Last January, I posted “The Dirt on ‘American Dirt’” about the criticism of a novel by Jeanine Cummins coming out a best-seller. I hadn’t read it but saw political correctness running amok. Recently, I read the book.
I haven’t changed my mind.
Claims of “cultural appropriation” often go overboard. Personally, I believe a non-Jew can write a novel about Jews, including the Holocaust. Good stories are good stories. What might make me uncomfortable? Jewish characters agonizing over religious adherence and belief. You’re Irish Catholic or Black Methodist—draw on your own experience. But even if a non-Jew takes that leap, I won’t pre-judge. In spite of the odds, the author might get it right.
Authors of serious fiction are skilled at observing and analyzing people. Their writing increases our understanding of others. Most write about their own culture or mix of them. My protagonists tend to be Jews. I can explore certain feelings and behaviors with confidence. Many other characters are not Jews. It’s a big world. If I can’t write good non-Jewish characters, I’m no writer.
American Dirt deals with Lydia, a Mexican bookstore owner in Acapulco. I give nothing away stating that her journalist husband and extended family are murdered by a cartel leader. She knows him; he buys books from her. Lydia also knows that she and her son Luca will not be allowed to survive.
Cultural appropriation? Cummins never has Lydia contemplate the meaning of being Mexican or undergo an identity crisis re living in the U.S. The novel—plot-driven and gripping—might be termed “reportorial.” Lydia and Luca flee, and the road ahead is dangerous. Journalists of many ethnicities have report on the migrant situation tied to violence in Mexico and Central America. So, too, any novelist can write about any subject when the facts have been ascertained and the story is not so much cultural as human.
“I wanted to write about women, whose stories are often overlooked,” Cummins notes in an afterword. American Dirt is the story of a frightened but courageous and resourceful woman who could be of any nationality and ethnicity.
Cummins began four years of research before the America-bound migrant caravans assailed by Donald Trump. She empathizes. Cummins has a Puerto Rican grandmother. She herself married an undocumented immigrant—after he received his green card. He was the one who insisted on waiting. How does she relate to the novel’s violence? When Cummins was 16, two cousins were brutally raped and thrown off a bridge in St. Louis. She wrote a memoir, A Rip in Heaven. Why this particular story? There’s a major universal component. Cummins states, “We seldom think of them [migrants] as our fellow human beings.” American Dirt offers that much-needed perspective.
American Dirt also offers that while great violence exists in the world, so does love. Along Lydia and Luca’s escape route, many people—including fellow migrants and the rooted poor—perform unselfish—and risky—acts of generosity.
Cummins worried about not being Mexican. “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it. But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?”
At a time when so many Americans build walls to shut out others, we need all the bridges we can get.
As Yom Kippur approaches, I wish all Jewish readers that you be sealed in the Book of Life. And to everyone: Shalom!
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.