American Dirt is one of the most talked-about books of the season.
The novel initially received a great deal of positive press. It sparked a bidding war that ended in a 7-figure deal, garnered a movie deal with Clint Eastwood, was called "extraordinary" by Stephen King, and was picked by Oprah for her book club, guaranteeing its bestseller status.
Then the controversy erupted.
American Dirt tells the story of two Mexican migrants, a mother named Lydia and her child Luca, attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. It was written by a woman named Jeanine Cummins, who identified as white until very recently (she has a Puerto Rican grandmother).
Many reviewers have panned Cummins' book for its lack of empathy, its reliance on stereotypes and trauma, and its apolitical stance that seems intent on "humanizing" migrants but that fails to implicate America or its government.
"The book is riddled with gross misrepresentations of its subjects," writes David Schmidt for the Blue Nib. "Mexico is depicted as a one-dimensional nation, irredeemably corrupt and violent, while the United States of American Dirt is a fantasy land: a country free of gun violence, hate groups and organized crime. While the book ostensibly pushes a progressive message, it drives home a very Trumpist myth: 'crime and violence are Mexican problems.' If English-speaking readers assume that this novel accurately depicts the realities of Mexico and migration, it will only further the cause of disinformation and prejudice."
In addition to the criticism, the debate inspired a Twitter thread about "writing my Latino novel" that lampoons stereotypes about Latinx culture. It's also brought up serious points about the predominantly white state of the media and publishing industry and about who gets to tell what stories.
By most accounts, Cummins' narrative fails to responsibly represent its characters. Realistically, though, many people will see the criticism of American Dirt and will be filled with rage about how political correctness is infringing on freedom of speech. This is missing a deeper point (and no one is saying you can't keep working on your novel about a woman's sexual liberation, Mike).
The question isn't necessarily whether writers should be able to write about what they don't know (they should). The question is: Who gets to decide what voices get to speak? Is it really freedom of speech when certain voices are always louder than others?
American Dirt is, ultimately, the project of people whose voices have always been the loudest. It's the product of a whole lot of white literary establishment power, and ultimately it's a finely crystallized symbol of the colonialist mindset that is alive and well in the literary world.
Telling Others' Stories
"I'm of the persuasion that fiction necessarily, even rather beautifully, requires imagining an 'other' of some kind," writes Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. "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."
According to Myriam Gurba, whose excellent review was one of the first searing takedowns of the book, Cummins' novel does the following:
"1. Appropriating genius works by people of color
2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
3. Repackaging them for mass racially 'colorblind' consumption.
Rather than look us in the eye, many gabachos prefer to look down their noses at us. Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us. Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide."
The problem is not only that Jeanine Cummins felt she had the right to tell this story—it's that she told it insensitively, in a way that misrepresents the uniqueness of every migrant experience and instead crushes it into a stereotype and reshapes it for a white audience's eyes. If writing fiction requires a sort of alchemical synthesis of empathy, nuance, and razor-sharp awareness, then Cummins seems to lack all of these things.
Still, it's likely the book would not have been so heavily panned had it not received such extensive praise and hype. "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," writes David Bowles for Medium.
The ache and frustration in Latinx critics' responses lies not only in its content, but in the larger cultural context into which it was released. "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," Bowles concludes.
"The heart of the problem is that American Dirt is not really a story of Mexican migrants at all. It is the story of American entitlement, one that never questions the brute injustice of geography of birth determining opportunities in life. American Dirt is an accurate depiction of what Americans demand Mexicans and other brown people suffer to be allowed into the country," writes Rafia Zakaria for CNN.
Beyond the Political Correctness and Freedom of Speech Trap
If you look at the state of the publishing industry, it's easy to see why American Dirt slipped through the cracks. "According to the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, white people made up 84 percent of publishing's workforce in 2019. Publishing is staffed almost entirely by white people — and in large part, that fact can be explained by publishing's punishingly low entry-level salaries," writes Constance Grady for Vox. "Such salaries mean that the kind of people who work in publishing tend to be the kind of people who can afford to work in publishing… As a result, publishing is predominantly staffed with well-meaning white people who, when looking for a book about the stories of people of color, can find themselves drawn toward one addressed specifically to white people."
Meanwhile, people of color attempting to break into the industry often have difficulty if they don't fit into the white publishing industry's expectations of them. "We fight in newsrooms, boardrooms, studio meetings, book proposals, and other spaces where white editors hungry for all of our pain and none of our nuance serve as gatekeepers," writes Alex Zargoza for Vice. "If we do break through, we then have to battle editors who want us to create trauma p-rn for white readers to clutch their chest to and lament the savagery of the countries we came from are. We lose out on anything near a seven-figure deal, effectively punished for not wanting to do what Cummins did, which was treat ourselves like the pitiful emblems of pain liberal whites see us as, or bloodthirsty barbarians Donald Trump has made us out to be."
For all the doubts she expressed about writing the novel, Jeanine Cummins' statements following the controversy haven't helped her case. She's not exactly a sympathetic figure (she just earned a million dollars from a book, after all, and received a flood of glowing reviews early on). In the epigraph she wrote about her immigrant husband, Cummins writes about her fear that her husband will be deported. She fails to mention that he's an Irish immigrant, and instead essentially equates his struggles with those of the people she's trying to write about. She's even been banning critical tweets on Twitter, apparently, which is ridiculous.
Instead of shutting down this discussion and trying to paint herself as anyone but an outsider looking in, Cummins should be embracing the critiques. She should, for example, take one for the team and shut down the forthcoming movie deal, which would undeniably win an Oscar, if it were made.
She probably won't do that, though, because it's likely Jeanine Cummins still believes she is helping a cause. She also probably cares about what's going on at the U.S.-Mexico border, which—to her credit—is more than the half of America that voted for Trump can say. She also apparently spent five years doing research, though it clearly wasn't enough, considering all the errors in her book.
Cummins also probably figured that, as a well-connected writer, she had a better shot at getting her book in the hands of millions—which was true, and this speaks more to the issues in the publishing and media industries than to the author herself.
Still, the conversation shouldn't get lost in criticizing Cummins or the book. This can, instead, be a valuable teaching moment, one that should be used as an opportunity for the literary world to learn and change. Without confronting the systemic racism embedded in the media and publishing industries, change will never happen. We have to learn to differentiate between a writer's freedom to write about anything they choose and a writer's (and the literary establishment's) decision to put forth damaging content under the guise of social justice or "resistance" literature.
The publishing company (Flatiron) and agencies that made American Dirt into such a success probably felt they were also working in support of a good cause. But the hurt that the book has caused many Latinx (and many non-white) readers and writers should be a lesson for anyone trying to write about things that are unfamiliar to them, or to anyone deciding whether to promote a book, especially a book by a white writer about a sensitive, very nuanced and political issue that's playing out in real time and that's already being written about by people who are actually experiencing it.
In general, the publishing industry needs to ask itself a lot of questions based on this feedback. These questions could include: Has the book been read and vetted by people who actually lived the experience it describes? Has the author of this book done justice to the nuance of the issue? Does the book play into stereotypes? Does it fetishize trauma? Why is this story being told? Is it helping the issue? Why is the author telling this story? And is there anyone who would be even a little bit offended that a symbol of division and pain—such as, say, barbed wire reminiscent of a certain border—might be used as a centerpiece at a book release party?
American Dirt, Sehgal concludes in her delightfully scathing review, "is determinedly apolitical. 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."
White sympathy can be dangerous. In truth, a great deal of the migration flows currently stemming from Central America were created by American drug wars and violence that ensued from American-sponsored coups and violence. If American citizens are so desperate to do something for migrants, then it needs to start with uplifting their voices and compensating them for their work on their terms, whatever those terms may be—not telling stories that attempt to "humanize" someone but that actually further reinforce preexisting stereotypes and spread misinformation.
American colonialism has long operated in the tradition of invading and entering another country on the basis of a deluded idea that the Others need to be "saved" and that the invasion is for their own good; and charitable nonprofits often fall into the same trap, air-dropping resources instead of working with communities, thus creating cycles of dependence and collapse. Clearly, entering someone else's territory (or invading their story) is not always an optimal strategy.
Colonization has long been an accepted practice in literature, too; remember that Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a white man named Arthur, and The Help was written by a white woman—which received similar criticism for its treatment of Black characters, and which was, ironically, published by the same person who published American Dirt.
The question of whether it's possible to write about "the other" through a postcolonial lens is a labyrinthine, almost unanswerable one, but we don't even have to go down that winding road now. Instead, maybe well-meaning allies can start by practicing solidarity and deepening interpersonal relationships with people impacted by issues at hand, by supporting on-the-ground organizations like Cosecha and RAICES (or any of the names on this list), by understanding that there is—to say the absolute least—no one "migrant" or "Latinx" "experience," and by asking questions, and then shutting up and listening for once.