Writers, the bedrock of the book business, are often the most outspoken members of the literary community. This year, authors and critics called out inequality with as much gusto as their colleagues in publishing proper, working to reform and reshape standards at such organizations as the Romance Writers of America and the National Book Critics Circle and exposing inequity through protest and such social media campaigns as #PublishingPaidMe.
One of the foremost efforts to that end this year was also one of the first: #DignidadLiteraria, the campaign launched by a group of Latinx authors that criticized the publication and promotion of author Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt and, according to the group’s website, worked to “combat the invisibility of Latinx authors, editors, and executives in the U.S. publishing industry and the dearth of Latinx literature on the shelves of America’s bookstores and libraries.” PW spoke with author Xelena González, whose second picture book, Where Wonder Grows, illustrated by Adriana M. Garcia, will be published by Cinco Puntos Press in February, to discuss her experience with the movement, what she sees changing in the business, and what she knows still needs to change.
“In the Latinx community, there are people we call luchadores, which means fighters: they’re the activists, the vocal ones, and we need that. I don’t have a fighting spirit, so when it comes to people who are out on the front lines, I very much appreciate that they’re calling the industry out on changes that need to be made. As far as my involvement in the movement, I didn’t do the kind of work that some of the more prominent authors did, because I’m just starting out. During that time, I did a lot of listening. Within literary art circles, there’s not a lot of us, so we find each other at these conferences and festivals and support one another. That’s not everybody, but it tends to happen, and it’s a beautiful thing—it’s camaraderie, and it’s needed.”
On what got better this year
“I do think that there is a concerted effort on the part of the big houses to make some changes. I know that during Native American Heritage Month, Penguin Random House put out an open call. I thought that was great, because it’s kind of unheard of in the children’s book market, for writers and illustrators to catch an editor straight-out. I sent that call to every aspiring author I knew.”
On what still needs to change
“Even before #DignidadLiteraria, I started building my soapbox, when publishers told me and Adriana that they wanted to see more from us because they wanted to see more writers and illustrators of color. I’m very happy to have these opportunities, but what I couldn’t understand is what you all are doing in the publishing industry to actively go out there and recruit new voices. I remember telling editors, ‘Come to my hometown. I live in San Antonio. I used to be a librarian. I will fill up the library auditorium with aspiring writers and illustrators of color and explain to them what an agent is, what the pitch process is, what the hell a query is.’ Every time I got on that soapbox, more often than not, I got, ‘Oh, you know, this is the industry. It’s not gonna change.’ In all that time, only one editor said, ‘Can I give you my card? If I come to your town, will you make that happen?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely!’ I was so happy he did. It never materialized, because Covid changed everything. But that’s the kind of thing that needs to happen.”