My Thoughts on American Dirt- It's a Problem

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins hadn't been on my radar much at all, but then I noticed a few mentions here or there and my ears perked up. I did some research (this was a few days before the pub date) and quickly ascertained that there were many Latinx readers and writers who were ranged from celebratory to skeptical to downright furious. There were accusations of cultural appropriation, underlying problems in the publishing world, and the issue of whether this woman, who had only apparently only recently started noting her like 1/4ish Latin roots, had any right to write about Mexicans trying to make it over the border. Twitter was becoming unhinged, as were the comments on various other platforms. The media quickly intervened after Oprah decided it was her selection for her book club and basically everything blew up once Cummins was quoted gushing about her book party that was complete with flower arrangements wrapped in barbed wire. 

My gut told me that there was a problem immediately. I am a middle class, educated, liberal white woman- I have not experienced the struggles of race and immigration and I try to really pause and listen to those who have more knowledge on the topic (many of my students have, though, and they have taught me a lot). I wrote a few years ago about how I learned about white privilege and was initially a little defensive when I first heard the term- since then I have worked to stop, listen, empathize, and learn as much as possible. And this was one of those occasions, for me. If people who had more of a connection to the story's circumstances than I did I had to listen to their concerns. And so I did. I read a lot of articles, I fell down the rabbit holes of Twitter threads, and I reached out to a few people for their input. 

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about the angrily questioning side is that they're saying Jeanine Cummins shouldn't write this because she's not Mexican, undocumented, or even an immigrant. Sure, there are people who are saying this, but the majority are angry about the fact that publishers haven't given this sort of attention to writers more apt to identify with the situation better. They haven't gotten these sorts of acceptance, advances, or press. There really are few people, in my research, who are explicitly saying "a white woman can't write a Mexican's story, a man can't write a woman's story, a young person can't write an on old person's story, etc..." Sure, if you do decide to go this route you, to paraphrase Colson Whitehead, better do a damn good job. I do think that a lot of times a story will me more authentic if it's coming from someone with more experience, though, which makes sense. You can research the hell out of something, but without that inherent, strong bond to what you're writing, it can be tough. I would never write from the perspective a trans person or from someone from the Middle East who has lived under incredible misogynistic control. Those stories would seem forced and fake coming from me. Again, this isn't to say it can't be done well, because it most definitely has, it just gets... complicated. 

There's also been a lot of criticism over cultural appropriation, some mistakes in some of the details she includes, and her casual "I totally get this fight because my husband was undocumented too," failing to mention her husband is Irish (my friend who is Mexican and lives near the border confirmed that there is a huge difference between being an undocumented white person and an undocumented person of color). 

Then, there are the people who love this book. And not just anyone, people like Ann Patchett, Sandra Cisneros, and even Lauren Groff was very complimentary. People have been moved by the story, riveted by the suspense, and, importantly, feel like they understand what it means to want to protect your family and flee for the United States, even if that means being in incredible danger. We live in a time where there is a serious lack of empathy and the fact that this book might show some people what it's like to want to desperately protect one's child, a universal motivator, is something that must be noted.

So, after all of this, I decided that the only way I could really judge this book and discuss it was to read it. I wasn't super psyched to add to the American Dirt coffers, but sometimes we have to bite the bullet. I went into the book trying to be as objective as possible; I admittedly had some bias considering where I stand politically, but I really did try to look at both sides. Here are some of my thoughts:

It's not exceptionally written
One of my complaints about her prose was that she seems to arbitrarily write some of the words in Spanish and doesn't just stop there- she puts them in italics. It's very much so overwritten; her descriptions are too wordy, she reuses types of comparisons, and her dialogue doesn't always flow. 

It does feed on the "Mexico bad, America good" mentality
This seems a bit self-explanatory, but basically no one in Mexico can be trusted, everything may be shot up, and everything will be amazing in the United States. 

Problematic plot components 
There are many. The main character, Lydia, is very smart, but she really seems to not think beyond the present much. There are also way too many positive "coincidental" occurrences that help Lydia and her son's journey proceed so quickly (like they meet two girls who have already had an in with a border coyote who will take them too, no problem). The fact that Lydia is in love, but not in love, with a huge cartel leader that her husband just happens to be writing about too, is just so easy. And I guess that's my biggest problem- it just feels like basic, easy story writing. There was a quick little answer for everything. 

It seems to be written to connect with middle class white-ish people
Lydia is an educated wife and mother who owns a bookshop that must flee with her son after her whole family is killed, meanwhile having plenty of financial resources to do so (she has cash, she finds cash, she takes and ATM card from her dead mom, which she conveniently had helped set up the pin for). She makes comments about her lengthy skin care routines, weekend getaways with her husband, and going to restaurants. And of course Mexican, German, Guatemalan, Japanese, and Iranian woman all partake in these habits. But there's something about how Cummins wrote this that made her want to badly to appeal to a book club of stay-at-home moms in Nebraska who probably sell R&F. Which is annoying, but, if I am trying to stay at least a tad objective, is also good, if it helps bring empathy towards people who don't normally have it. 

The author's note is irritating
She knows she wasn't the right person to write this book and even says she wished "someone more brown" would have. She also talks about how she "has a dog in the fight" in terms of immigration, since her husband was undocumented (Irish!) and she was always fearful when they were pulled over. Was her intent from a good place? I want to say yes, and that it was the intent of her publisher to go all publicity and money crazy. But was the impact positive? It seems as if she hurt the people she was trying, presumably, to help. 

It is entertaining, if you can get past the larger implications (I can't)
It's incredibly suspenseful from start to finish, there's a large group of characters introduced, many of which are endearing, and you do really root for basically everyone the entire time. What I would love is for a female LatinX director and screenwriter to do their version. 

So, that's where I'm at on this controversial book. I wouldn't recommend it to people- there will be no one receiving it from me this Christmas and I would 

No comments:

Post a Comment