We Break Down the Controversy
I received a “Please call me!” text from my mother last week. I obviously panicked—only for her to immediately pick up the phone and ask, “You’re on Twitter. What’s the deal with this American Dirt book?”
If you, like my mother, are lucky enough to not be Extremely Online, you might be wondering why American Dirt, a book by Jeanine Cummins that stores are stocking to high heaven, that is all over the news, and that Hollywood is already going to adapt into a film, has gotten so much buzz.
The publisher is marketing the novel, which they amazingly only released last week, as a social-issues thriller about the immigration system. Critics, on the other hand, are describing it as “trauma porn”.
Protagonist Lydia runs a bookstore in Acapulco, Mexico, where she lives with her family; that is, until her husband’s journalism lands them in the crosshairs of a local cartel, and she and her son must flee to the U.S. as migrants. The book’s description from publisher Flatiron Books uses borrowed Spanish words like jefe, bestia and El Norte so you know it’s legit.
The problems with American Dirt are two-fold: Cummins is a white woman, albeit one who’s recently dug up a Puerto Rican grandmother to beef up her Latinx credentials, writing about the immigrant experience, which is controversial enough. But the publishing power and money behind the novel makes matters worse: Cummins reportedly received a seven-figure advance to write American Dirt. Flatiron announced its first print run would be 500,000 copies.
The book’s press budget must have been equally impressive, as it received glowing blurbs from the likes of Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros, and Oprah Winfrey announced it as the first 2020 pick for Oprah’s Book Club on its publication day. This has stirred up a dust devil of political anger and professional envy that doesn’t seem like it will die down soon.
A Dirty Timeline
The rhetoric around the book turned sharply negative when writer Myriam Gurba revealed that she’d penned a scathing review of the book for Ms., which the magazine then killed for being too negative, and eventually published it on Tropics of Meta. A lot has been said about American Dirt since Gurba published her essay on December 12, but her analysis is key and arguably set off this firestorm against the book and its author.
“Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs,” Gurba writes in her original review. “México: bad. USA: good.”
The New York Times reviewed American Dirt twice; Parul Seghal panned it in the daily paper, but it received a much more positive assessment in the weekly Book Review by Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies. Groff’s more complimentary review turned into a news item itself when the Book Review posted it to Twitter with the excerpt, “‘American Dirt’ is one of the most wrenching books I have read in the past few years, with the ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dreiser’s novels.” Groff responded, “Please take this down and post my actual review.”
Speaking to the marketing budget behind the book, the Times also profiled Cummins—largely about her fears of being “silenced,” which feels ironic considering that the New York Times was quoting her—and published an excerpt of the novel. Dozens of reviews (accompanied by lots of Twitter criticism) have since poured in to further develop the conversation around the novel.
When American Dirt published on January 21, the Oprah announcement came. “Hello, fellow book lovers! My next @oprahsbookclub selection is ‘American Dirt’ by @jeaninecummins. From the first sentence, I was IN,” Oprah wrote in a Tweet. The first line of Cummins’ novel is, “One of the very ﬁrst bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing.”
Literary Twitter went nuts:
Oprah, lounging in a silk robe, sipping her morning coffee, copies of Groff's and Seghal's reviews of AMERICAN DIRT on the coffee table. She picks up her phone and thinks: I'll show these literary girls what chaos is
— joshua gutterman tranen (@jdgtranen) January 21, 2020
THE HELP and AMERICAN DIRT were acquired by the same white woman, and that…tells you all you need to know about the state of publishing, Diversity, #OwnVoices, and the value the industry has for either of those last two.
Have a nice day.
— LL McKinney (@ElleOnWords) January 21, 2020
And the outrage continues. In the last 72-hours alone, Flatiron Books cancelled the American Dirt book tour, citing threats of violence. Conversely, Book of the Month club named American Dirt one of its February picks, in partnership with Oprah.
In a statement, President of Flatiron Books Bob Miller said the company is proud of the book, but regrets serious errors in how Flatiron rolled out American Dirt, saying, “We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland; we should not have had a centerpiece at our bookseller dinner last May that replicated the book jacket so tastelessly. We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.”
Most recently, Maria Hinojosa from NPR’s LatinoUSA interviewed four Latinx folks about American Dirt, including famed writer Sandra Cisneros, whose blurb features on the book’s cover. What emerged, overall, was a balanced critique of the novel and its author, but Cisneros vociferously defended Cummins’ work and encouraged those upset to write their own stories. Longtime immigration journalist Tina Vasquez also wrote about the migration issues at work in American Dirt for The Boston Globe, namely, that most migrants coming to the US are now from Central America, not Mexico.
More Than Just Cancel Culture
The question of Cummins’ identity and, more broadly, who’s allowed to tell certain stories has occupied most of the literary Internet’s brain space so far in the New Year. Cummins herself grapples with this question in American Dirt’s author’s note, recognizing that this may not be her story to tell, while also pointing out that she married to someone who was formerly an undocumented immigrant (from Ireland).
“I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it,” she writes. “But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?”
From the outset, Cummins approached American Dirt as a book about Mexicans by and for non-Mexican immigrants—and, as many critics have pointed out, did so poorly. That a work that so imperfectly captures the experience it sought to should receive such institutional support, while most immigrant, Mexican and Chicano authors rarely do, is the crux of the outrage.
“American Dirt is a metaphor for all that’s wrong in Big Lit,” Gurba wrote for Tropics of Meta, “big money pushing big turds into the hands of readers eager to gobble up pity porn.”
A crucial ingredient in writing outside your experience is empathy, something that many argue Cummins lacked in writing American Dirt. The centerpieces at her book release party or her recent manicure, for example, which primarily feature barbed wire to call to mind the US-Mexican border, denote a decided lack of feeling and understanding of the immigrant experience.
This could be a crappy book, sure, but there are a lot of those. Plenty have even been on Oprah’s TBR before. But American Dirt has become a microcosm of racism, privilege and disenfranchisement in the industry for talented, frustrated writers to pour out their frustrations. A chorus of contemporary writers signed a letter this week in Lithub, urging Oprah to reconsider her choice in American Dirt.
“This letter is not written to attack Cummins, a fellow writer whose intentions we can’t know,” it reads in part. “But good intentions do not make good literature, particularly not when the execution is so faulty, and the outcome so harmful.”
The letter continues: “[W]riting fiction is essentially impossible to do without imagining people who are not ourselves, However, when writing about experiences that are not our own, especially when writing about the experiences of marginalized people, still more especially when these lived experiences are heavily politicized, oppressed, threatened, and disbelieved—when this is the case, the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity becomes even more critical.”
Writer Tomás Morín, who signed the letter, tells Book & Film Globe: “See something, say something shouldn’t just apply at airports. The open letter says something meaningful about the important conversation American Dirt spurred.” He adds, “I signed it with the modest hope that I might fill in a bit of that ‘faceless brown mass’ Cummins mentions in her author’s note. In 2020 is it still too much to ask to be seen as a human being?”
Yet, for anyone concerned about the reach of the anti-Cummins censorship and cancel culture, it’s worth noting that American Dirt is, as of this writing, #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list and #1 on Amazon Charts, which notes, “There were more pre-orders for American Dirt than any other book on this list.”