American Dirt: Dignity & Equity

David Bowles
5 min readJan 30, 2020

So many reactionary critiques of #DignidadLiteraria — activism centering the literary dignity of Latinx people spurred by the publishing of American Dirt are infused with either privileged blindness or deliberate disingenuousness.

I want to interrogate the attempted dismissal of our concerns.

First, authors definitely have the right to write outside of their identity. An absolute legal right. No one disputes that. But there’s homework to be done. Questions to be asked.

For secondary characters, especially from groups that exist in your own community or region, the work isn’t as strenuous. But for main characters who have a very different identity than yours— especially when you don’t live alongside them in our community or interact with them — the work is MUCH HARDER.

When writing about characters unlike you, living in an entirely different country and cultural paradigm, the labor required is Herculean.

Hence Writing the Other, the book and workshop crafted by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward to help authors write characters who are outside their own cultural identity.

Daniel José Older asks, “Have you considered The Why, and have you considered The No? Why do you feel it falls to you to write someone else’s story? Why do you have the right to take on another’s voice? And should you do this? The answer isn’t always no…”

But sometimes it is.

When you write about an underrepresented group, one whose own voices have been excluded from the world of publishing, not getting it right isn’t just disastrous: it’s harmful to people in that group.

Have you read all the Latinas describing the book’s hurt?

Believe them.

Like I said on NPR’s 1A: authorial autonomy is NOT sacrosanct. The author isn’t a shaman or priestess, possessed of a holy duty. It’s a JOB.

And there’s a need to balance the rights of the writer against the dignity of the people / cultures they write about.

Again and again, reporters ask me: “Why all the vitriol? It’s just a work of fiction.”

Ah, privilege. What a drug.

If you didn’t grow up Mexican American in a Mexican American community, you didn’t spend your childhood hearing about (& experiencing) the harm done to us.

  • lynchings (2000 in Texas alone)
David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. VP of the Texas Institute of Letters.