American Dirt by Jeanine Cummings

“American Dirt” is arguably the most controversial book of the year and it is only February. It tells the story of a middle-class bookshop owner in Mexico, who must go on the run with her child after 16 members of her family are gunned down due to an article published about the local cartel by her journalist husband. The story tells the mother and son’s journey north and their attempts to get over the border and into the perceived safety of the United States of America.

I will talk about my feelings regarding the quality of the book later in this piece, but the focus of the discussion must be on the controversy. Jeanine Cummings identifies as white and Latino due to her Puerto Rican heritage. She is not Mexican. Many Mexican and other South American reviewers and writers have been left disillusioned, angry and hurt by the stereotypes portrayed in the book of illegal immigrants trying to get to the United States and the Mexican culture in general. As someone who has never visited South America, the impression given of Mexico in this book is one of intense violence, danger and poverty. I also have no concept of what it might be like to be an immigrant, illegal or otherwise. Neither though, does Jeanine Cummings. She has talked about the years of research that went into the book, the vast number of immigrants she met and the time she spent in Mexico, but does that mean she understands? I don’t think it does.

I’m not sure the reaction to this novel would have been quite so vitriolic if it wasn’t for the vast amount of money involved. Cummings was paid a seven-figure advance, there was a lavish launch party featuring barbed wire fence centrepieces (yes really), the publishing house circulated the story that Cummings husband was an undocumented immigrant, while failing to mention the fact that he was Irish, there was a huge book tour across the whole of the United States and endorsements for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Stephen King and even Salma Hayek, who praised the novel without even bothering to read it. This novel was supposed to be Flatiron Book’s big success this year. It had been hyped to no end and they clearly believed they had a smash success on their hands. Jeanine Cummings did do an awful lot of research, that much is clear, but the fact still remains that a lot of white people were planning on getting very rich on the basis of a novel written by a white person about brown people. And not a flattering story at that. I can’t help but imagine a white person writing a book such as The Underground Railroad, addressing slavery and the modern-day implications. In no way would that be acceptable. Yes, we do read and write fiction as an escape and to try and live in another world but there are certain parameters to what those worlds are and who is given the opportunity to tell these stories.

‘Lydia knows a little about los colonias of Tijuana because she’s read the books, because Luis Alberto Urrea is one of her favourite writers, and he’s written about the dumps, about kids like Beto who live there. The flare of recognition makes her feel like she knows him already , at least slightly, but the feeling is half-hollow, a shadow puppet. Because though she may understand something of the boy’s circumstances, she doesn’t know him.’

The problem with American Dirt best summed up in a passage from American Dirt.

While it is unacceptable that some morons sent Jeanine Cummings death threats based on a book she wrote, so much so that the rest of her book tour was cancelled, we shouldn’t let that distract us from the massive absence in publishing the work of people of colour. The mainstream publishing houses are only too happy to profit from the stories of those most marginalised in society and yet do absolutely nothing to promote, help or endorse them. Jeanine Cummings wanted to write a novel about immigration. Yes, her attempt was misguided and at times offensive, but the true blame lies with Flatiron, who were so desperate to make money they never bothered to stop and consider the implications of what they were publishing and who had written it. Jeanine Cummings writes that she wishes the book was written by someone “browner than me” but the fact is there are many, many writers who are browner than her that will never be given the opportunity to write a story such as this one due to the institutionalised racism of publishing.

3% of the publishing industry in the United States is Hispanic

The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 2019

For the record, I read the entire novel and I didn’t find it particularly enjoyable. The characters all read like cheap stereotypes, lacking any depth. I really struggled to care about any of them. I probably would have stopped reading had it not being for the fact that I wanted to write this piece. The story struggled hugely with its pacing and went vast passages without gripping me despite the whole point of the novel being the constant danger the characters are in. Perhaps my reading has been hindered by the controversy surrounding the book, but I simply didn’t think it was very good. I don’t believe you should buy or read this book.

I am going to end this piece by giving you a list of books by Latinx authors I have added to my ‘to be read’ list based on the research I did for this piece:

Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries, and the Fate of the Great Mexican-American Migration by Alfredo Corchado

Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester

Virgin by Analicia Sotelo

So Far From God by Ana Castillo

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

All the Agents and Saints by Stephanie Elizondo Griest

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