The Danger in Being the First
Wow, so I didn’t think I would write anything substantial about the American Dirt publishing industry scandal but like always Latino USA came through and inspired me. To bring ppl up to speed, American Dirt was written by a White woman and given a seven figure (!) advance by a publishing industry that then turned around and spent even more money to promote it. They landed promos with Latina influencers, a spot on Oprah’s book club, and blurb by the Chicana literary icon, Sandra Cisneros. The book, while fiction, seemed to be steeped in stereotypes and an obvious lack of knowledge of what it means to be Mexican. When a Latina writer, Myriam Gurba, wrote a review decrying this book, a larger digital space (Ms. Magazine) tried to bury it. And well, that was a mistake. Latino Twitter blew up, social media in general blew up against the author, the publishing company, and the industry, which overall the remains overwhelmingly white, cis, hetero, and non-disabled (quelle surprise). There was a ton of discussion and Latinx writers coming out vocally against American Dirt; forcing Oprah to respond, many of the influencers took back their promo, and so everyone expected that lauded author, Sandra Cisneros, to speak up.
The amazing Maria Hinojosa interviewed Cisneros, the writer behind AD, and two other Latinx authors in her latest podcast. This was Cisneros’ moment to clarify, revoke, or explain why she would promote this book. If you have not listened, please do. It is an incredible episode. …
What happens then is a sad and super frustrating take by Cisneros that implied that Latinx are not out here writing. That the reasons our stories aren’t published is because we’re not writing them. She had no opinion, advice, or concern about how hard it is for POC to get actually get published and seemed blind to the barriers placed on writers of color. The most shocking piece was when she dismissed Myriam Gurba saying her “rage” was unjustified and that if we have some type of anger about the book it must be about something else and that instead…we should write a poem about it.
—is that some literary way to say go F-yourself? I’m just asking b/c I’m a spectator to this world lol
Anyway, I gasped, and knew the tea would be hot and it was. But beyond the ~drama~ I am disappointed in this iconic figure who is held is such high regard in both the literary & Latina communities. But more than anything this was a stark reminder for me a (and a good reminder to all of us) that–
THERE IS A DANGER IN BEING THE FIRST.
Let me repeat, it is dangerous to your psyche to be the “first” in your professional journey. I know when you’re the First to do something (graduate college, make law review, earn a JD, become partner) it means you had a lonely journey. You had to navigate unfriendly territory without a lot of help or guidance. You likely had to abide by the rules to an nth degree so that you looked like you belonged. In the midst of this, you’re fed validation by those in power that you are special, intelligent, stronger than everyone else that was left behind.
And that’s where the danger lies because if you aren’t careful, you start to believe it.
Now, of course, you are special, intelligent, and strong– believing in those characteristics in yourself isn’t the problem. The problem is that when people make that distinction between you and others, the implication is that those folks who didn’t make it are the opposite of strong, intelligent, and special. Propping you up on a pedestal makes it less likely for you to question the problems around you. It can allow you to completely ignore the real and purposeful barriers that are used to keep people of color away from positions of power.
We shouldn’t enjoy the limelight cast on us this way. Rather, we should be enraged that there are so few of us here. So, if you’re a First, don’t pat yourself on the back. I mean you can (should), but do more. In every level you’re on, leverage the power you have to push the door wider for those coming behind you. And make it a point to recognize the barriers that exist, so you can do what you can to dismantle them.
I know I’m preaching to the choir for many of you, but it’s an important reminder. One that we should remember often in order to avoid falling prey to pretty words that attempt to make us look down on the people, the culture, the homes that made us because that results in you being the First but also the Only, which ultimately seems incredibly sad, disconnected, and a waste of community potential.