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:
“My research started with reading everything Luis Alberto Urrea ever wrote. Then I read everything else I could find about contemporary Mexico and by contemporary Mexican writers. Then I read everything I could find about migration. Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey is magnificent. So is The Beast by the Salvadoran writer Óscar Martínez.” (from her Shelf Awareness interview: https://www.shelf-awareness.com/max-issue.html?issue=352#m743)
And American Dirt leans heavily into that source material. I don’t mean word-for-word plagiarism. Instead, the novel features scenes / elements from articles, novels and social media posts by Mexicans and Chicanx writers. Sometimes, ironically, Cummins depicts things that no longer exist (because she’s ripped them from older works).
You see, even after reading EXISTING works, Jeanine Cummins STILL felt SHE needed to write about the plight of Mexican immigrants. Ostensibly, however, she was conflicted and nervous.
On the one hand, she admits to Alexandra Alter of the New York Times: “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story.” And in the afterword of her book, she worries that “privilege would make [her] blind to certain truths,” wishing that someone “slightly browner than [her] would write it.”
But on the other hand … she still wrote it. After talking to various Mexicans on the border, this was her response: “Every single person I met made me more and more determined to write this book.” Cummins was concerned, she claims, that people at the border were being depicted as a “brown, faceless mass.” She wanted to give them a face. To be their white savior.
Of course, she conveniently forgot about the very #OwnVoices books she had mined for ideas and cultural texture.
In the midst of this literary amnesia, she decided to make millions off the pain and struggle of women from a completely different culture.
Her response to the criticism? She tells Alter, “I do think that the conversation about cultural appropriation is incredibly important, but I also think that there is a danger sometimes of going too far toward silencing people.”
When we criticize her, in other words, WE’RE the bad guys.
In addition to laying claim now to a Latina identity, she also cites her marriage to a formerly undocumented man as credentials for telling this story.
Of course, her husband is from Ireland. Not a lot of Irish folks in camps or cages, last I checked. I daresay Trump would go easier on … nay, welcome such immigrants.
Why does her identity even matter? Because she gets nearly everything wrong as a result.
Problem 2: The Content
For example, Cummins screws up Spanish egregiously (especially nuances in Mexican Spanish). First, when depicting Spanish-language dialogue as English, she sprinkles it with Spanish words, which is ridiculous (“Hola, abuela” is just “Hello, Grandma,” in English, not “Hello, Abuela,” as Cummins prefers). Even if we accept this as poetic licence to add cultural texture, she does it poorly, never using Mexican Spanish terms, just sterile, standard ones. If you’re going to add spice, make it chile, Jeanine. “Maldita sea” could be “chingada madre,” for example. “Horseshit” could be “pendejadas” (as David Schmidt points out in an upcoming negative review) and “bogeyman” should be “cucu” or “cucuy” (as Myriam Gurba clarifies).
Actual examples of Spanish are wooden and odd, as if generated by Google Translate and then smoothed slightly by a line editor. Take this note from Javier, the obsessed cartel leader, for example:
The Spanish is … not idiomatic at all.
Cultural references are often missed, and Lydia Quixano Pérez (what a name, huh) is ignorant of things that any Mexican knows. Take this exchange about the bad guy, an elegant cartel leader:
A “lechuza” is a screech owl. They have been feared throughout Mexico for literally THOUSANDS OF YEARS, considered harbingers of death, witches in disguise. Lydia’s reaction is that of the White readers, not actual Mexicans. And this is just one of literally dozens of examples.
People are stereotypes in this novel, participating in stereotypical activities (quinceañeras, for example). They live in a flattened pastiche version of Mexico, a dark hellhole of the sort Trump rails against, geographically and culturally indistinct. Lydia and Luca — despite having money — escape to the precious freedom of the US aboard La Bestia (that dangerous, crime-infested train) because of COURSE they do. But they don’t suffer the maiming, abuse, theft, and rape so common on that gang-controlled artery to the border.
It’s all very Hollywood, very best-selling thriller.
And the characters. Gah. I am close friends with people from all social classes in Mexico, including light-skinned, middle-class, book-loving women like the protagonist ostensibly is. But none of the peculiarities of those lives and experiences make their way into this novel.
Instead, Lydia and Luca feel like a White US mother and her son, with nominally Mexican names slapped on, sprinkled with a bit of lime and salt. They could easily appear in a Gillian Flynn novel with little adjustment at all. Furthermore, Cummins clearly wants us to be startled at how “erudite” and “elegant” some of the males are.
“OMG! Really?” I imagine some US reader gasping. “In Mexico? Aren’t all men uncouth swarthy beasts?”
And frankly, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Setting aside the melodramatic plot and mediocre writing, there is so much more to say, especially about how this book (which the editor characterizes as “a portrait of a nation and a people under siege”) does little to explore the complicity of the US in the violence wracking Mexico. In avoiding politics, Cummins ends up implicitly blaming the victim.
Hopefully in the weeks and months to come, others will join their critical voices to the small group of us making a stand, exploring other problematic elements of this dangerous work.
Let me be clear: because American Dirt contains multiple inaccuracies and distortions, the White US readership in particular will come away with a stylized understanding of the issues from a melodramatic bit of literary pulp that frankly appears to have been drafted with their tastes in mind (rather than the authentic voices of Mexicanas and Chicanas).
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.
Here are book you could read instead of (or in conversation with) American Dirt:
-Reyna Grande: Dream Called Home & Distance Between Us
-Luis Urrea: Devil’s Highway, Into the Beautiful North
-Cristina Henríquez: Book of Unknown Americans
-Ana Raquel Minian: Undocumented Lives
-Anabel Hernández: Massacre in Mexico
-Guadalupe García McCall: All the Stars Denied
-Yuri Herrera: Signs Preceding the End of the World
-Valeria Luiselli: Tell Me How It Ends
-Oscar Cásares: Where We Come From
-Alfredo Corchado: Homelands
-Javier Zamora: Unaccompanied
-Daniel Peña: Bang
-Sylvia Zéleny: The Everything I Have Lost
-Sara Uribe: Antígona González
-Silvia Moreno García: Untamed Shore
To close, here’s a poem I wrote in Nahuatl (an indigenous language of Mexico) in protest:
Xictzicalhuicān inīn ītlāllo cemānahuacatl,
in tlazōlli in mictlāmpa cah —
ticemanazqueh inic titetlatlaquechilīzqueh
in totlahtōllo nelhuayōtomāhuac …
zan tehhuāntin, nicān titlācah.
Keep that “American Dirt,”
the filth of the US —
we will keep telling our tales
and writing down
our thick-rooted history …
we, the inhabitants of this land.
*** For those who’ve complained about my decision to call the book “crap” and “trauma porn” (or the use of Spanglish and profanity in Myriam’s takedown of the novel), please note:
Our community (especially Mexican Americans on the border) has never been heard when we bow to faux civility and respectability politics. Indeed, it makes us “faceless,” as Cummins asserts. Voiceless. Needing a savior.
A la chingada con eso. Loud, rude and crude. That’s the ticket.
People who hate us won’t be swayed by our politeness, anyway.
Frederick Douglass said it best:
“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.”
You have to scream your right to exist. You won’t be heard otherwise.
UPDATES: For a deeper, nuanced conversation from a panel of Mexican American poets, professors, bloggers, librarians, poets laureate … watch this video: https://youtu.be/O3UrtFJtAYQ
Also, as part of the #DignidadLiteraria team, I met with Flatiron / Macmillan. Here’s the press conference announcing the commitment to Latinx equity the publisher made: https://youtu.be/2U8nEgaXzT4