In the wake of yet another publishing scandal with race at its center, I’ve received nervous emails from writers worried about their forthcoming novels. Could what happened to American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins happen to them? The answer is yes, maybe, but probably no.
The most reductive line of thinking emerging from the conversation around American Dirt is that white writers shouldn’t write about a culture that’s not theirs, but that’s not actually what the critics are saying. What they’re angry about is that writers of color get erased, that their stories don’t get elevated, and that white writers (and publishers) cash in on legacies of trauma.
Publishing’s whiteness problem has been extensively written about. It’s also something I have personal experience with. In 2007, I was involved in a race-related publishing kerfuffle. The story has echoes of the American Dirt saga. A writer of color pitched me an anthology at a conference. I responded that she needed famous writers attached to the project if she hoped to sell it to a publisher. When she asked for examples, I named some authors off the top of my head, all white women. The following week she posted about our exchange on her blog, suggesting that my answer showed a pattern at our house of ignoring voices of color, noting the dearth of writers of color on our list, and calling me out publicly.
I responded by saying that we didn’t get very many submissions from women of color—and in so doing promoted an old and tired narrative that I didn’t even know existed before I blundered my way into it in an effort to defend myself. From there, things escalated. The story was widely covered. There were calls to boycott our press.
We issued an apology, which was poorly received. Cries of too little, too late. Not having had bad intentions doesn’t matter when you’ve shown the depths of your ignorance, when you’ve exposed your shadowed internalized racism. I was embarrassed and hurt, and it would be a long while before I would see the positives of this experience.
The fallout that ensued might have been a wake-up call to the industry, but it was not. The only people who learned that hard lesson were those on our small staff. Since then, there have been innumerable race-related missteps in the publishing world. Accusations of racism are at the heart of the Romance Writers of America’s current implosion. J.K. Rowling’s rendering of the native wizards in her Fantastic Beasts series has widely been seen as disrespectful and drawing from racist stereotypes. Early last year, Amélie Wen Zhao, the would-be author of Blood Heir, announced that she was pulling her own book from her publisher after it was denounced by early readers as racist.
Based on my experience, I can’t offer a road map for successfully managing these crises or encouraging good discourse. Time passed and eventually people forgot. But I didn’t. When I started my own press in 2012, I carried with me the echoes of what I went through in 2007, and that has changed how I interact with this topic. I don’t shy away from talking and writing about race in our industry. I’ve written articles and moderated panels about diversity, or a lack thereof. Across the many efforts our press puts into the world, our podcast and our online university program pursue and elevate voices of color. We openly acknowledge that our press under-represents writers of color, and as such we have a scholarship program to award a book contract to one writer of color for each publishing season.
More important to me, however, is how awareness shapes the ways we respond to things. Last season, we published a memoir by a white author writing about falling in love with China, and a Chinese man. The cover featured the author wearing a qipao. Despite all I’d experienced, I didn’t see the cultural appropriation. I thought she had a “pass” because she was married to a Chinese man, because this was her lived experience. But book influencers on Instagram squarely took us to task. We read their posts, listened to their objections, and changed the cover. The dialogue with our critics was not comfortable, but the outcome was satisfactory—for us and for them.
Where the publishing industry is concerned, the work ahead of us is to stop colluding by not listening to rumblings when they start and ignoring them once they get louder. Making the problem about us—insisting that somehow these conversations are attempts to limit what we can and can’t publish—delegitimizes and makes personal our readers’ valid concerns. The scale of the coverage for American Dirt presents the industry with an opportunity to listen and learn. This is not about getting it perfect; it’s about doing better. I hope we can.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, a TEDx speaker, writing coach, and the author of Write On, Sisters!