David's Reviews > American Dirt

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
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did not like it

[edit]For a deeper, nuanced conversation from a panel of Mexican American poets, professors, bloggers, librarians, poets laureate ... watch this video: https://youtu.be/O3UrtFJtAYQ

Also, as part of the #DignidadLiteraria team, I met with Flatiron / Macmillan. Here's the press conference announcing the commitment to Latinx equity the publisher made: https://youtu.be/2U8nEgaXzT4 [/edit]

Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt is a novel about a Mexican bookseller who has to escape cartel-related violence with her son, fleeing to the US. Cummins received a seven-figure advance for this book. And it's harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama.

Problem 1: The Author. Let me start with the obvious: Cummins has never lived even within five hundred miles of Mexico or the border. In fact, until very recently, she didn't lay claim to the Latinx heritage that comes to her through a Puerto Rican grandmother. Just five years ago, she was calling herself white. Latina or no, Cummins certainly isn't Mexican or Chicana. That's a problem.

If you don't know this, Mexican writers are horribly underpaid. Women writers in Mexico, more so. And Chicanx authors suffer marginalization in the US market. As a Mexican American writer, I have seen my Chicana and Mexicana colleagues struggle to get their stories told, to get their manuscripts into the hands of agents and past the publishing industry's gatekeepers.

While I have nothing against Jeanine's (or anyone else's) writing a book about the plight of Mexican women and immigrants (especially if they do their homework and don't exoticize our culture), I am deeply bothered that this non-#OwnVoices novel has been anointed the book about the issue for 2020 (with a seven-figure advance, no less) with glowing reviews from major newspapers and the support of big names in US publishing.

Such reception is especially harmful because authentic stories by Mexicanas and Chicanas are either passed over or published to significantly less fanfare (and for much less money). There's been strong pushback, especially Myriam Gurba's masterful take-down of the book (that magazines refused to publish) and Parul Sehgal's examination of how the book "flounders and fails."

Author Daniel Peña characterizes the book in stark terms: "lab-created brown trauma built for the white gaze and white book clubs to give a textural experience to people who need to feel something to avoid doing anything and from the safety of their chair."

US readers would be MUCH better off diving into one of the many books on immigration by ACTUAL Chicanx and Mexican writers that already exist. I mean, Cummins sure did:

"My research started with reading everything Luis Alberto Urrea ever wrote. Then I read everything else I could find about contemporary Mexico and by contemporary Mexican writers. Then I read everything I could find about migration. Sonia Nazario's Enrique's Journey is magnificent. So is The Beast by the Salvadoran writer Óscar Martínez." (from her Shelf Awareness interview)

Yet even after reading EXISTING works, Jeanine Cummins STILL felt SHE needed to write about the plight of Mexican immigrants. Ostensibly, however, she was conflicted and nervous. On the one hand, she admits to Alexandra Alter of the New York Times: "I don't know if I'm the right person to tell this story." And in the afterword of her book, she worries that "privilege would make [her] blind to certain truths," wishing that someone "slightly browner than [her] would write it."

But on the other hand … she still wrote it. After talking to various Mexicans on the border, this was her response: "Every single person I met made me more and more determined to write this book." Cummins was concerned, she claims, that people at the border were being depicted as a "brown, faceless mass." She wanted to give them a face. To be their white savior.

Of course, she conveniently forgot about the very #OwnVoices books she had mined for ideas and cultural texture. In the midst of this literary amnesia, she decided to make millions off the pain and struggle of women from a completely different culture.

Why does her identity even matter? Because she gets nearly everything wrong as a result.

Problem 2: The Content
For example, Cummins screws up Spanish egregiously (especially nuances in Mexican Spanish). First, when depicting Spanish-language dialogue as English, she sprinkles it with Spanish words, which is ridiculous ("Hola, abuela" is just "Hello, Grandma," in English, not "Hello, Abuela," as Cummins prefers). Even if we accept this as poetic licence to add cultural texture, she does it poorly, never using Mexican Spanish terms, just sterile, standard ones. If you're going to add spice, make it chile, Jeanine.

Actual examples of Spanish are wooden and odd, as if generated by Google Translate and then smoothed slightly by a line editor. The Spanish is … not idiomatic at all.

Cultural references are often missed, and Lydia Quixano Pérez (what a name, huh) is ignorant of things that any Mexican knows. For example, learning a cartel leader is called "La Lechuza" (which Cummins incorrectly glosses as "the Owl") Lydia laughs. Owls aren't scary, she insists.

Now, a "lechuza" is a screech owl. They have been feared throughout Mexico for literally THOUSANDS OF YEARS, considered harbingers of death, witches in disguise. Lydia's reaction is that of the White readers, not actual Mexicans. And this is just one of literally dozens of examples.

People are stereotypes in this novel, participating in stereotypical activities (quinceañeras, for example). They live in a flattened pastiche version of Mexico, a dark hellhole of the sort Trump rails against, geographically and culturally indistinct. Lydia and Luca - despite having money - escape to the precious freedom of the US aboard La Bestia (that dangerous, crime-infested train) because of COURSE they do. But they don't suffer the maiming, abuse, theft, and rape so common on that gang-controlled artery to the border. It's all very Hollywood, very best-selling thriller.

And the characters. Gah. I am close friends with people from all social classes in Mexico, including light-skinned, middle-class, book-loving women like the protagonist ostensibly is. But none of the peculiarities of those lives and experiences make their way into this novel. Instead, Lydia and Luca feel like a White US mother and her son, with nominally Mexican names slapped on, sprinkled with a bit of lime and salt. They could easily appear in a Gillian Flynn novel with little adjustment at all. Furthermore, Cummins clearly wants us to be startled at how "erudite" and "elegant" some of the males are. "OMG! Really?" I imagine some US reader gasping. "In Mexico? Aren't all men uncouth swarthy beasts?"

And frankly, I've barely scratched the surface here. Setting aside the melodramatic plot and mediocre writing, there is so much more to say, especially about how this book (which the editor characterizes as "a portrait of a nation and a people under siege") does little to explore the complicity of the US in the violence wracking Mexico. In avoiding politics, Cummins ends up implicitly blaming the victim.

Let me be clear: because American Dirt contains multiple inaccuracies and distortions, the White US readership in particular will come away with a stylized understanding of the issues from a melodramatic bit of literary pulp that frankly appears to have been drafted with their tastes in mind (rather than the authentic voices of Mexicanas and Chicanas).

Ah, and there's the rub. White folks and other non-Mexican Americans in the US: you CANNOT judge for yourselves whether American Dirt is authentic. You're going to have to trust Mexicans and Chicanx folks. I know that runs counter to the upbringing of so many. I know it defies our national discourse. Pero ni modo. That's too bad.

At a time when Mexico and the Mexican American community are reviled in this country as they haven't been in decades, to elevate this inauthentic book written by someone outside our community is to slap our collective face.

Books I suggest reading instead of (or in conversation with) American Dirt:

-Reyna Grande: Dream Called Home & Distance Between Us
-Luis Urrea: Devil's Highway, Into the Beautiful North
-Cristina Henríquez: Book of Unknown Americans
-Ana Raquel Minian: Undocumented Lives
-Anabel Hernández: Massacre in Mexico
-Guadalupe García McCall: All the Stars Denied
-Yuri Herrera: Signs Preceding the End of the World
-Valeria Luiselli: Tell Me How It Ends
-Oscar Cásares: Where We Come From
-Alfredo Corchado: Homelands
-Javier Zamora: Unaccompanied
-Daniel Peña: Bang
-Sylvia Zéleny: The Everything I Have Lost
-Sara Uribe: Antígona González
-Silvia Moreno García: Untamed Shore

Read the full version of this review here: https://medium.com/@davidbowles/non-m...

Here's my follow up discussion of Cummins' enablers: https://medium.com/@davidbowles/ameri...

Here's my article in the NEW YORK TIMES diving even deeper into the source and repercussions of the controversy: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/27/op...

Here's my fourth piece, "American Dirt: Dignity & Equity" -- https://medium.com/@davidbowles/ameri...
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 13, 2019 – Shelved
December 13, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 313 (313 new)

Sandra Did you read it?

Morgan Schulman She’s Latina tho

message 3: by Adam (new)

Adam "I am white." - Jeanine Cummins

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/op...

message 4: by Jillian (new)

Jillian Thank you Adam. She self-identifies as "white." She is not Latina.

David 1. Read it, yes. If you're Mexican (or Chicanx), you quickly see how inaccurate, condescending, melodramatic, and appropriating it is.
2. Her grandmother is Puerto Rican. Doesn't qualify her to write a book about Mexican immigrants. Only recently has she claimed her Latina identity (and I don't begrudge her that).

message 6: by César (new)

César Guerrero Totally agree with David, and about some comments here, white people speaking from utter and blinding privilege above...

message 7: by Brad (new)

Brad Kirk David, what would you recommend instead? I've read https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6... which I found to be quite enlightening. What other books/authors would you recommend for either fiction/non-fiction on this topic? Thanks!

message 8: by Shelli (new) - added it

Shelli Thank you for this, David.

message 9: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica Thank you. I had a feeling when I saw all the initial buzz about this book that something just didn't sit right with me when reading the synopsis. I will not waste my time reading it and will continue to seek out more own voices stories instead.

message 10: by Tina (new)

Tina Wickhem Thank you David. Valid. I’ll pass.

message 11: by David (new) - rated it 1 star

David For starters:

-Reyna Grande: Dream Called Home & Distance Between Us
-Luis Urrea: Devil's Highway, Into the Beautiful North
-Cristina Henríquez: Book of Unknown Americans
-Ana Raquel Minian: Undocumented Lives
-Anabel Hernández: Massacre in Mexico
-Guadalupe García McCall: All the Stars Denied

message 12: by René (new)

René Fabian I admit that I have not read this book nor do I think I want to despite my curiosity for it. I don't know Jeanine Cummins but I do know David and I value his opinion and he's right. When our Latinx authors are having trouble getting their stories out and someone else get's to tell that narrative there is something really wrong here. At this point, there are so many other books out there that have a more authentic flavor to it that I cannot justify reading a book with a false narrative. Thank you for being the voice of reason, David!

message 13: by Scott (new) - added it

Scott It is fiction, no?

message 14: by David (new) - rated it 1 star

David César wrote: "Totally agree with David, and about some comments here, white people speaking from utter and blinding privilege above..."

I've deleted most of the ugly ones. No time for esas pendejadas.

message 15: by Skyler (new)

Skyler Autumn Already deleted it off my TBR. Thanks for this review!

message 16: by Jenny (new)

Jenny Took this off my TBR real quick after hearing Own Voices reviews. Thanks.

message 17: by Skyler (new)

Skyler Autumn betta.reads.books wrote: "this is a fiction book, dont look at the facts about the book, look at the story and its meaning to those that read it"

That's exactly what I'm doing. I'm looking at the story and how it is effecting the culture it's choosing to depict.

message 18: by Sylvia (last edited Jan 21, 2020 11:58PM) (new) - added it

Sylvia I have read many critical reviews, but have not yet read the novel. The reviewers go into detail about its failings--from the names of the characters to the way Mexican culture is portrayed. I will read it and make up my own mind. The truth is, writers write to get published. And to make lots of money, if possible. According to her, she did due diligence. She wrestled with idea for years and was convinced by a Chicana (I believe she was a well regarded academic) to have at it. Then she went to the border and volunteered, etc. Of course a publishing house is looking for a best seller. Apparently this novel had the power to deliver. I believe the critics when they say the book sucks for all the reasons they detail, but I don't see any reason why she can't pursue her ideas. (Nor do I see any reason why she can't be criticized.) I don't care that she made a boatload of money. (There will be a film too.) Maybe she'll donate some of it to immigrant rights groups. No doubt there will be lots of people who will be 'mislead' by this novel. These people are the kind that do no ask questions. They want an adrenaline rush and a simplistic story line. Confirmation bias is always nice too. This (very large) group is made up of practically everyone. Not just whites. Many Latinos are not particularly informed either.Oprah loves, loves, loves it. This proves she is mostly ignorant on the subject. There are so many fiction and nonfiction books out there. There are also some very fine films. "Sin Nombre" comes to mind. This film is not made by a Latinx, but by a guy who wanted to get it right. My point, and I have one, is that you don't have to be Latinx to create works of art on this subject. But in order to get respect, you have to properly honor your subject. It sounds like Cummins was lazy and her editors didn't care. That's the publishing world. I don't get too worked up about it. The story will appeal to those who like thrillers and are not hostile to immigrants. That's most Americans, by the way. Since the book is doing well, that means publishers will want more like it. So the conversation will be expanded. But let's be clear, accurate stories about immigration expose the ugly nature of American politics. This is not a feel good subject. It is also not simplistic. It is nuanced and complicated. These books will be produced by artists who care, but they will have a hard time getting published. Not because of Cummins, but because it is not in the interests of the powers that be to reframe the narrative.

message 19: by Melike (new)

Melike Thank you for this review, I agree with you completely!

message 20: by Christie (new) - added it

Christie Owens Keeping it on my list so that I can access David's recommendations. 🥴

message 21: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Elizabeth When this book started getting buzz, I looked the author up and was immediately concerned that she was writing this story. As mentioned above, if you want to read about the experiences of those of South and Central American descent, there are so many other places to start.

message 22: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Lea Thank you for this review. I wanted to read this but something felt "off" about it. I did some looking around and changed my mind pretty quick about wanting to read it. I'll stay away from the trauma porn.

message 23: by Brad (new)

Brad Kirk Thanks, David. I will look into those.

message 24: by courtney lynn (new)

courtney lynn (reorganizedreads) Removed from my TBR. This book is marketed to people like me (white women), and we are told it is important and timely. The minute I found out her undocumented immigrant of a husband was white and European, I was super confused about how that could give her any authority on this matter. I will support own voices authors on this topic and listen to things I cannot understand because I am not apart of this community.

message 25: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Spriggs Whatever happened to just reading what you want regardless of what others think about the book? It's time to live and let live!! If you want to read it do so, but if you don't want to well then don't. Start doing you! "Think" for yourself!

message 26: by Karen (new) - added it

Karen Sylvia thanks for your review.

message 27: by Distant (new)

Distant Sounds This is the second review like this that has popped up on my feed in the last 12 hours. When I found out what the book was about, where it was set etc. I went to take a look at the author. There wasn't enough information there to help me know much about her. So this review, and the other I saw last night have given me what I was initially trying to find out. Thanks David. I do have both of those Luis Alberto Urrea books you mentioned, and also have 'By the Lake of Sleeping Children.' by him.

message 28: by Maríah (new)

Maríah Santos Thanks for the book recommendations above. Always looking to add to my list of Latinx OwnVoices authors.

message 29: by Katie (last edited Jan 22, 2020 06:24PM) (new)

Katie Thank you for this review. I have dropped it from my tbr and look forward to reading your recommendations instead.

message 30: by Alexandra (new)

Alexandra Galván I just read the book description and that was ENOUGH for me. I suppose the positive rates this book is getting come from people that aren't really aware (I hope) about the accuracy.

message 31: by Marian (new)

Marian Thank you for this review!

message 32: by Ana (new)

Ana Agreeeed!!!

message 33: by Anastasia (new)

Anastasia Removing this from my to-read list. Thanks for reading and reviewing it. I can refocus on continuing to read Latinx authors writing about their own and their people’s experiences.

message 34: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Thanks for this review and for the recommendations in the comments. I work at a library and someone ordered American Dirt so I’m putting together an order of alternatives and supplemental books.

message 35: by Nicole (new)

Nicole Gaudier Thank you for your in depth review.

message 36: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Pereyra Thank you so much for your review! Someone speaking up the truth. Its not about who writes the stories (anyone can), its the opportunism and gain at the expense of others. Will not be reading.

message 37: by Sarah (new) - rated it 1 star

Sarah Thank you for your review!

message 38: by Jan (new)

Jan Priddy I have always been impressed that Sandra Cisneros, who is bilingual, hired a translator. My first reader of that translation (who came to the US as a teenager) was impressed that the translation was so accurate, that the idiom was spot on.

message 39: by David (new) - rated it 1 star

David Jan wrote: "I have always been impressed that Sandra Cisneros, who is bilingual, hired a translator. My first reader of that translation (who came to the US as a teenager) was impressed that the translation wa..."

That's not quite the way it works. The Spanish-language rights to HOUSE ON MANGO STREETS were sold. The publisher buying those rights hired Elena Poniatowska to do the translation. That's pretty normal in this business.

message 40: by Jan (new)

Jan Priddy Do you disagree about the quality of the translation?

message 41: by Jan (last edited Jan 24, 2020 03:12PM) (new)

Jan Priddy I was present when Cisneros was asked why she did not translate it herself, and she spoke to that distancing from Spanish because of her own connection to English from childhood and her choice to write in English. She said The House on Mango Street was better translated by a Mexican. And it was.

message 42: by Elizabeth☮ (new)

Elizabeth☮ Wow.

message 43: by David (new) - rated it 1 star

David Jan wrote: "I was present when Cisneros was asked why she did not translate it herself, and she spoke to that distancing from Spanish because of her own connection to English from childhood and her choice to w..."

Oh, I love the translation! I just am a writer, and I know how the cake is baked. They may have first asked Sandra to translate; that does happen when someone is bilingual.

So you're right that she deferred to someone else, but just know that she didn't hire Elena Poniatowska.

message 44: by Jan (new)

Jan Priddy David wrote: "Jan wrote: "I was present when Cisneros was asked why she did not translate it herself, and she spoke to that distancing from Spanish because of her own connection to English from childhood and her..."

Thank you, David. I appreciate knowing.

message 45: by Connie (new)

Connie How is this review misogynistic? And I’m not sure he ever said she shouldn’t write a book about a Mexican woman, but that there are issues with the accuracy and authenticity of the content and the language- both of which could negatively impact white Americans’ pov of Mexicans.

message 46: by David (new) - rated it 1 star

David Please note that I will delete your comments if you decide to attack or deride me. It's bad enough that my entire community has been attacked by this novel ... which Cummins has deliberately positioned as something MORE than mere fiction, something that will humanize what she calls the "faceless brown mass."

If your privilege blinds you to the harm done, please go away. I have no interest in listening to your crude attempts and belittling me.

message 47: by TMR (new) - added it

TMR An interesting review David. I definitely think these are reasons enough this book should have never shown up in the first place. But despite all the good reasons and criticisms, I would still like to make my own opinion about this book as well by reading it. So thank you for your review, I would like to keep it in my mind as I would try and form my own opinion while reading it.

message 48: by Paula (new)

Paula Christen - David recommended several titles earlier in the comments.

Tammie Hi David,
I have read and reread your review and I am really trying hard to understand your point of view. I just don't. I hope that you won't delete my comment because it poses a view that is different from yours. I just sincerely don't understand some of your points. Are you suggesting that ONLY Mexican people can write about Mexican issues? (BTW... it is not only Mexican people at that border. Hondurans, Salvadorans and others are there too.)
You quote Daniel Pena's comment about white people just wanting to experience something texturally, while not actually doing anything about it and then in the next paragraphs mock Cummins as being a "white savior" because she wrote a book with the intention of shedding light on a powerful issue. I guess as a white person you're dammed if you don't try to help and you're dammed if you do.

I think it a ludicrous notion that the author of a book CANNOT nor SHOULD NOT write a book about characters unless they are of that particular culture themselves because having a different identity will cause you to get everything wrong. Humans from different walks of life are completely incapable of understanding one another. So all of the non-Jewish authors that were moved to write about the holocaust should be condemned? In fact, thinking along those guidelines, no one who did not directly live through WW2 should write about it because they might just get things wrong. Men should only write about men, women- women. If you don't have children, how dare you write about characters that are parents! No fantasy bc that's not YOUR cultural identity?? Really? It is a novel... it is fiction. It comes.from the author's research and imagination. It is a book.
When you begin to dictate who can and cannot write about any given subject; you yourself are promoting oppressive and racist thinking. But I guess it is ok, because she is white. Put limits on her, because she is white. Engaging in the same way of thinking that your cultural oppressors have does not make it right and does absolutely NOTHING to help unify people.

Raven I am a 13th generation Californian and a Chicana (no X). I read the the book for what it was. A novel of fiction. If you are a reading this review of this book and are ready to crucify the author for "cultural appropriation" then by all means jump on the bandwagon of political correctness. I agree that some of the !language is cringe worthy but again it is a book of fiction. As a light skinned Chicana born and raised in the US (like you) I technically could not write a book about the plight of migrants because like you I have enjoyed a life of privilege. The fact that you are calling her out for once identifying as white is petty. Maybe that was her way of getting her foot in the door. Is it right? No but my point is that as you point out being Latino AND a woman is challenging. You don't know her story and by calling her out you are contributing to the interracial hostility that plagues our beautiful cultural.

I am giving the book 3 stars.

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