What’s Going on With My Dark Vanessa and Excavation?

Photo: Vulture

As the controversy surrounding Oprah’s latest book-club pick, American Dirt, continues to swirl, there’s another literary debate brewing online. This one involves Wendy C. Ortiz, a Latinx writer whose memoir, Excavation, was published back in 2014, and the forthcoming, highly anticipated novel My Dark Vanessa, from Kate Elizabeth Russell. (My Dark Vanessa sold for a reported seven figures and is slated for release on March 10.)

In Excavation, Ortiz writes about how her eighth-grade English teacher engaged in a five-year sexual relationship with her as a teenager. (The teacher is now a registered sex offender.) My Dark Vanessa tells the story of Vanessa Wye, a woman who, 17 years later, is forced to confront a sexual relationship she had with her English teacher when she was 15 after another former student comes forward with sexual-abuse accusations against him. In January, Ortiz called out My Dark Vanessa on Twitter — without actually naming it — for being similar to her memoir. She later called the book a “fictional take on a reality I lived,” and published an essay noting that her memoir and My Dark Vanessa have “eerie story similarities.” This prompted a debate online about whether Russell had plagiarized her novel from the memoir, and the discourse eventually spiraled into conflict over who has the right to tell stories about sexual abuse. Russell, in a statement, later emphasized that her book was based on personal experiences.

Here’s a timeline of the controversy:

The Subtweet

On January 19, Ortiz tweets about My Dark Vanessa, calling it a “white woman’s book of fiction that sounds very much like Excavation.”

The Twitter Reaction

People on Twitter begin responding to her initial tweet, offering support and echoing Ortiz’s statement that My Dark Vanessa sounds similar to Excavation. Some went so far as to accuse Russell of plagiarism, accusations which continued to escalate in the following days and weeks.

Erin Ryan, writer and host of Crooked Media’s Hysteria podcast, later discusses the controversy in an episode called “Fakers and Takers,” calling Russell’s book the fictional “white version” of Ortiz’s story and recommending people read Excavation, hailing it as “tough but excellent.”

Over the new few days, Ortiz continues to tweet about My Dark Vanessa. She says that she has not, and will not, read the novel.

Russell Weighs In

After Ortiz tweets about My Dark Vanessa, Russell reaches out and tells her she has read Excavation. On Twitter, Russell notes that stories of abuse often share similar elements, and that her book could be compared to any number of works involving the same subject matter, including 2019’s Three Women. Her 2009 MFA thesis, she adds, was an “early version” of the novel, and that she worked on the book for years before Excavation was published. (Russell has since deleted her Twitter.)

“Adventures in Publishing Outside the Gates” Hits the Internet

Writer Roxane Gay offers to publish an essay from Ortiz on her Medium publication, Gay Mag.

In the essay, Ortiz explains the difficulties she faced in trying to get her memoir published. She notes that publishing is an overwhelmingly white business and includes quotes from editors praising Excavation but declining to move forward with it. (Eventually, the memoir was published by indie house Future Tense Books.)

Ortiz writes that she hopes her story can help “repair” a broken industry. “Gatekeepers have kept me, and so many others, out. Now is the time to call out the publishing industry (as we have, as we do, as we keep having to do) for its racism and small-mindedness about who gets published and who does not; who gets massive advances and who does not,” she explains. She also notes that when she heard about My Dark Vanessa, it “sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out … As much as I would like to avoid a book that fictionalizes an experience I lived, it will be difficult to — the publishing machine will make sure as many people know about it as possible.”

The Controversy Online Intensifies

The Twitter conversation begins to turn into a debate over who has the right to tell stories about abuse, and whether or not Russell needs to prove her own trauma to justify that her story is her own. Supporters of Russell weigh in, defending the author.

In a detailed blog post entitled “Is Statutory Rape an Intellectual Property?,” U.K.-based writer Red Newsom, who has read both books, said the two books are not as identical as a “cursory Googling of blurbs” might indicate. “I’ve followed the ‘scandal’ on Twitter, becoming more and more uncomfortable with the knee-jerk responses calling Russell’s apparent theft of Wendy’s life story ‘disgusting,’” Newsom wrote. “I make no claims to friendship with the author, Kate and I inhabited the same internet community on Livejournal around 2011-2012 and her posts would frequently appear on my friends list. She would talk about her life and post excerpts of her writing which would later become a novel she’d been working on for the majority of her adult life. My Dark Vanessa. It’s worth mentioning that these pieces were written years before Ortiz published her own brave and difficult story,” Newsom added.

Russell Releases a Statement

On her website, Russell posts a short statement telling readers her book is based on personal experiences from her teenage years. “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,” Russell wrote on Saturday. “My greatest wish is that My Dark Vanessa will spark conversation about the complexity of coercion, trauma, and victimhood, because while these stories can feel all too familiar, victims are not a monolith and there is no universal experience of sexual violence.”

The statement echoes an interview she gave to EW in 2018 in which she said she had “internalized” Lolita when “becoming sexually involved with older men at 15, 16, 17.” (Russell also said she started working on the book as a teenager.) “Fiction gave me the freedom to center my own emotional experience rather than focus on the details of what exactly an older, powerful man did or didn’t do to me,” Russell said.

Ortiz Also Releases a Statement

After Russell’s statement on Saturday, Ortiz responds: “I agree no one should feel compelled to out their own trauma,” she writes, calling such a situation “awful.” She also posts her own statement in three parts, saying she stands by her original essay. “My perspective is that the publishing industry is structured to elevate some voices and not others, and Excavation is only one case in point,” Ortiz writes, reiterating “the word ‘plagiarism’ has come up in people’s comments a number of times and it’s a word I have not used.”

Ortiz and Russell declined to be interviewed for this story.

What’s Going on With My Dark Vanessa and Excavation?