I learned something from ‘American Dirt’ – just not what the author intended

I’ll say this for “American Dirt,” the novel that has been hailed as an epic work of Steinbeck-level genius that will forever change the way we view immigration: if you’re going to inhale a novel in a couple of sittings, this is a decent one to choose. Jeanine Cummins is a talented writer who knows how to spin a yarn and keep things suspenseful.

I’ll say that, and only that, for this book.

The reason I was reading it, and reading it so fast, is that I wanted to understand what Cummins had revealed in this novel that made someone as well-read as Oprah Winfrey say that the book “changed me and changed the way I see what it means to be an immigrant trying to come to this country.”

You know what I learned from “American Dirt” about the immigrant experience? Nothing. And that makes the outpouring of praise for this novel in the United States very disturbing.

I do not know much about this topic. I worked in Arizona for three years and have lived in Costa Rica for 15, but when it comes to what it’s like to live in Mexico or the Northern Triangle – to experience such fear and oppression that you give up everything to become a migrant, to ride on the back of the infamous Bestia, or to scramble across the desert by night – I know no more than anyone in the United States should. I did read “Enrique’s Journey,” the harrowing 2007 nonfiction account by Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Times reporter Sonia Nazario. I’ve ingested news articles and opinion pieces in pretty limited quantities, compared to many of my better-informed family and friends.

In short, I know what I’d consider to be the absolutely minimum for any citizen of a country facing a major humanitarian crisis: I know that the reasons for migration are diverse and dire, that the countries sending migrants are unique and complex, that no one would run away from their lives or put their families at risk without a damn good reason, and that each and every migrant has a story. Those actually aren’t even facts that you learn. It’s basic logic.

Is this too much for us, as a nation? Do privileged people need a work of fiction by a white author to hold our hand through these discoveries? We sure did in 1852, when Harriet Beecher Stowe published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” using fiction to illustrate the inhumanity of slavery to her fellow northerners. Have we progressed not at all since that time? Has our unparalled and unprecedented access to opinions and expression from all over the world, the rich diversity of Latin American literary voices, and the presence of Latinx culture throughout the United States made not a dent?

The most eye-opening part of “American Dirt” is not the novel but the afterword, home to Cummins’ now-infamous comment that she “wished someone slightly browner than me would write” her book. She also writes that she is “always raging against a perceived slight, always fighting against ignorance in mainstream ideas about ethnicity and culture. I’m acutely aware that the people coming to our southern border are not one faceless brown mass but singular individuals, with stories and backgrounds and reasons for coming that are unique. I feel this awareness in my spine, in my DNA.”

Is that the bar for groundbreaking insight in the United States? Knowing that migrants are distinct individuals?

The praise that has been heaped upon her book suggest that it is. It also suggests that by publishing “American Dirt” to massive acclaim, Cummins has changed the nature of our public discourse, just as she’d hoped.

So we need fiction written by someone who looks and lives like us to teach us that these migrants are not “one faceless brown mass.” The news articles weren’t enough. The work of journalists like Navario, who put their lives at risk to research true stories about migration, wasn’t enough. The work of journalists in Mexico and Central America who risk their lives not occasionally, but every minute of every day, journalists who have died at their craft, wasn’t enough. The countless and frequently translated works of Mexican writers and poets and artists weren’t enough.

People in the U.S. aren’t reading that stuff? Neither am I, most of the time, and that’s no excuse for us, because this fuss suggests that our basic humanity wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to recognize that because our own friends and families and acquaintainces are not a faceless mass but rather distinct individuals, and Latin Americans probably are, too.

I did learn something from “American Dirt” and the reaction it’s received: if there were any doubt that our moral core is very rotten, this controversy confirms it. If this book proves to be some sort of gateway drug that piques fresh interest from new audiences, inspiring its readers to then learn more about Latin America from actual Latin Americans, and migration from actual migrants – that’s better than nothing, I guess, but it seems unlikely that cases like that will be very common. And even those cases are not something we should be proud of. It confirms how far up our asses we’ve shoved our heads. It confirms that writers and journalists of color need much more support. It confirms that someone like me who thinks she knows what’s up needs to read more widely (works like these), buy more paid subscriptions to media that are making those writers’ work possible, and figure out any other way to be a part of the solution so that she never again finds herself reading an “American Dirt.” The $13 I spent so I could read this book should have gone into other pockets. I can’t take it back, but I can at least duplicate that investment elsewhere.

One of the book’s characters spits through the border fence onto the ground beyond so she can leave a part of herself on the U.S. soil that gives the book its name. It’s a fitting title, in the end: our paroxysms of delight over this novel have once more shown our dirty laundry to the world. We’ve demonstrated why the country that calls itself America, thus appropriating the name of an entire continent, deserves the reputation it has earned as a place that prioritizes the voice of white people again and again and again.

“American Dirt” should not be revolutionizing our view of migrants. There’s no excuse, in 2020, for needing a non-Mexican, non-Central American’s fictionalized account to make us care about the violence in Mexico and the Northern Triangle, violence our country has had a critical role in creating. We shouldn’t need a wakeup call when alarm bells have been going off all around us every day for decades. The disproportionate success of this book should shame us. We should return it to the thriller shelves where it belongs; trade fiction for the plentiful and compelling facts that are at our fingertips; and use those facts to guide how we speak, share, spend and vote.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. (Of course, there will be an occasional rant, like today.) Sign up at the top right of this page to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

 

8 comments

  1. Oh, was I looking forward to this post, and you did not disappoint.

    Having not read the current novel under scrutiny, your comparison to Uncle Tom’s Cabin feels apposite. There is a regretful truth in that we are more likely to listen to the voices of the people who remind us of us, who frame narratives according to our reference. Other voices may be more relevant, more authentic, but — in my opinion — we want the comfort of not wanting alien experiences to be too alien, and so a gentle Beatrice that looks like us is preferred. This is consistently a problem with children’s media: the “identification character” will be white and male and the diversity will surround him, so that the further issues can be told in proximity… or potentially not be told to the wider audience at all.

    I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I will participate in some media and leave it feeling that it wasn’t created with me in mind, and the chill will leave me disgruntled. Why wasn’t I invited? If the purpose of narrative is to invite a person in, to create empathy for another person’s circumstances, feeling othered can create the reverse reaction. Which potentially leads to white people white-splaining larger issues to white people… or upper-middle class or WASP or fill in your descriptor here. The issue of “who gets to tell stories?” is a thorny one, and thornier still when mixed with hype and marketing and money, because then it becomes as much — if not more — about access as it is about authentic voices.

    All of which is to say, I’m glad to have the American Dirt as a flashpoint for this discussion, but I think it’s a symptom, and I’m hesitant to pillory it or the author for intersecting with much larger circumstances. Which is why I’m glad other people are reading it for me. Thank you.

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    1. Ha! Glad I didn’t disappoint. I agree with you; my problem is more with the disproportionately positive response to the book than with the author, who is free to write what she wants and was telling a story she is passionate about, though she should have done many things differently. Since writing this post, I came across some pieces arguing that she drew too heavily from other books by Latin American writers, not to the point of plagiarism but yes to a questionable level, so maybe there’s more to say to her than I originally thought. But my biggest beef is definitely with the reception to the book. There was also a piece about a librarian in a border town who valiantly told Oprah’s Book Club to take her off their list, thank you very much, which is quite a courageous stand: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/27/opinion/american-dirt-book.html

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  2. Now that I’ve finished “American Dirt,” here are my thoughts! I’ll eventually formulate these into a coherent argument for my book club (thankfully not Oprah’s).

    – The intermixing of Spanish words! Ugh. This seemed to get better later in the book, but my goodness. It was so jarring — both frustrating and comical — to have random Spanish words thrown into dialogue. It’s like the author is trying to prove that the characters are speaking in a foreign language … when in reality it’s English that is the foreign language! I had seen the jokes about this beforehand, yet it was somehow even worse than I expected.
    – I’m not an ardent reader of fiction, but I enjoyed the storytelling. The flashbacks provided a decent way to provide context while allowing the book to jump right into the “present day” action. That said, I strongly dislike the trope of a child prodigy, and his genius is especially incongruous with Lydia — who is surprised that a man with bodyguards has ties to gang activity, who is shocked that violence and other atrocities occur on the journey, etc.
    – I didn’t have a problem with the author until the Acknowledgements. (“I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it”? Come on.) In general, though, I think her intentions were fine, and it’s important to humanize immigrants in a time when, worldwide, immigration is being politicized. The backlash to the book wouldn’t have been so severe had there not been such an overwhelming amount of positive coverage to begin with.
    – I find the title “American Dirt” ironic given the author herself acknowledges that “American” isn’t the most accurate term. They were on American dirt all along!

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    1. Unsurprisingly, I agree with you. And yes, the afterword was when my eyebrows really hit the ceiling. It’s not so much the author that’s my problem – it’s the outsized, rapturous response. And that afterword. Interested to know how your book club goes!

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