Thoughts on American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I can’t remember a book in recent memory that has generated as much praise and uproar as American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins.

Before the novel’s publication, it received rave reviews from the major book review publications, including Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist. Famous authors praised the work, including Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Ann Patchett and Stephen King. Author Don Winslow touted it as “A Grapes of Wrath for our times.’’ After the book was released Jan. 21, it was revealed that Cummins received a six-figure check for her story about a mother fleeing with her 8-year-old son from a brutal drug cartel in Mexico. Oprah Winfrey announced that American Dirt was her next book club choice. The Wilmette Public Library picked it for its “One Book, Everybody Reads.’’

Then outrage started coming out in blog posts and newspaper columns from Latinx authors, who complained that Cummins wrote in painful stereotypes and failed to get cultural references correct. Cummins identifies herself as a white American author with a Puerto Rican grandmother, which sparked a debate about cultural appropriation: Can a novelist who isn’t Latino write a book about a Mexican migrant’s experience? A few bookstores cancelled appearances by Cummins after all the bad press. Then the publisher cancelled the book tour because of threats to the author.  I follow a Facebook PBS Book Club group, and read more than 500 heated comments about American Dirt. Some readers argued they are obligated not to read the book after the criticisms from the Latin American community. Others said they should be able to read what they want without being shamed.

I started reading American Dirt right before all the criticism came out. The novel opens with 16 members of a family being gunned down during a backyard quinceañera in Acapulco. Lydia Quixano Pérez and her son hide in the bathroom to escape the flying bullets. When things quiet down, Lydia finds a sign on her husband Sebastian’s body that says in Spanish, “My whole family is dead because of me.’’ Sebastian, a newspaper reporter, recently did an expose on the drug cartel that overtook Acapulco. Lydia eventually realizes that her favorite customer from the bookstore she owns is actually the head of the drug cartel who ordered the hit.

Cummins, who spent four years researching the book, said in her author’s note that she wrote American Dirt to create empathy for the migrants trying to come to the United States. She wrote, “I was appalled by the way Latino migrants, even five years ago—and it has gotten exponentially worse since then—were characterized within that public discourse. At worst, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think off them as our fellow human beings.’’

I have mixed feelings about American Dirt. I found the story about a mother who would do anything to save her child nerve-wracking and gut wrenching. Sometimes I had to take a break because I became so tense from the narrative. I often thought about the characters after I put the book down, a sign of a compelling story. For me, Cummins’ thriller succeeded in creating empathy for the plight of Lydia and Luca, along with other migrants they encountered along their arduous journey. I also found that at times Lydia seemed naïve about the world around her.

I take the criticisms about the authenticity of American Dirt seriously. Being a white woman who has never been to Mexico, I cannot comment on whether the novel is inaccurate in its cultural, geographical and linguistic references. The comments from the Latinx writing community highlight why I prefer to read books from authors whose cultural background give authenticity to the words they are writing. Should you avoid reading this book because of the criticism? That’s a decision readers need to make for themselves.

This debate casts a glaring light on the book industry’s failure to publish more Latinx voices. I hope book editors will learn from this, and choose more manuscripts from diverse authors. With that in mind, I thought I would provide a list of books that the Cook Memorial Public Library staff recommends by Latinx authors. I have broken it down by fiction and nonfiction and linked them to our catalog.

Fiction:

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera
Fruit from the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Where We Come From by Oscar Cásares
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Nonfiction and Memoirs:

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
Ordinary Girls: A Memoir by Jaquira Díaz
They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems by David Bowles
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu

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