Since Covid, I’ve been very diligent about staying home, limiting my social interactions, wearing a mask, etc. Last week, however, I decided to escape the confinement and join my husband Andy on a short expedition across Wyoming and South Dakota. I thoroughly enjoyed the break from routine. To sum things up, we hiked a lot, Andy drove, and I read. This country is enormous! Seeing hundreds of miles of uninhabited land roll by while reading American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, served to reinforce my strongly-held opinion that the immigration phobia sweeping our nation is misguided and immoral.
Coincidently, between books, I searched my phone one afternoon for a podcast that might liven the tedium as we crossed the South Dakota grasslands. I don’t remember downloading it, but there in my podcast library was an episode of This American Life, called The Out Crowd, which won the very first Pulitzer Prize for audio journalism. We started listening simply based on the accolades and then discovered the podcast’s relevance to American Dirt and the disturbing immigration policies of the United States. The book and the podcast share much in common, yet only the book has come under attack. Below are some of my thoughts regarding American Dirt, the controversy surrounding it, and The Out Crowd.
American Dirt, A Superb Novel
I thoroughly enjoyed the nail-biting saga that Jeanine Cummins unwinds in American Dirt. A friend recommended the book to me back in May. He’s an avid reader who always has several titles to point me toward and was adamant that I give American Dirt a solid chance, alluding to harsh criticism surrounding the novel. I was clueless about the debate underway regarding the book’s merit. I just wanted a quick summer read that I’d have trouble putting down, and here was a reliable source insisting that American Dirt would deliver.
American Dirt is the story of a middle-class Mexican woman, Lydia Pérez, and her journalist husband, Sebastián, who are living an enviable life in Acapulco with their only son, Luca. When Sebastián begins to investigate and report on the activities of a local drug cartel, retaliation is swift and severe. In the aftermath of a brutal killing spree, Lydia and Luca find themselves fleeing from a dangerous and sophisticated network of criminals. Fearing for their lives, Lydia has only a couple of hours to prepare for their getaway. The book opens with a bang, and the pace doesn’t ease up for much of the 380 pages that follow.
Cummins spent several years researching the book. The perilous voyage realized by the main characters is based on actual routes that Central and South American migrants regularly use. Depictions of violence, corruption, and criminality, as well as culture, camaraderie, and humanitarianism, are rooted in anecdotal and journalistic reports of authentic experiences. The book is not a substitute for a serious treatise on migrant life in Mexico. It’s a novel. However, it’s clear that Cummins took considerable pains to give her characters and her narrative realistic underpinnings.
For me, American Dirt goes above and beyond the average fast-moving thriller. Cummins makes vivid many of the painful circumstances that I was cursorily aware of, while expanding my knowledge of what life might be like in Mexico for those who are happily and peacefully living there. If you enjoy fiction that also expands and breathes life into your understanding of the world, I think you’ll appreciate American Dirt.
The Controversy Surrounding American Dirt
The criticism of American Dirt comes largely from Latinos and hence should be given thorough consideration. I didn’t look at any of the negative reviews until I was about halfway through the book. While raving to friends about how much I was enjoying the novel, a was reminded of the brewing controversy. I spent the better part of the next morning learning what some of the critics had said. Their comments definitely gave me pause and I took up the second half with a more critical eye. Below, I’ve paraphrased the main objections that I stumbled upon in Goodreads and various editorial pieces:
- As a white woman, Jeanine Cummins has no business writing a story based on Latino experiences. The novel serves as an example of cultural appropriation at its worst.
- American Dirt is filled with negative Latino stereotypes and inaccuracies regarding Mexican culture and the Spanish language.
- The book is pro-United States and anti-Mexico.
- There are much better books, written by Latinx authors, that never see the light of day because the publishing industry won’t give them a chance.
As I resumed reading, I kept these objections in mind. Maybe I’ve been wrong about this book, I told myself. Maybe the characters are just an agglomeration of Hollywood clichés. Granted, I’m white and know next to nothing about Latino culture, but I frankly wasn’t buying some of the remarks. The characters do not fit the negative Latino stereotypes that I’m familiar with. I didn’t find the book in any way exhibited “Trumpian tackiness”. Nor did it herald the United States as the “land of milk and honey”.
It’s important to note that members of the Latino community are divided on many of the issues raised above. Several Latinx authors have come out in support of Jeanine Cummins and praised her work, including Sandra Cisneros, Erika Sanchez, Julia Alvarez, and Reyna Grande.
What I Agree With
I absolutely agree that Latinx authors are underrepresented in the publishing industry. One of the benefits I’ve gained this week by reading more critical reviews, blogs, and editorials on American Dirt is a growing list of want-to-read books by Latinos (see links at the bottom of this post). The publishing hurdle also remains ridiculously high for Black, Asian, and Middle Eastern authors. Publishers, like movie producers, music promoters, magazine editors, and so on, are rarely risk-takers. They stick with the same old worn-out formulas and unfortunately, they make a lot of money doing so. I personally like to hear a wide range of voices. Something in my DNA seeks to broaden rather than reinforce my prior experiences. So I’m completely on board with the public outcry, demanding that more Latinx authors be given a chance.
Another criticism that I would not have picked up on, is that the Spanish in the book is reportedly not authentic. As a non-native speaker of French, I know how easy it is to make myself understood while still not actually speaking the way French people speak. I’m not referring to speaking with an accent, but to word usage, expressions, and slang. It can take a non-native decades to flawlessly express themselves as a native would.
The task of verifying the accuracy of non-native speech is the publisher’s responsibility. There’s no excuse for getting that wrong. Or so I thought until I read the following comment in an opinion piece by Reyna Grande in the New York Times, “I am a native Spanish speaker, but my own books are riddled with Spanish mistakes because I was in fifth grade when I came to the United States.” Still, I find the lack of Spanish proofreading a glaring oversight and well worthy of criticism.
What I Have Trouble Understanding
The idea that only members of a given culture should write about that culture does not ring true to me—especially when it comes to fiction. Consider the countless novels that take place during World War II, some even inside Nazi concentration camps. Many of the most highly acclaimed works are written by people that have no direct or even secondary link to the events that form the backdrop for their narratives. Examples that I’ve greatly enjoyed include the pulitzer-prize winning, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, the international bestseller The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, and Kinderzimmer, by Valentine Goby.
Cummins’ intent in writing American Dirt was to “upend the traditional stereotypes that I saw being very prevalent in our national dialogue.” Cummins is the first to admit that reading her book is certainly not the best way to educate yourself on Latino culture or the issues surrounding immigration. I maintain, however, that the book does enlighten readers, many of whom are white middle-class women like me with no connections to Central or South America. Even with its flaws and inaccuracies, American Dirt succeeds in raising peoples’ understanding of why many deserving Latinos seek asylum at our southern border and why recent U.S. immigration policies are thoughtless and inhumane.
In preparing for this post, I read several harsh critiques of both Cummins and her novel that I found borderline irrational. More than one reviewer said they hadn’t read the book but had seen excerpts and knew it to be horribly racist. American Dirt definitely hit a nerve and unfortunately, in today’s society, respectful discourse often gets buried beneath seething contempt, littered with barbs, insults, accusations, and threats. Indeed, Cummins’ 40-city book tour was canceled due to safety concerns.
Despite all of the controversy, I found American Dirt to be a tantalizing read from beginning to end. It may well turn out to be my favorite book of 2020.
The Out Crowd Podcast
After finishing American Dirt, I listened to The Out Crowd, which relates stories from the frontlines of our country’s immigration system. The well-known podcast series, This American Life, first broadcast this episode in November of 2019. Last May, however, the episode won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for audio journalism. If you haven’t listened to The Out Crowd already, I highly recommend spending an hour to do so. The podcast follows the stories of a handful of migrants fleeing extreme dangers as well as the asylum officers tasked with turning them away.
The listener gains insight into how the Trump administration has altered our immigration policies and the unintentional, or perhaps intentional, human rights violations that accompany these changes. As I listened, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to American Dirt. The journalists that contributed to the story were white. The migrants were victims of unimaginable levels of violence. The heartless immigration department systematically condemned people to perilous and unsanitary living conditions. Might the podcast be seen as committing the same sins as American Dirt?
I’ve posed this question to Myriam Gurba, one of American Dirt’s most vocal and assertive critics. I’m hoping she’ll take my inquiry seriously. I’m genuinely curious to know how she views productions like The Out Crowd. If I receive a response, I’ll make sure to give you an update.
Books by Latinx Authors that I’ve Read and Recommend
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
- In The Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez
- The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
Books by Latinx Authors on my Reading Wishlist
- Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano
- When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago
- Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges
- The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
I’d love to hear about your favorite Latinx authors in the comments.
- The Atlantic, The Doomed Project of American Dirt
- New York Times, Writing About the Border Crisis, Hoping to Break Down Walls
- New York Times, ‘American Dirt’ Has Us Talking. That’s a Good Thing.
- NPR, ‘American Dirt’ Author Jeanine Cummins Answers Vocal Critics
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Is criticism of ‘American Dirt’ fair — and does it matter?
- Tropics of Meta Blog, Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature
- Casper Star Tribune, Casper readers discuss controversial novel ‘American Dirt’ after cancellation of high-profile book signing
- New York Post, Ridiculous attacks on ‘American Dirt’ are fresh reason to nix ‘cancel culture’
- The Hollywood Reporter, Oprah Winfrey Tackles ‘American Dirt’ Book Club Controversy With Author for Apple TV+
- New York Times, ‘American Dirt’ Is Proof the Publishing Industry Is Broken
- NBC News, Tips from 5 Literary Agents Representing Latino Authors
- Publishers Weekly, New Lee and Low Survey Shows No Progress on Diversity in Publishing
- New York Times, How U.S. Policy Turned the Sonoran Desert Into a Graveyard for Migrants
- YouTube, “American Dirt” versus Dignidad Literaria