THE DIRT ON “AMERICAN DIRT”

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?

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

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4 Comments


  1. Tracy
    Jan 31, 2020

    I read recently that she added an author’s note to her book as follows:

    “I was worried that, as a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants,” Cummins wrote in the author’s note. “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”

    The problem here is that lots of someones slightly browner HAVE written it. I think that’s the main bone of contention here. I’ve not read the book and do not plan to. From reviews I’ve read, it’s derivative of other work and lacks real gravitas. Nonetheless, Cummins is going to become wealthy from this and as long as she pays her taxes, I’m ok with that.


    • David
      Jan 31, 2020

      Thanks, Tracy. I saw Cummins’ comments about her non-Mexican status. If she truly felt she didn’t have the right to write that novel, she shouldn’t have. But she did. I suggest that cultural pressures couldn’t quite outweigh her seven-figure advance. I’d take the money, too, if I had gone into the project with the intention of writing a good novel and done my research. I also think her comment was a sop to critics; she figured she’d get some blowback, although she may have felt it would not be legitimate based on the work she did. As to browner people’s novels on the subject–those, like American Dirt, should be judged on their content: story plus writing with intention overlaid. If their novels are better, Latinx writers do have a bone to pick with publishers. I have no idea what was on the mind of Flatiron’s editors. Of course, I think my novels hold up to or surpass many that are traditionally published. But I could be wrong.


      • Manfred Wolf
        Jan 31, 2020

        Hi David and Readers:

        The cultural appropriation idea is folly on so many levels, a dumb idea propounded by people who want to feel smart. Should Tolstoy not have created Natasha because he was male? It is I believe, part of the massive folly of our time to think that the exercise of imagination is less important than one’s identity.
        I could go on and on — and I HAVE in my columns in the incomparable West Portal Monthly. Look for “The Righteousness Mob,” Parts One through Four, by Manfred Wolf.


        • David
          Jan 31, 2020

          Thanks, Manfred. Some people prefer to put up walls rather than break down barriers. Perhaps that’s why “stay in your lane” has become such a pseudo-popular thing to say. Of course, this raises a question. Should people READ fiction about other ethnic groups and cultures? Won’t they misinterpret?

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