The American Dirt Controversy

If you’re at all involved in the book world online, you’ve probably seen some controversy about the new release by Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. If you’re unfamiliar with the novel, here is the synopsis on Goodreads:

También de este lado hay sueños. On this side, too, there are dreams.

Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.

Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

American Dirt will leave readers utterly changed. It is a literary achievement filled with poignancy, drama, and humanity on every page. It is one of the most important books for our times.

Sounds like an important read, right? With a current rating of 4.12/5 and having been picked by Oprah’s Book Club, this book seems like the hottest book of the year so far, and it is — but increasingly for reasons that put it in hot water instead of in the spotlight.

Own Voices books are important to me — that’s why I chose them for my reading challenge. This book is NOT an Own Voices read, and so it’s facing increasing backlash and boycotting from bookstagram and after a few weeks of making noise about it, media is starting to pick up. 

I don’t believe it is my place to start yelling about all the issues this book presents so I’m going to do the best thing that white voices can do in any time of struggle and turmoil for a minority community — I’m going to share resources for you to read about this issue yourself, from Own Voices. 

Author and activist Myriam Gurba led the charge against the harmful stereotypes portrayed in the novel with her essay “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-ass Social Justice Literature.” Gurba writes:

Unlike the narcos she vilifies, Cummins exudes neither grace nor flair. Instead, she bumbles with Trumpian tackiness, and a careful look at chronology reveals how she operates: opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically. Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the “faceless” out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification.

@Lupita.reads on Instagram created this story on her account to discuss the novel and its implications for her as a Latina reader. She feels the story is nothing more than a fictionalized take on the Trump/left-wing narrative about Mexico and immigrants and takes huge issue with the amount of violence and thriller aspects included in the novel. She also highlights other Own Voices comments and feelings about the issue, so please give this a read! 

A big issue here is that Latinx writers have been writing about immigration (and literally everything else!) forever and their voices haven’t been given the platform that Cummins has been.  Author and translator David Bowles wrote a point by point critique of the novel, “Cummins’ Non-Mexican Crap” for Medium, pointed out the wrongness of this book gaining fame while Own Voices stories flounder: 

If you don’t know this, Mexican writers are horribly underpaid. Women writers in Mexico, more so. And Chicanx authors suffer marginalization in the US market. As a Mexican American writer, I have seen my Chicana and Mexicana colleagues struggle to get their stories told, to get their manuscripts into the hands of agents and past the publishing industry’s gatekeepers. While I have nothing against Jeanine’s (or anyone else’s) writing a book about the plight of Mexican women and immigrants (especially if they do their homework and don’t exoticize our culture), I am deeply bothered that this non-#OwnVoices novel has been anointed the book about the issue for 2020 (with a seven-figure advance, no less) with glowing reviews from major newspapers and the support of big names in US publishing.

Cummins claims to have talked to migrants at the border and informed her story from these conversations. Bowles remarks that her use of migrant stories in her fiction, and her “borrowing” of Latinx authors she claims to have read to inform her own work, was nothing short of a white savior complex in which Cummins believed her voice to be more important than the source and better equipped to share the stories than the original Latinx voices. 

Cummins continues to be ignorant of the issues her book is raising. She and her publishers celebrated the book with barbed wire centerpieces at an event and Cummins lauded a reader who painted the cover art of the book on her nails, barbed wire and all, which Gurba shared on her Twitter account

 

This controversy has brought attention to the big issue here: Publishing is a largely white industry, which leaves minority stories and authors out in the cold. In her article “‘American Dirt’ and the Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing” for Hip Latina, Yvette Montoya remarks that: 

Cummins got a reported seven-figure deal to humanize us poor Mexicans. When have you ever in your life heard of a Latina author being offered that much to write about her community? We need not look further than the fact that publishing is one of the whitest spaces ever.

Bookstagrammer @nastymuchachitareads spoke on the issue with publishing in her stories. She speaks on her experience working for a Big 5 publisher (Macmillian) and how hurtful it was for her to work in an environment that celebrated a book that she found “deeply offensive” and how her attempts to help the industry grow by joining a diversity and inclusion committee were thwarted at every turn by an industry that didn’t really want to commit to change. 

There has been some recoil by the publishers in light of the dialogue online. Cummins tour was canceled, citing concerns for her safety at events, so while the commentary from Latinx readers and authors is causing a shift in the reception of the novel, it is still being framed in racist ways. It assumes that Latinx people would be dangerous to Cummins and frames her as the victim in this situation. The controversy is continuing to be framed by white audiences as a Twitter lynch mob going after someone who just wanted to help. It’s disgusting and wrong. 

For me, David Bowels said it best:

Ah, and there’s the rub. White folks and other non-Mexican Americans in the US: you CANNOT judge for yourselves whether American Dirt is authentic. You’re going to have to trust Mexicans and Chicanx folks. I know that runs counter to the upbringing of so many. I know it defies our national discourse.

Pero ni modo. That’s too bad.

At a time when Mexico and the Mexican American community are reviled in this country as they haven’t been in decades, to elevate this inauthentic book written by someone outside our community is to slap our collective face.

It doesn’t matter if white readers like the novel. This is what the Latinx community is saying and we need to listen. I hope you’ll join me in boycotting this novel and raising Latinx voices who are fighting it as well as raising Own Voices who are writing this novel, but better. 

Here are some other authors to read instead.

 

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