American Dirt

I’ve been waiting for the controversy to die down before writing about it, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to, so here’s my two cents about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. In the book, Lydia, a bookstore owner, is forced to flee Mexico with her son after her husband and family are killed by a local cartel boss (at a quinceanera). She joins the migrants moving north, hoping to find refuge, but also learning about the people she travels with.

The book received high honors and praise; and was chosen to be the next pick for Oprah’s Book Club. Ms. Cummins also secured a film deal out of it. So with all that, American Dirt must be great, right? 

Not according to Myriam Gurba, an American author of Mexican descent. She was asked to review the book and had some choice words about it … none of which were good (her review, Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature, is worth the read). This is her best line:

“The nicest thing I can say about Dirt is that its pages ought to be upcycled as toilet paper.”

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but this seems to be the general consensus amongst Latino writers, who say that despite the author’s claims that she spent five years researching the book, Ms. Cummins’ depiction of Mexico/Mexicans is insensitive, flawed and stereotypical; perpetuating the ignorance around ‘the faceless brown mass at the border’ she claims she is trying to serve. Also complicating the issue is Cummins’ ethnicity: she identified as white in an op-ed for The New York Times in 2016, but now (conveniently) has Puerto Rican ancestry.

The internet, of course, exploded with offense (because the internet does that). The arguments went something like this: if the book brings attention to the immigration issue and gives a face to the people trying to find refuge in the United States, isn’t it worth the flaws? Also it’s just a book, a fictional story with no bearing on real life … what’s the big deal? The other authors are probably just hating because they didn’t get a book/film deal. Or they didn’t get picked for Oprah’s book club.

This, however, was the argument that hit home: only people of color can write stories of color. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I think people of color can probably tell their stories better than someone who hasn’t had the same experience. But I don’t know that I agree with that wholeheartedly. I think conditions have to be met. Actually, let me rephrase that: an investment by the author has to be made, an investment that includes research, but also a lot of blood, sweat and tears. You have to live that life, in the same way Jane Goodall lived amongst the apes she later became a conservationist for. If you can’t make that level of investment, you can’t represent the people or cause you’re trying to present.

This made me think about the stories I plan to write. Most of my main characters are Latin women, because it’s my experience. But reading all this has made me question whether I have a right to tell any story from the standpoint of a character who is of another race, or culture. Even as a Latin woman: I am of Puerto Rican and Costa Rican descent – am I qualified to tell the story of someone who is Mexican? If I am not mindful of the stereotypes I might be perpetuating, and if I haven’t done my homework on the culture, then the answer is no. My representation would be irresponsible.

That’s something I think is lacking in this book. Research doesn’t equal experience. And sometimes it’s better to walk away than hurt someone else with the pictures we paint.

I’m not one to tell anyone else what to read or what not to read, but I’m happy to recommend books: here, here and here are a few lists of great books to read instead of or in addition to American Dirt.

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