Judging a Book by its Cover

You know the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Well, three women on Goodreads decided to do just that when they saw the title of my first novel, Torn Between Worlds: An illegal immigrant’s journey to find herself.

Here is what Soledad said about my book on Goodreads. “I’m sorry, but “illegal immigrant”? This is how you know this book was written by a white woman. This has red flags all over it.”

Here was my reply to Soledad: “Did you read the book or just form a judgement based on the title? The fact that Isabel came to the US illegally was important to the novel since this made it impossible for her to easily return to Mexico to be with her mother. And why is it so bad that I am a white woman? Can’t I write about the struggles my Mexican students faced? I wrote this book primarily for young Hispanic adults: to tell their story since there are so few books on the market in English for people crossing the Mexican border into the US in search of a better life.”

Here is her reply: “Calling someone an ‘illegal immigrant’ is inherently racist. If you did any significant amount of research, you would know that. And we don’t need you to speak for us. There are a myriad of books by Mexican and Mexican American authors that talk about migration stories, in English and Spanish. Again, if you did your research, you would know that. Your whole comment sounds like a white savior speaking, and I can already tell this is a book intended for white people, not for Hispanic people. Why don’t you read books by actual Mexican authors, like Luis Alberto Urrea or Gloria E. Anzaldúa, so you can see your book is not needed nor wanted?”

Then someone named Micki chimed in with the following comment: “I almost want to read this book to see what all these other commenters are raving about but as a Mexican American I can’t get past the title. As Soledad said, big red flag that smacks of all the issues with the book American Dirt, also written by a white woman who also thought brown kids didn’t have a voice so she gave them one.”

Then Soledad came back into the discussion with the following: “Nancy: you literally put “illegal immigrant” as your title and refuse to acknowledge the issue in that, even as I told you that that term is racist. And I never called you racist, but you took this criticism as a personal attack on you. Furthermore, you cannot use your students as a shield. I grew up having mostly white female teachers who had unexamined racism and biases; the fact that you happen to have Mexican students does not make you immune to racist thoughts and actions. I was willing to possibly read your book, but the fact you keep deflecting and not accepting any criticism on the book title informs me that you do not know the Mexican immigrant experience and do not want to learn. I come from a family of undocumented immigrants, I know the struggles they have and continued to face. And I highly doubt your book will accurately reflect that. “

Then someone named Natalia joined into the Goodreads conversation with the following remarks: “I really wish people would stick to writing about their own experiences. No matter how good of a teacher you were, you will never be able to write about the experience in a way that justifies the intricacies and pain of being undocumented.”

Finally, a fourth woman on Goodreads named Samantha wrote the following:”100% agree Soledad. As a Mexican American who comes from immigrants this whole title and premise is offensive. It does come off as white savior and I just can’t after reading these responses from the author. Horrible.”

Wow! By now I was really feeling attacked. I also noticed that Soledad, Natalia and Samantha rated my book one star without having even read it! This pulled my rating down from 4.9 to 4.07. This was quite unfortunate. I then replied to everyone in the thread with the following comment: “It seems terribly unfair to rate a book one star without having read even a part of the book. I would never do that to any author no matter what I thought of the title. As the saying goes, “Never judge a book by its cover.”

Because I decided to write a book reflecting the experience of a young Mexican girl, I was deemed a “white savior.” Yikes. I had written the book for young Mexicans because I felt there weren’t enough books in English that reflected their experience. This was considered inappropriate to do because I wasn’t Mexican, even though I had taught Mexican students for eight years and was doing much of the writing based on my experience as a teacher and my knowledge of my students and their struggles being in the US without papers. I also felt that people’s attacks on Jeanine Cummins for her bestselling book American Dirt were unfair. Just because she wasn’t Mexican, some people thought she didn’t have a right to publish such a book.

Here is a long and detailed write-up surrounding the controversy of American Dirt. https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/1/22/21075629/american-dirt-controversy-explained-jeanine-cummins-oprah-flatiron. However, one of the points author Constance Grady made in her article was the following: “The most prominent voices in this debate have tended to say that it is entirely possible to write about a particular group without belonging to it. You just have to do it well — and part of doing it well involves treating your characters as human beings, and not luxuriating in and fetishizing their trauma.”

I will leave it up to my readers to decide whether I did a good job of humanizing my main character, Isabel, in her struggles trying to adapt to life in the US while being an undocumented immigrant. I must say that I do have a problem with Jeanine Cummins getting a seven figure advance and being taken more seriously than Hispanic authors because she is white. But that’s a problem with the publishing industry. It’s still mostly white women in that industry and that’s unfortunate. I hope that changes soon and more women of color are represented in that profession so they can accept and promote more books written by Hispanic, Black, Asian and Native-American authors.

I feel like Jeanine Cummins had the best of intentions in writing American Dirt. If you go to her website, you can see that she is encouraging others to financially help refugees through the various aid organizations that exist. Here is what she says on her website: “When I was traveling in Mexico and the borderlands researching for American Dirt, nothing surprised me more than the preponderance of HOPE among people who endure so much hardship. That is what the United States of America still represents to the people who risk everything to get here. So many good people in the US and Mexico are deeply committed to protecting refugees in their most vulnerable moments; these folks are out there just quietly saving lives every single day. If you are moved to do so, please support them however you can.” She then lists 10 organizations helping immigrants who try to cross the Mexican border into the US in search of a better life. These organizations include the International Rescue Committee and the American Friends Service Committee, among eight other groups. See https://www.jeaninecummins.com/how-to-helppre/ for details. That is certainly an admirable intention: to encourage others to help Mexican immigrants with financial support.

So after hearing all this, dear reader, what is your opinion about my book? Do I, as a white woman, have a right to tell the story of a Mexican immigrant who entered the US illegally with her father? Or is this a story that only Mexican immigrants have the right to tell?

If you want to read the book first before deciding the answer to this question, here is a link to it. https://www.amazon.com/Torn-Between-Worlds-illegal-immigrants/dp/B08VYLP4B4/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2VYUC81UU6E5Q&dchild=1&keywords=nancy+blodgett+klein&qid=1621842029&sprefix=nancy+blodgett+klein%2Caps%2C256&sr=8-1.

You should know that in response to hearing from several Mexican American women on Goodreads that the illegal immigrant title was “racist,” I decided to change the title to Torn Between Worlds: A Mexican immigrant’s journey to find herself.” However, I was only able to do this with the Kindle version of the book, not the paperback edition. Here is the link to that. https://www.amazon.com/Torn-Between-Worlds-illegal-immigrants-ebook/dp/B08QZRTRSS/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1621842029&sr=8-1. I was open to their feedback about the perceived “racism” of the title but I reject the assertion that I don’t have a right to tell Isabel’s story because I am white.


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