So…this is a pretty controversial book right now.
I wanted to directly preface American Dirt with a review of Meghan Daum’s The Problem With Everything because I think the issues raised in Daum’s narrative (such as cancel culture) can help us categorize part of the controversy surrounding American Dirt.
Approaching the discussion through Daum’s lens is a healthy and empathetic way to garner discussion about a book that has received such caustic criticism — criticism that is rooted in truth, no less, as this next book is certainly a modern exemplar of the lack of minority representation in the publishing & entertainment world. But to “cancel” it for this reason altogether? Maybe not.
I loved American Dirt for what it is: a well-written, harrowing thriller about a mother and her son fleeing for their lives, desperately trying to escape the Mexican cartel by crossing the US-Mexico border. With phenomenal storytelling and character development, Cummins elicits empathy and compassion from her readers. Cummins really does put the reader in their shoes; I felt vulnerable, scared and hopeful for Lydia and Luca every step of their journey.
It has received glowing praise from some incredibly well-respected writers, including Stephen King; it has been compared to “modern-day Grapes of Wrath.” But it has also received some pretty visceral criticism. Critics have evoked a wide variety of issues with this novel, namely, the lack of representation of Latinx authors that this novel’s presence and popularity exposed. After all, the author, Jeanine Cummins, is white. And this critique is incredibly just and important to talk about — because the literary world IS lacking in minority representation, especially surrounding the immigrant narrative. And I’m so glad we’re finally recognizing and talking about it.
But soon, these criticisms delved into something much uglier. Turning to a variety of ad hominem arguments, they’ve attacked Cummins on her aptitude as a writer, her looks, or the fact that she was undeserving of the money she received for writing this book. Cummins has been attacked for appropriating a culture other than her own, never mind the fact that this novel is fiction. American Dirt has been called “trauma porn;” though in my opinion, had Cummins not included some of the distressing details of the migrant journey, she would have been accused of glossing these issues over.
Cummins actually spent years researching the migrant experience to write this, so her narrative is not without perspective and understanding. And this shows. She weaves together an Odyssey-like tale, full of various kinds of obstacles and heartbreaking moments Luca and Lydia must face. She claims in her authors note at the end of the novel, she wanted to write a humanizing tale of the migrant experience (especially given the disgusting way our society and, in particular, our president and his supporters have viewed, talked about and treated migrants). She is hoping to show us her true intentions with this, which are neither unaware, lacking nor uncaring. She tells this fictional tale with poignant compassion, all while recognizing her own shortcomings due to her experience as a white woman. She, in my opinion, did her best to adhere to a perfect kind of leftism to be able to tell this story.
This awareness and intention wasn’t enough, and it will never be enough. Actually, it’s precisely her attempt perfect woke-ness that made Cummins such an easy target. The not-enough-ness of her woke identity or intersectional doctrine has, essentially, gotten her canceled (which, although there are exceptions, a mostly left-on-left or woke-on-woke phenomenon). I’ve seen all kinds of posts on bookstagram calling for readers to not read American Dirt, out of respect for own voices writers. Don’t buy it, don’t read it, don’t even critique it, because these small acts in of themselves are acts of oppression. Don’t go see her speak about it (her book tour was ultimately canceled due to some violent threats she received as part of these criticisms), don’t listen to Oprah, who recommended this book for her bookclub, honestly just get mad at Oprah too — it just keeps going. Step out of line, don’t follow the lines exactly as we want you to, and we want nothing to do with you.
I think that is neither a fair nor just way to deal with such a problem as representation. There is nothing about this book that is ugly, hateful, or intolerable. It has its shortcomings, as all books do, but none that require such a phenomenon as cancellation (and for that matter, ad hominem attacks against the author and those who do choose to read this book.)
Personally, I just think it’s a modern-day version of book burning. Which is frightening.
Going back to Daum’s point of view: “We need to stop devouring our own and canceling ourselves. We need fewer sensitivity readers and more empathy as a matter of course. We need to recognize that to deny people their complications and contradictions is to deny them their humanity.”
American Dirt has finally sparked some incredibly overdue conversations about representation in the literary world. It has us talking, finally, and that’s a good thing. But let’s remind ourselves that this is a work of fiction: it is enactment, not fact; it is a story, not a memoir; it is an emotional representation of reality, not reality itself. If the literary world and its writers are now confined to only write about their experience, either culturally, socioeconomically, racially or sexually, what is the point of writing stories at all?