If you haven’t already, you’re going to be hearing a lot of praise for Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a novel about a Mexican bookseller who has to escape cartel-related violence with her son, fleeing to the US. Cummins received a seven-figure advance for this book.
And it’s harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama.***
Problem 1: The Author
Let me start with the obvious: Cummins has never lived even within five hundred miles of Mexico or the border. In fact, until very recently, she didn’t lay claim to the Latinx heritage that comes to her through a Puerto Rican grandmother. Just five years ago, she was calling herself white.
Latina or no, Cummins certainly isn’t Mexican or Chicana. That’s a problem.
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.
Such reception is especially harmful because authentic stories by Mexicanas and Chicanas are either passed over or published to significantly less fanfare (and for much less money).
There’s been strong pushback, especially Myriam Gurba’s masterful take-down of the book (that magazines refused to publish) and Parul Sehgal’s examination of how the book “flounders and fails.”
Author Daniel Peña characterizes the book in stark terms: “lab-created brown trauma built for the white gaze and white book clubs to give a textural experience to people who need to feel something to avoid doing anything and from the safety of their chair.”
US readers would be MUCH better off diving into one of the many books on immigration by ACTUAL Chicanx and Mexican writers that already exist. I mean, Cummins sure as hell did: