American Dirt, the third novel by Jeanine Cummins, begins with a group of assassins opening fire on a quinceañera cookout. We watch Lydia’s entire family get killed, one by one. Only Lydia and her eight-year-old survive.
The scene is one of many depictions of graphic violence in American Dirt and it has sparked an intense conversation about “pity porn” and writing about the Mexican immigrant experience.
The book’s critics argue that Cummins exploits the suffering of Mexican immigrants and resorts to stereotypes.
Julissa Arce Raya, author of My (Underground) American Dream, argued American Dirt was not representative of her experience as a undocumented immigrant in America. “As a Mexican immigrant, who was undocumented, I can say with authority that this book is a harmful, stereotypical, damaging representation of our experiences. Please listen to us when we tell you, this book isn’t it.”
Others took issue with the large profit Cummins stands to make from the story, through the combination of a seven-figure advance, a film deal, and Oprah’s book club selection, which traditionally boosts sales.
The author Celeste Ng tweeted a review that called Cummins’ depictions of Mexico “laughably inaccurate”.
“This makes a convincing case for why ‘American Dirt’ is problematic – and backs it up with a lot of examples from the text itself,” Ng wrote. “If you don’t know this culture (as I don’t), listen carefully to the people who do.”
Two days after criticisms went viral, Latinx figures Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez and Roma actress Yalitza Aparicio posted their admiration and support. Oprah Winfrey also selected the divisive novel as the latest pick for her book club. The announcement was met with intense pushback and confusion.
Roxane Gay expressed her disappointment on Twitter: “It’s frustrating to see a book like this elevated by Oprah because it legitimizes and normalizes flawed and patronizing and wrong-minded thinking about the border and those who cross it.”
On Wednesday, tone-deaf photos of an American Dirt-related dinner party, thrown by Cummins’ publisher, Flatiron Books, in May last year, surfaced online to reveal barbed wire in floral arrangements.
According to Publishers Weekly, the novel sold to Flatiron Books for a seven-figure advance. Early reviews compared American Dirt to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Stephen King and Don Winslow provided glowing blurbs. Imperative Entertainment, the Hollywood studio behind the controversial Sierra Leone civil war drama Blood Diamond, even purchased film rights shortly before the book’s release.
But Latino literary figures say their opinions and criticism about American Dirt have been silenced and ignored. The writer Myriam Gurba alleges the feminist publication Ms Magazine commissioned and then killed her review of the novel, fearing pushback. “[The editor] wrote that though my takedown of Dirt was ‘spectacular’, I lacked the fame to pen something so ‘negative’,” Gurba writes in a personal essay. “She offered to reconsider if I changed my wording, if I wrote ‘something redeeming’.”
Gurba says the most frustrating part about the attention around American Dirt and the large advance Cummins received is the scant attention Chicano narratives, written by Chicano people, receive. “The machine that is supporting this book is dystopian in nature. Meanwhile, I have published three books through indie presses and have not made more than $5,000 on them. That gives you a sense of what value is being ascribed to authentic voices.”
Elsewhere, queer dating columnist John Paul Brammer, who self-identifies as Chicano, expressed a desire for media outlets to approach the controversy with greater nuance: “It’s weird to me that the dialogue around American Dirt is being reduced to “brown people mad because white person wrote book” when I see Latinx authors going out of their way to say, yes, anyone can write whatever they want, but there are problems with the content itself.”
American Dirt comes at a time when many in the publishing industry have pushed for more books featuring underrepresented narratives and authors, a call popularized by the #OWNVoices movement on social media. There are ongoing debates about the ethics of writers penning the narratives of marginalized communities they do not belong to.
American Dirt’s backlash is the latest in a slew of contentious controversies and blunders in the publishing industry. Romance Writers of America, a trade association, faced criticism after reports revealed it had reprimanded Courtney Milan, a biracial Asian American author, for speaking out against racism. Several publishers, including Harlequin, pulled out of RWA’s annual conference. And in October, Sarah Dessen and other women YA authors faced backlash for attacking a college girl who said she didn’t like Dessen’s books, calling the student’s opinion “anti-feminist”. Book Twitter was quick to allege hypocrisy among Dessen and her high-profile supporters.
Cummins, who as recently as 2016, self-identified as white and Latina (and has a Puerto Rican grandmother), probably hoped to get ahead of any questions raised about her writing and profiting off the Mexican migrant experience. She includes this author’s note at the beginning of American Dirt: “I was worried that, as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”
Gurba says the note is more infuriating, than placating. In an effort to shine a light on authentic voices, Gurba began a Twitter thread calling for original stories by Mexican-American writers. Authors she and others point to include Felicia Luna Lemus, Yxta Maya Murray, Reyna Grande, Helena Maria Viramontes and Raquel Gutierrez.
Gurba hopes the industry will reflect on this controversy: “I hope this makes people realize how conservative publishing really is.”