Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt

*Note: This review has been updated (as of 1/25/2020) to reflect the controversy surrounding the author and her depiction of the migrant experience, a story that she arguably had little right to tell. I failed to consider this information when I wrote my review, but I am including it now after several people (thank you!) brought it to my attention.

I honestly missed the controversy surrounding American Dirt, and now I’m wondering how this happened. How did I read this book and get so far into my positive opinion of it without hearing about this awfulness? Upon further reflection, I know how it happened: I’m a white person who read this book, enjoyed it, and never thought twice about reading what Latinx people thought about it. I try very hard to be conscious of and examine my own white privilege, but this time, reading this book, failed to. Thank you to everyone who brought the controversy to my attention.

Here is my original review, with a few edits to address clarity and typos, that now includes my commentary on the controversy and social impact of American Dirt:

One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn’t immediately understand that it’s a bullet at all, and it’s only luck that it doesn’t strike him between the eyes. Luca hardly registers the mild noise it makes as it flies past and lodges into the tiled wall behind him. But the wash of bullets that follows is loud, booming, and thudding, clack-clacking with helicopter speed. There is a raft of screams, too, but that noise is short-lived, soon exterminated by the gunfire. Before Luca can zip his pants, lower the lid, climb up to look out, before he has time to verify the source of that terrible clamor, the bathroom door swings open and Mami is there.
Mijo, ven,” she says, so quietly that Luca doesn’t hear her.
Her hands are not gentle; she propels him toward the shower.

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins

So begins American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’ newest novel, a gut-wrenching tale about the lengths to which people go in order to escape unimaginable violence and make a better life for themselves and their families. The novel has been called The Grapes of Wrath for our time, and there are certainly a few similarities between this timely American epic and Steinbeck’s classic about 1930’s Dust Bowl migrations.

Lydia is a solidly middle-class Mexican woman. She owns a successful independent bookstore in Acapulco where she lives with her journalist husband, Sebastián, and their eight year old son, Luca. She reads voraciously, enjoys occasional restaurant meals with her husband, worries about money and bills; but, she also worries about the fact that there are fewer tourists in the city due to increasing violence. 

Underneath the veneer of resort-chic the residents of Acapulco suffer. Drug-cartels rule the city and exact revenge on anyone who steps out of line. Heinous crimes perpetrated by the cartels go unsolved due to corruption within the government and police force with many employees on the cartel payrolls, earning “three times more than what they earn from the government.” 

Recently a new cartel, Los Jardineros, have taken over the city. Commanded by the charismatic but ruthless La Lechuza, their brutal control tactics have led to a temporary reduction in the violence. But a chance encounter leading to an intense friendship between Lydia and La Lechuza changes everything.

After an act of extreme savagery, Lydia and Luca are forced to flee Acapulco with virtually nothing. Transformed by their situation, they become migrantes and join the exodus to el norte. Braving the unspeakable, they attempt to reach the one place where La Lechuza and his cronies can’t follow.

Luca jumps. And every molecule in Lydia’s body jumps with him. She sees him, the tight tuck of him, how small he is, how absurdly brave he is, his muscles and bones, his skin and hair, his thoughts and words and ideas, the very bigness of his soul, she sees all of him in the moment when his body leaves the safety of the overpass and flies, just momentarily, upward because of the effort of his exertion, until gravity catches him and he descends toward the top of La Bestia.

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins

Cummins’ driven prose tells the story mostly from Lydia’s perspective, as she and her son make their way north through Mexico. Occasionally, the book dips into Luca’s thoughts allowing us a glimpse into a child’s heartbreak and resilience. Forced to ride atop dangerous cargo trains, Lydia and Luca must maintain constant vigilance against abduction, robbery, or being caught by La Lechuza’s men. 

All of the characters, even the villains, are masterfully developed into believable, multi-faceted human beings. On the journey, Lydia and Luca forge bonds with other migrants, whose stories of suffering are remarkably similar to their own. Nearly every migrant they meet along the way has left their homes and families under duress. If they could have stayed, they would have. 

Cummins weaves up to date immigration politics into the narrative in a way that feels natural and unforced. Lydia hears from other migrant women about the US family separation policy. Vigilante border patrols in the US and cartel sponsored immigration officers in Mexico both make an appearance. Even the current US president is alluded to when a Mexican immigration officer jokes about the migrants he and his men have captured: 

“They’re […] like the norteño president says. Bad hambres.” He mispronounces the word hombres in the style of the US president who, attempting to call migrants bad men, inadvertently referred to them as bad hunger instead. It’s a joke now, full of irony. Bad hunger.

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins

Sometimes it feels like Cummins included everything that could possibly happen to immigrants in the story. That might, in other novels, be overkill. Ultimately though, the narrative is so gripping, and in reality the events do happen to so many, that this is not a drawback. Including these events allows the reader to conceptualize the pathos of an “Everymigrant.” 

I feel privileged that I wasn’t born into circumstances of poverty and violence which forces people to flee their homes. The character of Lydia also is a privileged woman and I recognized myself in her. In a flashback, she recalls the “pang of emotion” she felt upon hearing about the migrant caravans making their way through Mexico:

<“That pang Lydia felt had many parts: it was anger at the injustice, it was worry, compassion, helplessness. But in truth, it was a small feeling, and when she realized she was out of garlic, the pang was subsumed by domestic irritation. Dinner would be bland.”>

I have had these thoughts, these big “small feelings,” which have then vanished in the hubbub of life. Reading American Dirt allowed me to consider what I would do if I had to leave my home under duress – literally, what would I take, where would I go, how would I get there? And this is what good fiction should do. Good fiction should allow the reader to step into another’s shoes, walk awhile, then return with greater understanding and empathy because of where they’ve been. But as readers we should not stop there. 

As several people pointed out to me within days of the original posting of this review, many in the Latinx community were angered at how American Dirt has depicted the experiences of migrants. The novel has been called trauma porn written by a woman, who self-identified as white up until 2015, telling a story she had no right to tell. As a white, middle-class, American woman, the fact that I so easily recognized myself in Lydia is indicative of some of the controversy surrounding the novel. 

Parul Sehgal’s review in The New York Times criticizes Cummins’ writing style, but more importantly she states:

“The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that “these people are people,” while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore — and then congratulating us for caring.”

This is a true statement. The novel never alludes to the bloody colonial history of Mexico and Central America or the continued US capitalist-imperialist incursions into these countries which have caused so many of the problems leading to migration in the first place. Indeed, the only negative things said about the US are brief mentions of immigration policy; otherwise “el norte” is pedestalized as a “promised land.” The US has much complicity in creating the conditions that lead people to flee their homes. Perhaps in the hands of a different author this issue would not have been completely ignored.

In the end, it is not enough to just read a book like this, empathize with the characters, and then feel good about doing so. In her review, Sehgal also wrote: 

“I’m of the persuasion that fiction necessarily, even rather beautifully, requires imagining an “other” of some kind. As the novelist Hari Kunzru has argued, imagining ourselves into other lives and other subjectives is an act of ethical urgency. The caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well.” 

While an author should make sure they are responsibly depicting their subject matter, we as readers aren’t completely passive. Perhaps equally as important as the act of reading are the discussions we have after a book has been closed. And these discussions must automatically include listening to the real voices of people depicted in a work of fiction. 

In this case, Latinx voices are what sparked criticism of the book, criticisms which “stem from the author’s background and arguably unfounded sense of ownership over the Latinx border experience.” These are the voices to be listening to. Mexican-American author, Myriam Gurba (I will definitely be reading all of her work in the near future!), wrote a devastating, but also devastatingly funny, review of American Dirt that really gets to the heart of the matter. According to Gurba, Cummins got a lot wrong about Mexico and Mexican day-to-day life, she utilizes dangerous stereotypes and clichés, and she wrote the character of Lydia as if she’s experiencing her own country “through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist.” 

I understand why there has been an outcry against the novel, but I also think it is a gripping work of fiction, a thought that I’ve been struggling with since reading about the controversy. Esmeralda Bermudez, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “This is a wonderful, melodramatic telenovela, something I would love watching for cheap entertainment, like a narco-thriller on Netflix. But this should not be called by anyone ‘the great immigrant novel, the story of our time, The Grapes of Wrath.’”

As many of the negative reviews have pointed out, there are many, many migrant stories written by actual immigrants to this country who understand the immigrant experience. But these stories have once again been sidelined by the largely white publishing industry in favor of “a book overflowing with sloppy Mexican stereotypes meant to stir pleasure through pity.” Cummins told a story that was not hers to tell and in a way that glorifies trauma for the benefit of a “mass, racially ‘colorblind’” audience and for a hefty profit. Twitter user Andrew Zubiri put it well when he wrote: “A person’s trauma should never be someone else’s aesthetic.” And as Gurba explained, this type of feel-good “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf” makes all too frequent an appearance in the literary world at the expense of other Latinx voices. 

American Dirt and the controversy surrounding it are supreme arguments for why we all should read and discuss fiction. Knowing what I know now, the only way I can recommend the novel is if readers consider it within the context of opinions and voices from the Latinx community, and grapple with why it is so problematic for a white, non-immigrant woman to tell this story. This might be the historian in me coming out, but I think American Dirt could be a very readable commentary on modern immigration when examined along with the controversy surrounding it. However, I fear a lot of people, a lot of white people, probably will not read the book with this context in mind, just as I did at first. They will take the story at face value without examining the inherent problems of an outsider writing about the extremely painful and personal experiences of so many people.

The furor surrounding American Dirt could offer an incredible teaching moment. The book is out in the world now: people will read it; Latinx voices have been passed over and silenced while Cummins benefits from the book sales, movie deal, and publicity of being selected for Oprah’s Book Club – all of this damage has been done. Now, it’s up to readers to examine our views and preconceived notions about who has the right to tell certain stories. Then, we should support Latinx authors and read what is being written by those who have actually lived these stories. 

***

Some of the books about the migrant experience as recommended in the reviews linked above:
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo – Children of the Land
Reyna Grande – Across a Hundred Mountains
Sonia Nazario –  Enrique’s Journey
Luis Alberto Urrea –  Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children

American Dirt
by Jeanine Cummins

386 pages

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