The buzz was huge.Until the backlash.
“American Dirt,” a novel by Jeanine Cummins about a Mexican woman and her son fleeing to the United States to escape cartel violence, came out last week and seemed poised to become one of the year’s biggest books. It made its debut at No. 1 on The New York Times’s best-seller list for hardcover and for combined print and e-book fiction this week. But the book has also encountered a backlash, with Latinx writers and community members criticizing Cummins’s depiction of the migrant experience and accusing her of appropriating it for profit.
To be fair, the New York Times can’t help itself from using “Latinx,” since they hope to turn the 2% of Hispanics that favor the word into subscribers when they get out of college and pay off their student loans, or Bernie gets elected president, whichever comes first.
A book about the Mexican women fleeing to escape drug cartel violence hardly seems problematic, given the array of movies about drug cartels, violence and the final episode of Breaking Bad. After all, drugs are real. Violence is real. Mexico has real women and, well, it’s only natural that there should be some overlap in there. And so Jeanine Cummins wrote a novel about it, except this time focused on a woman rather than Scarface. So what made it different this time?
Even before the book hit shelves this past week, a growing chorus of online critics was challenging the hoopla, accusing Ms. Cummins, who identifies as white and Latina, of having exploited the experience of migrants and repackaging it as opportunistic “trauma porn” for a predominantly white publishing industry.
When Oprah named the book as her club selection, all hell broke loose.
It was an extraordinary convergence of forces: Industry hype meets charges of cultural appropriation meets one of the most combustible political issues in America today, immigration.
And the reaction from the “Latinx” writing community was predictable. Roberto Lovato, a writer involved in the media campaign #DignidadLiteraria which promotes “Latinx” writers, explained.
Cummins “has a right to come out and share her book like any other author,” Lovato said. “We have a right to be critical of what we consider bad literature that doesn’t represent the serious issues that we deal with every day.”
But this raises an entirely different question. Is the outrage over American Dirt because Cummins “appropriated” Mexican culture, and an author who identifies as white isn’t allowed to write about anyone else’s culture, no matter what? Is the outrage due to the book’s reflecting a unsavory aspect of culture, rather than the uplifting and positive culture its detractors would prefer? After all, it’s a book about drug cartel violence, which isn’t the best thing Mexico has going for it.
Or is it, as Lovato contends, “bad literature”? The book was selected by Oprah, which suggests that someone thought it wasn’t so bad. But what about people who read the book before it hit the shelf?
Mainstream reviews, mainly written by white, non-Latino critics, were largely admiring, though there were some strong dissents. Parul Sehgal, a staff critic for The Times, called the book vivid in places, but predictable, clumsily written and marked by “a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin.”
Note the lack of mention of the “largely admiring” reviews in favor of the one that is less so. But then, those came from white, non-Latino critics. What of, you know, an actual Latina?
In the midst of the fallout, some writers who offered blurbs for the book have reconsidered. The Mexican-American poet and novelist Erika L. Sánchez, who had praised it as written with “grace, compassion, and precision,” said in an interview this past week that she wouldn’t have thrown her weight behind the novel had she known it would upset so many in the literary world.
So Sánchez appears to have really loved the book when left to her own discretion, until she learned that she wasn’t supposed to love the book and her cover blurb now put her on the wrong side of the culture war. Was the book written with “grace, compassion, and precision,” or not? That it upset “so many in the literary world” has nothing to do with how well it was written or whether she liked it. Is her opinion formed based on the book or based on the mob’s reaction to the book?
“It’s not so much who tells the story, but who gets to sell the story,” [Ilan] Stavans said of the outcry over “American Dirt.”
Had American Dirt been written by someone of more Latinx-acceptable heritage, would it be celebrated as an example of the acceptance of Hispanic writers on the American literary scene? Would the same story, shredded for its cultural negativity, have been applauded as a demonstration of literary acceptance of Latinx writers?
“If out of 100 titles that were published by mainstream publishers, 25 were by Latinos,” [Stavans] continued, “no one would be complaining.”
While Erika Sánchez’s flagrant display of personal cowardice and intellectual dishonesty might make Hitch cry, it’s not her book and she has no desire to make herself second in line to be burned at the stake after Cummins. The point doesn’t appear to be that the book isn’t good, but that the book wasn’t written by someone who “gets” to write the book, as decided by those of the correct cultural heritage who didn’t write the book.
Whether American Dirt deserves this outrage should be left to others. I didn’t read it, and neither did Selma Hayak, who first twitted her love of it and then retracted it when the mob descended on her for liking a book she was not allowed to like.
“As defenders of freedom of expression, we categorically reject rigid rules about who has the right to tell which stories. We see no contradiction between that position and the need for the publishing industry to urgently address its own chronic shortcomings,” it added. “If the fury over this book can catalyze concrete change in how books are sourced, edited, and promoted, it will have achieved something important.”
So this is wrong and bad, except it’s good and important if it starts a conversation. As long as it doesn’t publish a book by someone who doesn’t get to do so, forcing the rats to scurry away.