American Dirt: The Right Story Told the Wrong Way by the Wrong Author
By Careen Shannon
What to do when people you respect denounce a new book or movie? Do you read the book or see the movie to judge for yourself, but thereby line the pockets of someone whose work or behavior might be objectionable? Or do you join the boycott in solidarity with your ideological comrades, but perhaps miss the chance to appreciate a work of some value? And how can you either laud or condemn a book without reading it?
This was the dilemma I faced when Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt was released earlier this year amid much fanfare, both positive and negative. I am an immigration attorney, and I have spent time on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border advising would-be immigrants (especially mothers and children being held in immigrant detention camps in South Texas) about their chances of obtaining asylum or other legal status in the United States under the current restrictionist U.S. immigration system. I am also a lover of literature, so a novel about a Mexican woman and her young son desperately trying to escape certain death at the hands of a violent cartel and seek sanctuary in “el norte” was inherently of interest to me. I have heard many such stories from migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
But then I ran up against a latter-day American bugaboo: cultural appropriation. The author of this book is not a Mexican woman! Is it appropriate for her to purport to tell the story of a Mexican woman? Should I decline to read her book for that reason?
Full disclosure: I am a white woman. I am not Latina. I am sensitive to the sentiments behind the movement against cultural appropriation. There is no question that black and brown voices are woefully underrepresented in the American publishing industry. But I also think that, like any ideology, the cultural appropriation argument can go too far. As much as it is meant to fight against the coopting of minority cultures by our country’s white-dominated elite, it is also an argument that could be used to say that a Black actor cannot play Hamlet, or that a Vietnamese-style bánh mi sandwich is culturally offensive if made with the wrong kind of bread.
So yes, I read the book. It is a fictional account of Lydia, the wife of a journalist, and her eight-year-old son, Luca. Lydia’s husband publishes a detailed profile of the head of a Mexican cartel — a man with whom Lydia, who owns a bookstore, has developed a friendship based on their shared love of literature. The man assumes Lydia has betrayed him, and retaliates by sending killers to her niece’s quinceañera (fifteenth birthday party), killing sixteen members of Lydia’s extended family, including her husband and mother. Only Lydia and Luca evade the assassins’ bullets. Lydia grabs her son and they flee.
Cummins’ omniscient narration is lightweight, but fluid and mellifluous. She has a deft touch with similes, many of which made me stop short so I could read them again. (“Her body feels like cracked glass, already shattered, and held in place only by a trick of temporary gravity.”) For all of the horror that it describes, the book is an easy read. As pure storytelling, the novel is compelling. Will Lydia and Luca surmount the next hurdle in their journey? Will they, for example, be turned in to the cartel by the young gang member who has joined their group of migrants? Will the girls they have met up with ever recover from the sexual trauma to which they have been subjected? Will either Lydia or Luca fall off the top of the cargo train on which they are traveling, and lose a limb or even their life? Who among the group their coyote is guiding across the rocky, desert borderland terrain will actually make it, and who will die?
And yet, even with my own limited understanding of Mexico, I never felt as if the protagonist was at all representative of Mexican culture. She is too naïve, too unschooled about how her country actually works. Her cultural references are decidedly non-Mexican. (Comparing the freight train tracks to a “beanstalk” migrants must climb? One of her favorite books is an American young adult novel called Heart, You Bully, You Punk? Really?) Her son bears an oddly un-Mexican name. The author’s clumsy use of the occasional italicized word in Spanish, and her random references to the brown color of her characters’ skin, seem gratuitous. After Lydia is unable to buy plane tickets because she doesn’t have her son’s birth certificate, it is inexplicable that she would opt to ride north with a young child on top of La Bestia — the dangerous cargo train used by the poorest of migrants — when she has enough cash on her to take a bus, or even buy a car, to drive to the border. Cummins’ occasional didactic interludes — with facts and figures about drug cartels or Mexican law enforcement — could give readers the misimpression that the book’s format is more educational than literary. Did the publisher, for all the millions it spent to acquire and market this book, bother to employ anyone to review the manuscript for cultural sensitivity or just plain common sense? More jarringly, wasn’t it a bit over the top to promote the book with American crime novelist Don Winslow’s comparison of American Dirt to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath?
Notwithstanding the book’s substantial failings, here are a few things that are true. Cartel violence in Mexico is real. The first year of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidency was the most violent in the history of modern Mexico. From December 1, 2018 (the date López Obrador — known as “AMLO” — took office) until November 30, 2019, nearly 35,000 people were murdered in Mexico, according to official figures from Mexico’s Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública (SESNSP). The 2019 murder rate equates to an average of 95 murders per day. As reported by Al-Jazeera, “For years, Mexico has struggled with violence as consecutive governments battled brutal drug cartels, often by taking out their leaders, which has resulted in the fragmentation of gangs and vicious internecine fighting.” Compare these numbers to the United States — also a violent country — where there were a total of 16,214 reported murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases in 2018 (the latest year for which statistics are currently available). Note that the U.S. population, at 327 million in 2018, is more than twice Mexico’s population of 129 million — but has half the number of reported murders.
Even in my second home in San Miguel de Allende, a popular tourist city and UNESCO World Heritage site in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, gang-related violence in the city — attributed to a turf war between rival cartels — increased exponentially in 2019. It is generally understood in Mexico that the government, and the police in particular, have been deeply corrupted by the cartels. Many call Mexico a narco-state. However, the mass murder of sixteen people — as depicted in this novel — is not a routine occurrence in Mexico. That kind of violence is much more likely to occur at a school, church, synagogue or concert north of the border.
Violence against women in Mexico is real. Femicides — the murder of a woman because she is a woman — have become epidemic in Mexico, and approximately 90 percent of femicides go unpunished. Two gruesome murders in early 2020, of a 25-year-old woman and a seven-year-old girl, led to widespread protests in Mexico, along with a call for all women in Mexico to observe a 24-hour strike on March 9. The strike, which women were asked to observe by staying home from work and school, and refraining from shopping or using public transportation, was promoted in social media with the hashtag #UnDiaSínNosotras (A Day Without Us).
Violence against journalists in Mexico is real. In fact, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Syria and Mexico were the two deadliest countries for journalists in 2019. Three times more journalists were murdered in Mexico in 2019 than in Afghanistan.
What is also true is that the U.S. is no longer the beacon of safety and wealth and freedom that it was once upon a time (if it ever truly was — wasn’t this always a myth?). Similarly, the fictional protagonist of American Dirt is in no way representative of the current wave of migration (especially of women and children) toward our southern border. Few such migrants are Mexican these days. Few are middle class. Few are educated. Most are from Central America, are poor, are fleeing daily threats of extortion, gang conscription, assault, sexual violence, land theft and torturous murder, among other horrors, and have spent every penny they and their extended families can scrape together to get to the U.S. border. Very few middle-class and upper-middle-class Mexicans are fleeing the country because, for that slice of society, life can actually be better in Mexico than it would be in the United States. (Servants, sunshine and affordable healthcare, anyone?) Nonetheless, it is not farfetched to imagine that the spouse and child of a journalist murdered by a drug cartel would feel compelled to flee for their lives.
When I suggested at the outset that people I respect have been strongly critical about this novel, I mean people like Luis Alberto Urrea, a prolific Mexican-American author who has written extensively about Mexico and the border — and who spoke critically about the book to Maria Hinojosa on National Public Radio (NPR). When I say people I respect, I mean other esteemed writers like Sonia Nazario, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of Enrique’s Journey (a true story of a Honduran boy’s hazardous journey through Mexico to reunite with his mother in the United States), and Myriam Gurba, author of a memoir called Mean, who wrote a review of American Dirt that is so scathing (“Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”) that the publication for which she had originally written it declined to publish it. (She posted it, instead, on an academic blog). These esteemed Latinx writers, and many others, have all expressed rage and dismay at the way in which Cummins tells a story they feel is not hers to tell.
Interestingly, Cummins name checks some of these authors (and others, including Rafael Alarcón, Jennifer Clement, Reyna Grande, Valeria Luiselli, Óscar Martinez and Aída Silva Hernández) in her acknowledgements, where she writes, “I’m grateful to the following writers, whose work you should read if you want to learn more about Mexico and the realities of compulsory migration.” And yet, there have been some suggestions that her novel is little more than a fluffy, fictional mash-up of real-life stories told by some of these same writers, re-packaged and deracinated by a white author for a white audience. The name checks thus have a CYA taint.
Cummins is an unreliable messenger for this story, but not because she is white, and not because she isn’t Mexican. As Nicolás Medina Mora wrote in a review in the Mexican journal Nexos that was later published in English in n+1, there are a number of non-Mexican writers who have written movingly and meaningfully about Mexico, including Roberto Bolaño and Gabriela Mistral. Cummins’ problem is her essential hypocrisy about her whiteness and what it means. She has lived her life as a white woman, with all the privilege that whiteness implicates in our society — until it was time to start generating interest in this book, at which point she suddenly remembered that one of her grandmothers was Puerto Rican. She has implied that she possesses some personal insight into the plight of undocumented immigrants in this country because her husband was once undocumented, without disclosing that he is Irish, and thus cannot possibly have suffered the same fear of arrest and deportation that undocumented Latinx immigrants experience. She has said that she wishes someone “browner than [her]” had told this story, while barely acknowledging that many have already done so.
If you do not already know anything about what it might be like for someone’s life to be in such danger, their world so utterly destroyed, that they would risk everything to seek safety in another country, then reading American Dirt might be an easy entry point. If turning the story of the mass forced migration from south to north into a page-turner of a made-for-Oprah’s-Book-Club novel is what it takes for white America to wake up to reality, then so be it.
But this book is a novel, not a memoir, and it fails to acknowledge the deep-seated forces (including, but not limited to, U.S. imperialism, neoliberal economic policies, climate change, machismo, racism, the massive movement of weapons from the United States into Mexico, and the hypocritical war on drugs) that compel thousands upon thousands of people from Latin America to make the perilous journey north every year. If you read it, don’t let American Dirt be the only book you read on this subject. Let it be one of many.
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Selected recommendations for further reading:
Jennifer Clement, Prayers for the Stolen.
Reyna Grande, The Distance Between Us.
Myriam Gurba, Mean.
Roberto Lovato, Unforgetting.
Óscar Martinez, The Beast.
Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey.
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Careen Shannon is a lawyer and writer living in Brooklyn.