Posts Tagged ‘“The Grapes of Wrath”’


They’re at it again. The new novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has drawn lots of attention. Following a major publicity campaign by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, American Dirtreceived a number of terrific reviews. Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club (Flatiron published four of Oprah’s books), the ultimate U.S. sales driver. Then the dirt flew.

Although bestselling crime/mystery author Don Winslow (published by William Morrow) cover-blurbed, “A Grapes of Wrath for our times,” and other leading writers praised the novel, a number of Latino/Latina/Latinx authors, critics and social commentators stomped on American Dirt.

Many of those opposed to American Dirt haven’t read it. (Neither have I.) The issue: Jeanine Cummins is white with a single Puerto Rican grandparent. That should disqualify her from writing about Mexicans fleeing to America. Imagination? Empathy? Writing chops? Not in play.

From what I’ve read about American Dirt, the novel offers an inventive take on the Mexican migration story. The heroine, Lydia, owns a bookstore in Acapulco. She gets involved—at least regarding books—with a charming man, who turns out to be the head of a drug cartel. Lydia’s husband, an investigative reporter, writes about the drug lord. Cartel gunmen then slaughter Lydia’s family. Only she and her son Luca survive.

One critic asked why Lydia didn’t fly to Canada since she had the means. It seems there’s an answer. The drug lord can reach any nation but the U.S. (Why, I don’t know.) Traveling with poor migrants offers Lydia and Luca cover. But they discover that they must face the same horrors encountered by the poor and defenseless migrants whom they accompany.

So, Cummins offers a rationale for the story. Does American Dirtstand equal to The Grapes of Wrath? No idea. I suspect Cummins never asked for all the hype but, like all writers, welcomes it. I would. Of course, only by reading a novel can you judge it.

But these days, a story and writing skills aren’t enough. Opponents of cultural appropriation insist that particular stories can be told only by writers of proper race, ethnicity, sex or gender identification or preference.

Some critics of American Dirt don’t mind Cummins writing the novel she did. They just don’t want her to profit from it. (She received a seven-figure advance). A New York Times article quoted Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, whose new memoir covers crossing the border and growing up undocumented in California: “The problem isn’t that a non-Mexican wrote about migration.” It’s “the gross bastardization of the subject and the erasing of others who have written about this and are writing about it.

In short, American Dirt is being heavily promoted by its publisher and heading for great commercial success. Why should Cummins cash in and not Castillo and true Latinx?

Of course, the novel may be a literary dud. Times reviewer Paruhl Seghal writes, “The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.”

Fair enough. Ultimately, readers and awards committees will decide the worthiness of American Dirt. I hope their decisions will be based on the content of Cummins’ characters, not the color of her skin.

Or am I, as an Ashkenazi Jew, appropriating Martin Luther King?

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Merle Haggard died on Wednesday. I first listened to the Country Music Hall of Famer when I lived in San Antonio. One of his greatest hits stays with me—particularly in this election season.

I’m not a big country music fan, but country tunes still tickle me. As a writer, I appreciate that country lyrics are meant to be heard—to tell a story. I even wrote a country song for my novel Flight of the Spumonis: “A Good Ol’ Country Boy is a Sufferin’ Man.”

I love Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Bug.” She sings, Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. When it comes to explaining life and love, it doesn’t get better than that. And I’m drawn to Blake Shelton’s ode to rednecks, “Boys ‘Round Here.” Its great hook: Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit.

Back to Merle Haggard. One of country music’s fabled “outlaws”—he served time in San Quentin—he wrote “Okie from Muskogee” with Roy Burris. The song debuted in 1969. It was strictly middle American and silent majority. Haggard was proud of his roots. An Okie by descent, he grew up in Bakersfield at the southern end of California’s Central Valley. Oklahomans fled the Dust Bowl during the Depression in the 1930s for a better life in California. No one told their story better than John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.

As to the song, Haggard first twangs: We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don’t take our trips on LSD. We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street. ‘Cause we like livin’ right, and bein’ free. Haggard said the song was a tribute to his father, who died when he was nine. But there’s no question about it making a conservative political statement. Richard Nixon was serving in the first year of his presidency. Hippies challenged Nixon’s and the establishment’s views while much of a new generation protested the Vietnam War and embraced sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But not all.

Am I a closet redneck? Nope. There was much about the ‘60s I didn’t like, but I didn’t identify with Merle Haggard. We’re from different backgrounds and cultures. But living in Texas for six years gave me insights into other folks’ ways of looking at things. And I just loved singing along with that tune.

I note that the second verse includes We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do. I moved to San Francisco in 1974 and never looked back. I also note that for some time, a number of major country stars have worn long hair and beards—like the hippies they or their parents reviled. Times change. Attitudes change.

And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, Haggard sang. It’s incredible that someone can write and perform a culturally or politically oriented song that you don’t agree with all that much—or at all—and you still like it. As the race to presidential nominations moves towards its conclusion, I ask myself why there’s something special about hearing someone out even if they come from something of a different world. I answer: It’s because their world is different. Tearing down walls beats building them.

If you’ve been enjoying these posts—and you weren’t too bored to get through this one—suggest to family and friends that they check out Post something on Facebook, too. Give “Okie from Muskogee” a listen, too. And be proud to be whoever you are.

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