The Dirt on “American Dirt”

Author Jeanine Cummins’ new novel AMERICAN DIRT, published just last week, has been the subject of the decade’s first big book controversy.

AMERICAN DIRT follows a young Mexican woman, Lydia, in Acapulco; she, her journalist husband, and their young son Luca lead a comfortable life despite the drug cartels emerging in their city.  When her husband writes a profile on the jefe of the newest cartel, a man Lydia knows personally, she and Luca are forced to flee Acapulco as the story breaks; they begin a dangerous journey north to the United States.  From this description, AMERICAN DIRT may sound like a compelling narrative–I know it’s one that I personally would be interested in reading–but a problem arises when a privileged, non-immigrant white woman attempts to pen a story that is not hers to tell (no matter how much she lays claim to her Puerto Rican grandmother).

Cummins, who previously penned two novels and a memoir, A RIP IN HEAVEN, sold AMERICAN DIRT to Flatiron Books in 2018 for a seven-figure advance; in turn, Flatiron ordered a first print run of 500,000 copies.  Pre-publication, the novel earned a starred review from Kirkus and praise from numerous well-known authors across a variety of genres: Kristin Hannah and Ann Patchett, Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez, even Stephen King and his novelist son Joe Hill.  AMERICAN DIRT’s film rights were sold last January to Imperative Entertainment, the production company behind Clint Eastwood’s The Mule.  And it’s been chosen for not only Barnes & Noble’s monthly book club, but Oprah’s as well.

However, with all that early praise came an even greater amount of backlash.  It began on December 12 with a post by Chicana writer Myriam Gurba on the blog, Tropics of Meta: “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.”  Gurba refers to Cummins as “pendeja” (Spanish slang for idiot, bitch, etc.) and disapproves of author Don Winslow’s comparison of AMERICAN DIRT to John Steinbeck’s classic American novel, THE GRAPES OF WRATH.  From the title, it’s quite obvious Gurba is aggressively upset, and understandably so.  In her post, Gurba calls out the multiple inaccuracies Cummins’ novel contains regarding life in modern-day Mexico, and shares the story of how she came to read AMERICAN DIRT.

Gurba writes that “an editor at a feminist magazine” (later identified as Ms., the magazine founded by none other than feminist icon Gloria Steinem) invited her to review it and sent her a copy, but later killed Gurba’s review for being too negative, claiming her “takedown” was “spectacular,” but that Gurba lacked the fame for writing something so negative.  The editor offered for Gurba to re-write her review in a more positive light, but Gurba chose to kill the piece and instead published her thoughts on the academic blog Tropics of Meta, as well as on her own Twitter account.

Gurba’s piece inspired more writers of Mexican descent to come forward with their own thoughts on AMERICAN DIRT.  On January 18, Mexican-American author David Bowles published a piece of Medium entitled “Cummins’ Non-Mexican Crap,” in which he describes AMERICAN DIRT as “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama.”  He argues the multiple inaccuracies in Cummins’ book, specifically the way she writes about Mexico the way an American woman would, rather than from a Mexican perspective.

Then, in the days leading up to publication, The New York Times published not one but two reviews of AMERICAN DIRT.  The first, by book critic Parul Sehgal, appeared in the Times on January 17.  Sehgal brutally eviscerates the book; she writes that Cummins’ novel “flounders and fails.”  Two days later, in the Sunday Book Review, came a review by novelist Lauren Groff, which caused a controversy in and of itself.  Groff seemed to have originally written a semi-positive review which she later edited after having already submitted it to the Review; while publicizing her post on Twitter, the Book Review tweeted an excerpt from Groff’s original review, in which she writes: “’American Dirt’ is one of the most wrenching books I have read in the past few years, with the ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dresier’s novels.”  In response, Groff tweeted, “Please take this down and post my actual review.”  She then remarked, “Fucking nightmare.”  Later, Pamela Paul, editor of the Book Review, tweeted an explanation of the error, to which a frustrated Groff “gave up” and remarked on her appreciation of Sehgal’s own review.

Finally, publication day, January 21, arrived.  Literary Twitter remained in a feud-like state.  The controversy only escalated when Oprah, along with Cummins, appeared on CBS This Morning to announce AMERICAN DIRT as her latest book club pick.  Writers who had, until that morning, stayed silent, were suddenly speaking up.  Writer Valeria Luiselli, whose 2019 novel LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE, about the Mexican-American border crisis, was long listed for both the Booker and Women’s Prize, expressed her disappointment on Oprah’s selection.

Later, Luiselli reported that she was sought out by members of Oprah’s team.  Luiselli, who works as a Spanish-English translator for Mexican children who have come to the United States, reported that some of Oprah’s producers asked her for the contact information of any “illegal people” she knew.

Similarly, writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel THE SYMPATHIZER, expressed his thoughts; in multiple Twitter threads, he shares his disappointment that Ms. refused to publish Gurba’s negative review and that the publishing industry as a whole is extremely white.  He also expresses the failure of readers who believe literature exists to “humanize” other people (in this case Mexican immigrants) for them.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, images began circulating from an AMERICAN DIRT party Flatiron threw last May during BookExpo, an annual book conference and one of New York’s biggest publishing events.  The party’s centerpieces included barbed wire wrapped around a cement block flower vase; on Twitter, Cummins praised her publisher for their attention to detail, and writer friend Mary Beth Keane (ASK AGAIN, YES) remarked the centerpiece looked “just like your book jacket!”

In the days following publication, several attempts were made to re-create the narrative surrounding AMERICAN DIRT.  For one, Amazon limited reviews of the book to “verified purchase,” meaning in order to post a review of the novel to amazon.com, one had to buy the book from the site rather than from a different bookseller.  For another, Flatiron Books, the imprint behind publishing AMERICAN DIRT, issued a formal statement on Twitter claiming they are “proud to be the publisher” of Cummins’ novel.

Lastly, Cummins herself was interviewed regarding the controversy surrounding her novel; while at Baltimore’s Winter Institute, Cummins was asked what she believed gave her the right to tell the story, to which Cummins responded:

“I think this is an important conversation.  I feel like it is a question that needs to be directed more firmly toward publishers than at individual writers.  I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write.   I acknowledge that there is tremendous inequity in the industry, about who gets attention for writing what books . . .  I’m aware that in the court of public opinion on my ethnicity at this point I am the white lady.  I am also Puerto Rican.  I am a Latinx woman. And I’m not a migrant.  But I feel like putting that so central to the conversation makes me—I’m in such an uncomfortable position about how to identify myself and how to account for things that are beyond my reckoning.”

So much of this is frustrating, especially Cummins’ attempt to direct the blame over to her publishers, and to begin claiming she is Latinx when it is a convenient time for her to do so.  (In a Times opinion piece published five years ago, Cummins described herself as a white woman.)  I haven’t even addressed the book’s afterword, which I’d urge you to read, especially if considering whether or not you’ll take the plunge into AMERICAN DIRT.  The Author’s Note is an issue in and of itself; Cummins claims having an Irish immigrant for a husband gave her “a dog in the fight” of writing the novel.  She then claims that, in writing AMERICAN DIRT, she wished to “humanize” the “faceless brown mass” that is Mexican immigrants; Cummins writes, “At worst, [Americans] perceive [Latino migrants] as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass . . . We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.”  There is so much wrong with this sentence, I don’t even know where to begin.

To make matters worse, Cummins herself had second thoughts about her right to pen AMERICAN DIRT; she says, “when I decided to write this book, I worried my privilege would make me blind to certain truths, that I’d get things wrong, as I may well have.  I worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set almost entirely among migrants.  I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”  Jeanine, maybe you should have listened to your gut!

To put a long story short, the general consensus is Cummins has no right to be telling this story as a non-Mexican, non-migrant woman, and, even if she did, AMERICAN DIRT is told overwhelmingly inaccurately and offensively in regards to Mexico and all those of Mexican descent.  I haven’t read the book myself–and I’m not sure I ever will–so I can’t speak to my own thoughts on Cummins’ writing and her portrayal of Mexico and its people, but I can say I’m happy the controversy has opened up a conversation on diverse, OwnVoices stories!


Update, 1/29/2020: Today, “Dear Oprah Winfrey” appeared on the Lit Hub website; as of right now, 124 writers have signed on urging Winfrey to change her attitude regarding AMERICAN DIRT.  Additionally, Bob Miller, President and Publisher of Flatiron, issued a statement announcing the cancellation of Cummins’ book tour, included below.

flatironstatement2

Update 2/01/2020:  Book of the Month Club, a subscription box service, offers AMERICAN DIRT as one of five options to its members; subscribers are encouraged to read a disclaimer regarding the controversy before adding it to their February box.

11 Comments

  1. bibliobloggityboo

    Hi Hannah — Thanks for the comprehensive summary of the issues around this book! Personally, I really dislike the concept of somebody not being considered “appropriate” to write a book. If the book is poorly written, or is inaccurate, or is too full of stereotypes, let’s say so and pan it. Frankly, if a book *is* written by a person of a certain ethnicity or color about people of the same ethnicity and color, that doesn’t necessarily make it good, non-stereotyped, or accurate. It bothers me a lot that people are so willing to attack a book without even reading it. I read a lot of books and the ones I value are those that are character-driven and seem to have real insight into the characters. The characters are all different and I’m amazed at how authors can have insight into so many different personalities and backgrounds — I don’t see why we only question this when it goes across color or background. I realize that this is not a PC opinion, but I really dislike how easily people are demonized for either having opinions or producing something that offends someone else, however accidentally.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hannah and Her Books

      Thank you! I know it is a bit of a long-winded summary, but I felt it was important to cover every aspect of the controversy. I think, in the case of DIRT, many of the problems arise from it’s inaccuracies/stereotypes, etc., which caused several POC reviewers to blame Cummins’ race, believing that if a Mexican had written the book, the inaccuracies/stereotypes would not have been present. I wholeheartedly agree with you when you say that even if a Mexican woman had written the book, it wouldn’t necessarily be good… absolutely true! It also bothers me that people are so willing to hop on the negative bandwagon without even opening the book and forming their own opinion. For me, much of my own frustration comes from my reading of the book’s Author’s Note, which of course is not enough to form a full opinion of DIRT. I believe I won’t be reading it, or at least for a while, when the controversy dies down and I’m able to read it without the opinions of others so fresh in my memory, clouding my judgement. Either way, your opinion is extremely valid and I thank you for being comfortable enough to share it here!

      Like

  2. Sarah

    This is such a great, comprehensive overview of everything that has gone on so far! Thank you for laying it out in such an easy to consume manner, I think a lot of the things that went on became very difficult to follow.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Literary Elephant

    Excellent post, Hannah! It’s been such a shock seeing all of this going on so rapidly, but you’ve laid it out so clearly all in one place, which really helps in looking at the controversy as a whole. There’s definitely a lot going on here, and even though I think I also will not be reading the book (at least not anytime soon) one thing to appreciate at least is that it’s sparked a lot of conversation about where there might be problems in the publishing world and what people are looking for in their reading right now. Hopefully, wherever this goes next, it will at least make publishers (and readers) more conscientious about what they’re picking up, and why.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Karissa

    This is a great overview. I’ve been following it a little but hadn’t caught all the nuances. I wasn’t particularly drawn to American Dirt before all this so I probably won’t read it anyway. I don’t necessarily think that writers need to be limited to writing only about experiences that mirror their own but it sounds like Cummins didn’t go about taking on such a huge and complicated subject the right way. (An Irish immigrant in America today is nothing like a Mexican immigrant!!!) And as someone with no personal connection or experience to this story I think it’s really important to listen to those who are closer to it and respect their reactions. If someone tells you that you are hurting them it’s on you to stop that behaviour, not defend it. Thanks for delving into this.

    Liked by 1 person

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