Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | February 2020 | 20 minutes (5,591 words)
I first heard about American Dirt from Myriam Gurba’s scathing critique of the novel on Tropics of Meta. Her take immediately made sense, and it jolted me. Back in graduate school, I — a white, American woman — had written a novel about Mexico. I had lived there with my husband, Jorge, who is from Oaxaca, for five years. Many of our friends are Mexican; my extended family is Mexican. I speak fluent Spanish. I normally write nonfiction, and this was the only piece of fiction I had ever felt pulled to write. It was about a pregnant 17-year-old Oaxacan woman who adopts a dog. Yes. Really. I very briefly flirted with the idea of trying to publish it and was told that no one would want to read a novel that featured a Mexican protagonist — could I find a way to make the main character American?
Later, as I worked on a nonfiction book about return migration to Oaxaca, I received the same response: Could I make an American — myself, possibly, or a “young girl” living in Mexico — the main character, instead of this 35-year-old indigenous man who’d moved from L.A. back to his tiny village in the Sierra? That book didn’t sell. I was too scared to send out the novel, and I still am. As a nonfiction writer I can position myself, inquire about the limits of my understanding, push on them by asking questions. Writing fiction, one is fully laying claim to a world.
So I wanted to read American Dirt because it was written by a white American woman about Mexico, and as a white American woman who writes about Mexico, I thought it crucial to understand the source of the outrage. I went in trying to keep an open mind about Cummins, knowing how difficult and miserable and thankless it often is to be a writer; I went in with the assumption that her errors came more from ignorance than arrogance. But then I started reading.
Writing fiction, one is fully laying claim to a world.
My marginalia in American Dirt is a trail of growing outrage, beginning with circles and question marks, progressing to “NOOOO!” “EW!!” and “ARE YOU KIDDING ME.” I never make notes in books. This one, though, contained an outlandish error on nearly every single page, to the point where it started to seem like an absurd game: Which of These Details Does Not Belong?
The characters at the “barbecue”/quinceañera in the book’s opening scene eat potato salad and drink fruit punch. The hallways of their Acapulco home are carpeted. Their neighbors have blinds on the windows. Sixteen of these characters — including, of course, a quinceañera, as well as a young boy still in his soccer uniform — are assassinated by narcos in one quick go. Only Lydia, the owner of an independent bookstore, and Luca, her 8-year-old son, escape by hiding in the bathroom. The narcos, in spite of the fact that their aim has been to wipe out the entire family, apparently give up immediately on finding the mother and son, preferring instead to munch grilled chicken over the dead bodies. Then policías come and a kindly policía gives Luca a nice cold refresco. This was when Jorge doubled over, cracking up. “Wait!” I told him. “There’s more!”
Lydia, an upper-middle-class woman who thinks Los Simpson is too vulgar a show for her young son and who purchases designated “church shoes,” has no problem sassing these policemen, insulting them, and using words like “piss.” The main detective does not take issue with this, but rather is meek and remorseful, telling her, “I know how it must look, every murder going unsolved, but there are people who still care.”
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No mames, Jorge is saying, NO MAMES, but I tell him wait for it, wait for it: This upper-middle-class family drives a “1974 Volkswagen Beetle” with “a smattering of rust on the back bumper.” At this point we’re both hysterical, partly with hilarity and partly with fury. How is this POSSIBLE, I keep saying. How is it possible?
Over the three days I read the book, Jorge and I debated how I should write my review. He told me not to get caught up in the details, but I insisted: A novel is the details. It is, in fact, the accrual of meticulous and deliberate details into a world, a story. He says, Yes, OK, maybe, but he doesn’t want the bigger picture to get lost, the fact that a book that gets Mexico and Mexicans so wrong can be published to enormous fanfare as the Quintessential Border Novel of Our Time. Some of the debate around American Dirt has tried to distinguish “the issues” the novel raises from “the story,” but the story is the issue, and the details are what make the story.
Some of the debate around American Dirt has tried to distinguish ‘the issues’ the novel raises from ‘the story,’ but the story is the issue, and the details are what make the story.
It’s too easy for the discussion around this novel to devolve into abstract debates about who gets to write about whom. As John Warner pointed out in The Chicago Tribune, this is not the point: It is clear in 2020 that writers can and will deal with subjects outside of their own experience or background, foreign or other in some way. Many writers have done it with tremendous skill and impact: Katherine Boo writing about India; Adrian Nicole LeBlanc writing about the Bronx; Peter Hessler writing about China. In a statement, Flatiron Books assured readers that it’s “carefully listening to the conversation around the novel, including the question of who gets to tell which stories.” But the question of who gets to tell which stories has become something of a red herring here, meant to distract from the story itself. In the comments on a Publisher’s Weekly piece about the backlash to the book, an older white librarian named Terri writes: “The author presents a timely message ensconced in a compelling story of a mother who will stop at nothing to protect her child. Bravo to Jeanine Cummins for her research and dedication to this story. I’m a librarian and I’m handselling this book right and left.” Another older white librarian likes this comment. Another white woman, Nancy, comments: “Ms. Cummins is a novelist. That means she uses her imagination to create stories. We should do nothing but applaud her for writing an entertaining story.” Another, Pam, adds: “Reading it now and it is good, if Mexican folks and others have a problem with it write your own and I sure will read them anytime!!!” In perhaps the most glaring example of just how problematic this red herring is, Zibby Owens writes on Medium, “I don’t care that Jeanine wasn’t a Mexican refugee herself — or even Mexican. That’s entirely beside the point. I don’t care what her race, gender or nationality is…Did I miss a memo? Since when do authors have to actually be like to characters they portray in fiction? Isn’t that the whole point of fiction? That writers can conjure up entirely new people, new scenes, and new places that somehow take us readers out of our own minds and into other worlds?”
The problem is that Mexico isn’t a “new place” Jeanine Cummins can populate with “new people” through pure imagination. Mexico is an actual place, where actual people live; Mexican migrants are real human beings. Cummins can write about Mexico all she wants — but she will be judged on whether her writing actually captures the experiential and emotional and ethical complexity of that place, and she will be judged with extra care because she is an outsider. It seems, however, that many people find it odd that she should be judged at all, because this is merely “a story.” This is where this particular debate about who gets to tell which stories becomes dangerous: It ignores the story itself. It treats stories as if they are fanciful things, like cookies or shoes, that we should just be able to enjoy without getting bogged down in politics. As if stories have nothing to do with people’s actual lives, with shaping people’s worldviews and belief systems, with how people perceive others who are different from them. Yet as the novelist Richard Powers has pointed out, you can’t change people’s minds with facts. You can only do it with story. Stories are among the most powerful cultural mediums we have.
So the details matter. The myriad ways in which Cummins superimposes white American ways of being onto Mexican lives matter, because they prevent the people whose minds Cummins supposedly wants to change from seeing anything but what they already presume to know. Cummins creates a narrow sliver of victimhood within which migrants must live. As one white female reader put it in her five-star review on Goodreads: “At its heart, this is a novel about victims and there are victims aplenty.”
This narrative is not limited to fiction. I have seen it crafted and enacted in real time by organizations working with migrants. Certain details are omitted from their stories, others slightly modified, others emphasized in an attempt to make them perfectly palatable to a white audience whose money and empathy the organizations need. The violence and threat migrants face are always paramount, as is their inability to survive any longer in their country of origin. Anything that mucks up the moral clarity of their stories, and of a larger narrative of migrants as tragic victims, is carefully excised, like the fact that some migrants may leave not because of immediate danger or even poverty but because of a subtler stagnancy, a lack of opportunity, or the desire to meet a spouse who left 10 years earlier. Obscuring these more complex factors in favor of the dramatic ones may achieve the immediate effect of eliciting the empathy of a large, and affluent, white audience. But it comes at a cost, and that is migrants’ full humanity. Their right to be something other than perfect vessels of empathy and safe admiration. I see this in my husband. I see it in the way he has to perform a perfect brownness at all times. In the way an uncle of mine once said to him, “So you must be so glad to be in America!” in spite of the fact that he never wanted to come here, that he was dragged here because of my graduate school. I see it in the people at a gallery opening who remarked to him, “Oh, Oaxacans! They are good people, really good hard-working people!” in a way that conjured up precisely the “faceless brown mass” Cummins evoked in her afterword. I see it in how, when he was interrogated by a police officer at a neighborhood block party, I suddenly felt the need to defend him as an ideal, upright citizen: a great dad, a diligent worker who’d started his own thriving business, a kind and generous member of his community, a caring husband! I see how I feel the need around my white family to paint him as a saint. This is an extremely fragile empathy: It is big enough only for the suffering of the other, their pure goodwill, and their gratitude.
The outsider writers whose work generates a more encompassing empathy are the ones who engage with the full humanity and complexity of their characters. I’m thinking here of Lauren Markham, whose beautiful, meticulously reported book The Far Away Brothers asked readers to follow its main characters, twin brothers from El Salvador, through struggles and decisions that are painful to witness — they drink too much, one gets his girlfriend pregnant, they are occasionally reckless with their precious little money — as well as the brothers’ connection, triumph, and emergent self-awareness. Markham’s empathy demands a reader contend with the enduring, complicated impacts of poverty, trauma, and exploitation, with how they can warp intentions and lives. Similarly, Katherine Boo’s entire opus is full of characters who ask readers to stretch beyond reductive and dismissive narratives of empathy — in fact, she references and debunks these narratives in her phenomenal piece about Katrina, “Shelter and the Storm.” I have my nonfiction students read this at the beginning of each semester, and we discuss the “classic American dilemma” Boo describes: “the belief that ghettoizing a disadvantaged population is morally wrong, joined to the conviction that the disadvantaged population might be a lot happier in the next county.” We talk about Jasmine, the young girl at the heart of the story, who is struggling to find opportunity in this disaster, and her mom, whose contempt for her children is raw and brutal, and the host of other characters from New Orleans whose stories fit neither the popular narrative Boo highlights of deserving victimhood and redemption nor its opposite of irredeemable vice. Boo’s writing constantly pushes on white comfort, asking readers to reconcile the story they want to tell or believe in their heads with the complex realities of poverty.
The outsider writers whose work generates a more encompassing empathy are the ones who engage with the full humanity and complexity of their characters.
I highlight these outsider writers because I want to debunk the claim that people are angry only because Cummins is an outsider, and also because I want to believe that I can be an outsider and still write meaningful, resonant stories about Mexico. Being an attentive and relentlessly curious outsider can be an incredibly valuable perspective: Jorge constantly changes the way I see the U.S., and I change the way he sees Mexico. We recognize elements and relationships the other takes for granted, see themes and connections the other misses, ask questions the other might not dream up. Being an outsider can create a friction that reduces complacency and forces an artist to think and work harder, pay closer attention, take more care, consider herself and her own positioning much more critically. Jorge and I have discovered, in the projects we’ve collaborated on in Mexico, that working in the terrain between cultures — between my American experience and his Oaxacan experience, between his experience as an immigrant in the U.S. and my experience living in Mexico — reveals layers and complexities and resonances we might never have noticed, opening up new fields of vision.
Being an outsider can create a friction that reduces complacency and forces an artist to think and work harder, pay closer attention, take more care, consider herself and her own positioning much more critically.
But the characters in American Dirt possess neither an insider’s experience and understanding nor an outsider’s curiosity and careful study. Ultimately, they are victims, pure and simple, as the novel’s enthusiastic white female readership reminds us. They are entirely good — abuelas singing to their loving grandchildren! Mamis whose total love for their children drives them to desperate lengths! Adorable urchins who would give their last dollar to support a stranger! Kindly bank tellers eager to sidestep bureaucracy to do a migrant a favor! — or they are entirely bad: spies and kidnappers and executioners and narcos who will stop at nothing to satisfy their greed and the bloodthirst of their leaders. The novel flirts briefly with moral ambiguity through the character of Lorenzo, a comic-book narco who says things like “What do I want? Shoot … Nice house, a little bling, a good-looking girl, and “Nah, I left all that behind in Guerrero … De verdad, new leaf.” The reader is asked right off the bat to judge him for his clothes and his tattoo and his past, and to be skeptical. And — rightfully so! Because Lorenzo is a bad guy. He tries to rape one of the angelic Honduran sisters from the cloud forest and is shot in the head by the other, who despite growing up a girl in a remote Central American village knows how and is boldly unafraid to shoot a gun.
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For me, the Honduran sisters were the novel’s most upsetting characters. They are, like Lydia and Luca and nearly every character in the novel, absurd constructs with no basis in Latin American reality, but since the cultural gap Cummins is trying to bridge here is vaster than it is with quasi-American Lydia and Luca, the spuriousness seems even more flagrant and problematic. Here is 14-year-old Rebeca, a Ch’orti’ girl who speaks fluent Spanish, talking to Luca:
We come from a really small place, only a little scrap of a village in the mountains, or not even a village, really, because of how stretched out it is, just a collection of different tucked-away places where people live … the city people call it a cloud forest, but we just call it home.
“Why cloud forest?” Luca asks.
Rebeca shrugs. “I guess because of all the clouds?”
Luca laughs. “But every place has clouds.”
“Not like this,” Rebeca says. “In my place, the clouds are not in the sky, they’re on the ground. They live with us, in the yard, sometimes even in the house.”
We didn’t really know that then, because it was the only place we’d ever seen, except in pictures in books and magazines, but now that I’ve seen other places, I know. I know how beautiful it was. … At night there was the sound of the tree frogs and the music of the rushing water from the falls and all the songs of the night birds, and Mami would make the most delicious chilate, and Abuela would sing to us in the old language, and Soledad and I would gather herbs and dry them and bundle them for Papi to sell in the market when he had a day off, and that’s how we passed our days.
I read this aloud to Jorge and he replied in singsong, “Awwwww, mis amigos the nubes!” Jorge, too, grew up in an indigenous village in the “cloud forest,” though no one called it that, and children weren’t greeting the perpetual fog as a loving Disney character. It’s all preposterous: The books and magazines these girls somehow had access to and perused in this village that isn’t even a village; the “old language” (still spoken today by thousands of people and by the girls themselves, though later referred to as their “ancient language”); the singing Abuela; the “night birds” who lack specific names; the starry-eyed idea of village life as a paradisiacal communion with the elements.
But then these girls, who grew up in this paradise, so innocent with their waterfalls and their big rock pools where they could take baths, are actually quite sassy. They are unafraid to speak truth to power. They are sarcastic. They confront narcos! Soledad, the older one, spins around and asks Lorenzo, the young narco who’s started following them, “Are you still here? Did we invite you to join us or something? Because I don’t remember doing that.”
These sisters are a grafting of white feminist American teenagerhood onto a romantic ideal of indigenous village life. I cannot emphasize how unusual it would be for girls from this background and situation to speak so boldly to powerful and dangerous men, or even bureaucrats, and how risky. This is American entitlement enacted for the satisfaction of American readers. The absurdity culminates for me in this moment, when Luca asks Rebeca why they made the journey to el norte, and she responds, “Sigh.” Then Cummins clarifies: “She actually says the word suspiro instead of sighing, which is funny despite the unhappiness of her expression.” An indigenous girl from a remote Honduran village, who has never before used a telephone, has somehow picked up the sarcastic social media–speak of American teenagers.
Lydia is her own sort of hybrid invention — a New York intellectual mommy given tangled black hair and deposited in Acapulco — but the Central American sisters felt like a more sinister violation: indigenous Central American girls whose brown skin is relentlessly referenced as they give voice to white American feminism. They aren’t the only ones. Every woman in the book is woke to her own oppression: Young Guatemalan girls in the cafeteria of the migrant shelter talk openly about the harassment of another girl, with one asking the other: “She tried to fight him off?” and the other responding, “Worse than that, she struggled but then seemed resigned to it … like she knew there was nothing she could do if he’d made up his mind. Qué chingadera.” Then the first replies, “They should be castrated, every one of them.” I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them has a little #MeToo button on her backpack.
Later, a mother of two from San Diego describes her time in a detention center by casually remarking, “Yeah, it was utterly dehumanizing.” I am not suggesting that migrants don’t recognize their circumstances as dehumanizing, but in talking to many migrants — some mothers separated from their children, many young men — who’ve spent time in these centers, I’ve never heard one use such a phrase. This is liberal social justice–speak inserted into the mouths of compliant characters. El comandante, a narco who kidnaps the migrants, helpfully quotes Trump almost verbatim for Cummins, even accurately aping his accent, declaring all migrants “bad hambres.” None of these characters depart from the safe confines of their political functions. It is telling that Cummins has Lydia constantly thinking fondly of Abuela — this is the word for grandmother, but for some reason Lydia uses it to remember her own mother. Abuela becomes almost a political category, a hollow vessel of pure goodness. There are no charged or negative relationships between mothers and children and certainly, heavens no, between children and their singing and lovingly castigating abuelas! There are no women who aren’t aware of and sassy about and actively fighting their own oppression.
Cummins is writing white American characters into Latin American bodies in a way that would be almost comical if it didn’t have such a massive reach and wasn’t in fact backed by an entire corporate publishing infrastructure. The book is a shameful reflection of how there are 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., yet most Americans know so little about them, their cultures, and their lives that renowned writers and millions of readers swallow this lump of stale clichés like, why not, an ice-cold Corona. No one will want to read a book about starving Mexicans, an editor once told Luis Alberto Urrea. No one will want to read a book by a writer with your name. Even to me, a white American writer: Can’t you make the protagonist American? How can such a laughably inaccurate and offensive misconstrual of Mexico and Mexicans engender an auction among the country’s leading publishing houses, a seven-figure advance, a massive publicity and marketing campaign, and the accolades of leading figures in media? One answer is that publishing is a closed loop, a self-fulfilling prophecy: People will want to read what publishing thinks they want to read, and thus what publishing thinks they want to read will be foisted onto them by aggressive marketing campaigns and New York’s dense insider networks. (How did so many people seemingly blurb/share this book without supposedly knowing what it was about?)
Cummins is writing white American characters into Latin American bodies in a way that would be almost comical if it didn’t have such a massive reach and wasn’t in fact backed by an entire corporate publishing infrastructure.
It is shocking not only how little people know about these immigrants, but how much some people think they know, because of a certain liberal persuasion and education, because Mexico is such a close neighbor and easily visited, because of some rudimentary Spanish, maybe because they’re from big cosmopolitan places celebrated for their diversity. Cummins’s snub of the Midwest in the novel was not lost on me: She almost seems to fetishize Indiana as the perfect representation of American ignorance. She introduces a group of young “blond Indiana missionaries” who are being supervised by friends of Lydia’s: a Mexican man named Carlos, and his American wife named Meredith. Lydia wants to use the missionaries as cover to escape from Guerrero. She’ll ride with them in their van from Acapulco to Mexico City. Carlos agrees. But Meredith, their Indiana missionary leader — golden-haired, pink-complexioned, blue-eyed — says no. It’s not fair, she says, “to their parents in Indiana.” Carlos tries to reason with her: “If the suffering of our friends means nothing, if those kids can’t be allowed to see us, to see Mexico as it really is, then what are they even doing here? Are they just drive-by Samaritans?” Then: “They just want to make pancakes and take selfies with skinny brown children?”
How damning this condemnation is supposed to be, and yet how ironic: This writer, who thinks “Qué onda, güey?” is obscure Northern slang and has her Mexican characters use metaphors like “fine wine” and “warm bread” and expressions like “safety first,” soliloquizing here about these innocent blond girls from Indiana who can’t see Mexico as it is. Poor backward Midwesterners. They braid one another’s hair in the van en route to Mexico City and they are so, so scared when they get to the roadblock. “Their inexperienced missionary nervous systems are flooding their bloodstreams with chaotic hormones”! All of this is topped off by one of my favorite of the novel’s gaffes: The van is stopped by a teenage narco, a “boy jefe,” who leans in the van to ask where the girls are from. “They don’t speak much Spanish,” Carlos tells him. “They’re from Indiana.” Presumably, this teenage narco in the middle of Guerrero instantly understands the reference to U.S. Midwestern backwardness.
It does not surprise me that Cummins’s arrogant ignorance about Mexico should extend to the Midwest. This section reminded me of all the pieces by New York writers who parachute into Ohio or Iowa to interview a few Trump voters, hang out at a diner, and tweet, in one memorable example, about how far they have to drive for almond milk. O, backwater! I will make the unpopular argument here that American Dirt made it as far as it did — major auction, major advance, huge publicity — in part because of literary New York’s cultural myopia. It is notable that much of the initial criticism of American Dirt came from elsewhere and also that Cummins herself is a New Yorker. New York seems a place that is often unwilling to examine its deep and ironic parochialism, and this is one of the results.
Parul Sehgal has pointed out how clumsy the writing is in this novel; even more jarring is the incongruity of the language with the setting and the characters. Cummins seemingly has no idea that she’s writing about a country in which people speak a different language, other than sprinkling random italicized words in Spanish into the text: balón de fútbol, galletas, el comandante. Every time I saw the words balón de fútbol I heard a blaring gringo accent in a Spanish 101 class. Yet words that are ubiquitous and colloquial in Mexico, like “papel picado” or “sombrero,” remain in English: pennant flag, cowboy hat. Meanwhile characters say things like, “Hello, little jet-setter!” or “I have one of those faces,” or “some fresh new kicks” or “Godspeed!” or “I shall try to be enough,” or “If we survive this, I shall be very proud,” or my favorite, declared by a “large, mustached man” wearing a cowboy hat and wielding a machete, “Tell them that long, long ago, you met a nice man in Guadalajara … and … he swung his machete around to make sure the knuckleheads didn’t get any ideas.” The knuckleheads.
Cummins trots out all the stereotypes: Soledad, one of the Honduran Ch’orti’ sisters from the cloud forest, has a triumphant moment of reckoning in which, Cummins declares, “she looks like an Aztec warrior.” Similarly, Lydia comes into her own, confronting her narco lover: “She is a tornado. She’s an eruption. She’s an huracán.” And, as a bonus, here is a smattering of mustache references I collected:
He was careful not to get foam on his mustache
He smiled at her in a way that made his mustache twist
His mustache quivered as she considered him
He stands and announces past his mustache
A large, mustached man is sitting on a bench
Then he pauses for a moment to smooth down his mustache with his thumb and index finger
They have the same weather beaten faces, the same neatly trimmed mustaches
A mustache that looks like it’s been growing on his face since before they became ironic
So many details add up to farce: Lydia has grown up in a country where every security guard and policeman and baby-faced soldier wields a giant automatic weapon and yet she is terrified to see a teenager holding an AK-15 at a roadblock. She believes that as an upper-middle-class woman, a public bus will provide her and her son a kind of “natural camouflage,” as if they’re just “out for a day’s shopping,” like, you know, the ladies of Acapulco tend to do, heading around shopping by public bus! Lydia runs a funky, strikingly American hipster kind of indie bookstore in which she actually sets a little chalkboard outside with a cheeky phrase on it: “BOOKS: CHEAPER THAN AIRLINE TICKETS.” Customers come in and read and chat and ask questions like, “You have a book club here?”
By this point Jorge and I had developed a series of inside jokes around the book, and each time I’d interrupt him to read aloud I’d say, “Oye, mijo!” and he’d respond, “Qué quieres, pendeja?” I nudged him in the shin. “The narco, the one who runs the whole plaza now in Acapulco? Who has a daughter in a Spanish boarding school? Guess what he brought her to show her his love?”
Conchas cost about two pesos apiece at the market. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine Mexico’s top narco bringing his beloved a concha.
It goes on and on. The U.S. cultural references exported with blithe disregard for context: for example, the Central American migrant man who diffuses the tension caused by a narco prowling around atop La Bestia by asking him, “Looking for the café car, amigo?” to the amusement of all the other migrants, who find this Amtrak reference hilarious. Or the expression “Tax pesos at work,” used to describe new railway infrastructure. Then there are the clothes. Multiple descriptions of cardigans. Lydia poses for a photo for the contact page of her website in leggings and a sweater: Besides the fact that she lives in Acapulco, a woman of that class in Mexico, particularly one fastidious about dressing for church, could hardly be imagined in this outfit for her professional profile picture. Every distance in the book is in miles. People eat lima beans and black licorice, drink wine and ginger ale. Lydia muses about the humanity of her narco captors, asking whether, after they kidnap and murder migrants, they go home to their families to eat … pot roast. It is relentless.
Sometimes, Cummins just comes straight out with her message as the narrator: Mexican kids, she tells us, “rich, poor, middle-class, have all seen bodies in the streets. Casual murder.” Ah yes. All of our nieces and nephews, in Oaxaca, Mexico City, Monterrey — they’ve all seen those bodies in the streets! Casual murder! It’s just everywhere! Can’t miss it!
In these sections, I got truly angry. I wanted to have empathy for Cummins. But painting Mexico as a place where every child has seen a murder has real consequences: As much as empathy, it can engender contempt for Mexico as just another of Trump’s “shitholes,” a simple place of corruption and bloodbaths.
This is not, ultimately, a book about Mexico. It’s a book about Americans: about how Americans see the rest of the world, about how they would like the U.S. to be, about being the right kind of American. It feels at times like a massive, bound, Facebook post, with all the stiff, righteous, romantic crusading best suited to that form. The people here are no longer people but issues, and their stories are lessons. Yes, the novel is gripping. Yes, I see why people can race through it, why it seems like it generates empathy for migrants. But it generates empathy only for a specific kind of migrant, a figment of the American imagination: the perfect victim, worthy of admiration and charity, foreign in the most familiar of ways.
In her interview with Maria Hinojosa on Latino USA, Cummins seemed to believe that her book had been derailed by anger about disparities in publishing, by “issues” related to her being an outsider and getting a big advance. I don’t think she recognizes that the anger derives from the story itself: not from what the writing represents, but from what it contains, evokes, and reproduces — a type of American un-seeing, a type of American erasure. Cummins wanted to be a bridge, but a bridge has to have a solid foundation on both sides of a gulf, and ultimately, her bridge is planted firmly in American dirt, swirling up and up into American illusion, never landing on the opposite bank.
NOTE: I want to include here a reading list of Latinx writers on American Dirt. Please read and share their work! This is such an important conversation and I hope we keep it alive.
The review that started this whole conversation, by Myriam Gurba: “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”
Esmeralda Bermudez, “‘American Dirt’ is what happens when Latinos are shut out of the book industry”
Daniel Hernandez, “‘American Dirt’ was supposed to be a publishing triumph. What went wrong?”
David Bowles, “‘American Dirt’ Is Proof the Publishing Industry Is Broken”
This letter from 82 writers encouraging Oprah to reconsider American Dirt.
This Latino USA episode.
Support and follow the #dignidadliteraria campaign on social media to turn this debacle into greater opportunities and exposure for Latinx writers.
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Sarah Menkedick is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America, forthcoming from Pantheon in April 2020. Her first book, Homing Instincts, (Pantheon, 2017), was long listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has been featured in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Guernica, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-2016 Fulbright Fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a 2019 Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellow. Follow her on Instagram @familiasantiago. Visit her website at http://www.sarahmenkedick.com.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross