On the Heels of ‘American Dirt’ Comes a Fresh Literary Scandal
As American Dirt continues to plague Oprah’s PR staff, a forthcoming novel is creating a similar stir. Writer Wendy C. Ortiz says Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, forthcoming from William Morrow in March 2020, rips off Ortiz’s own work. In response, the author has now had to disclose details of her personal trauma with readers.
“A white woman has written a book that fictionalizes a story many people have survived and the book is receiving tremendous backing and promotion,” Ortiz wrote on January 29 for Gay Magazine. “The book this time, though, is titled My Dark Vanessa. The book I wrote, Excavation, is a memoir with eerie story similarities, and was published by a small press in 2014.”
My Dark Vanessa, which is a fictionalized tale of a young woman’s relationship with a much older man placed within the contemporary context of the #MeToo movement, allegedly covers much of the same ground as Ortiz’s 2014 memoir Excavation, which she says, “tells the story of my eighth-grade English teacher and how he began a sexual relationship with me, which would last five years.”
Ortiz’s memoir ended up with a small press after her agent tried unsuccessfully to shop it around to larger publishers. Some of the rejections Excavation received reveal the industry’s bias against non-white authors and stories: “[D]espite Ortiz’s powerful writing, we ultimately felt that it would be difficult to find a wide audience for the memoir.”
In response to Ortiz’s accusations, Russell has allegedly reached out to the author, confirming that she read her book for background research. A representative from William Morrow said to Book & Film Globe in an email, “Kate Elizabeth Russell has been working on My Dark Vanessa for nearly 20 years and any allegation that it’s not her original work is false.”
Like American Dirt, critics like Ortiz take issue with the publishing industry’s behavior toward writers of color. William Morrow awarded Russell a seven-figure advance for her book, which has the support of a major publisher in an extremely white industry.
“If I follow the ‘logic’ that the example of American Dirt portrays,” Ortiz concludes in her essay, “it appears that once again a white woman has written a fictional experience of a subject and publishers find it more palatable, worthy, and marketable than when a writer of color writes it from lived experience.”
It was unclear from the text itself whether Russell, the author, has any lived experience to back up her writing, nor how well she is able to place herself into the shoes of someone like Ortiz in her writing. An author’s note at the end of My Dark Vanessa reads stresses that My Dark Vanessa is a work of fiction, and critics have argued that no writer needs to out themselves in order to legitimize their writing.
In a statement released on her personal website, Russell said her own experiences as a teenager inspired My Dark Vanessa, she’d been working on for nearly 20 years. “I have previously discussed the relationships I’ve had with older men and how those relationships informed the writing of My Dark Vanessa,” she wrote. “But I do not believe that we should compel victims to share the details of their personal trauma with the public. The decision whether or not to come forward should always be a personal choice. I have been afraid that opening up further about my past would invite inquiry that could be retraumatizing, and my publisher tried to protect my boundaries by including a reminder to readers that the novel is fiction.”
In response, writer T. Kira Madden tweeted, “The question is not writing outside our lived experience but doing so responsibly. Regardless, we should be more careful in this dialogue. Someone shouldn’t need to out themselves to write about abuse. Some people can’t.”
Not all of literary Twitter is as sold on Ortiz’s story as they may have about American Dirt. “Uh oh. The B-story of Book Drama that has been brewing for days is about to become the A-story of Book Drama, and I am not prepared,” writer Brandon Taylor said in a tweet. “I didn’t expect this for another three to four days! My notes are all out of order!”
Until the book’s release, it’s hard to say if My Dark Vanessa will create the same firestorm as American Dirt. At least Oprah’s managed to stay out of this one—for now.