films, ’90s music, girl gangs, and Shirley Jackson. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.