American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: A review

Mexico is my next-door neighbor. I live in an area that is made immeasurably richer culturally by Mexican immigrants and people of Mexican heritage. My neighbors, friends, and, yes, employees are some of those people. For those reasons, I was particularly interested to hear about this book. And then shortly after I first heard of it, it seemed the book world exploded along a strict dichotomy of opinions; either it was a "new American classic" or it was a rank example of cultural appropriation and whitewashing.

At that point, I tried to distance myself from all the hoopla about the book. I wanted to read it myself and make up my own mind.

By now it seems that the plot of the novel is perhaps too well known to have to recount it here, but briefly: Lydia Quixano Pérez is a bookstore owner with a comfortable life in Acapulco, living with her husband who is a journalist and her beloved son, Luca. One day a man comes into her bookstore and purchases some books that are among her favorites. They get into a conversation about literature and eventually bond and become friends over their mutual love of books. What naive Lydia fails to realize is that her new friend is the head of a drug cartel that is terrorizing the city. Her husband writes about these people and as a result of that writing, members of the cartel invade a quinceanera celebration at their home and kill sixteen members of Lydia's family, including her husband and mother. Only Lydia and Luca escape the carnage by hiding in a bathroom. Realizing, somewhat belatedly, that their lives are in danger, Lydia makes the decision to head north to join the flow of migrants to the United States. The greater part of the novel relates that journey with all the horrors and tragedies experienced or witnessed by Lydia and Luca.  

The great objection to the novel, I gather, is that the author is not Mexican and does not seem to have any real connection to that culture. She even addresses this herself in her author's note, wherein she also details the research that she did.

I guess I don't really understand the cultural appropriation complaint. Isn't this what writers do? Yes, I do know the dictum "write what you know" but this would certainly limit the scope of many writers. Are they not allowed to use their imagination and research? Are white people not allowed to write about brown people? Are brown people not allowed to write about white people? Can one only write about something one has personally experienced? Can only survivors of the Holocaust write about the Holocaust, for example? That just seems like a specious argument to me.

What one can legitimately complain about is the quality of the writing which is plodding and uninspired. Cummins' research does not seem to have clued her in to the richness and complexity of Mexican society. It is a country that certainly faces social and political challenges, but it is not defined by those challenges. The drug cartels exist. Violence exists. But there is so much more to Mexico than that. It is a great and diverse country, our neighbor and friend. We would do well not to forget that.

I don't doubt that this writer made a good faith effort to tell a story that she felt strongly about. The fact that, in her storytelling, she relied on so many stereotypes is perhaps the best indication of the limits of her research and of her ability to truly identify with the characters about whom she is writing. The result is that the reader - at least this reader - can never really believe in and empathize with the characters.

So, in the end, I could not agree that this is "the new American classic". On the other hand, I didn't consider it completely awful. It had its moments. What I do consider appalling is that the publisher has apparently canceled the writer's book tour because of fears of violence! Really? Is that what we've come to? It's a book, people! Buy it or don't buy it. Read it or don't read it. There are a number of books out there that I would vociferously disagree with, but it would never occur to me to threaten violence even against the most odious authors or to try to get their book tours canceled. I guess I'm just too nice.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars       

Comments

  1. Like you, I am puzzled by this whole concept of cultural appropriation. I can understand that sports logos, for example, featuring indigenous peoples, and teams having names like "Indians" or "Blackhawks" are offensive, but I certainly cannot understand that a writer is not expected to cover other nationalities and cultures. How could one write a novel? We would never have "The Pearl" and "The Old Man and the Sea," would we? Should we retroactively ban Steinbeck and Hemingway?

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    1. Good points and obviously, I don't think we should retroactively ban them. Writers are allowed to use their imaginations and express their visions of the world. We just have to remember that it's called fiction for a reason and judge it accordingly.

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  2. Great commentary on this book. Complaints about cultural appropriation are illiberal and will lead us into a situation where we end up with cultural segregation. This is part of a larger augment that I have written about involving a bunch of related augments invoking cultural issues.

    It is too bad that the book fell short in some other ways.

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    1. Yes, I found it disappointing on several levels, not because it was a white person writing about brown people, but because I thought she was writing very poorly about brown people.

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  3. Glad you read it so I don't have to. I have only heard bits and pieces about the controversy and it is my understanding that she considered herself Caucasian, and talked about identifying herself as such. But in promotion for the book recently, she began identifying herself as Latina. She has also discussed her husband as being undocumented, and with the subject of the book perhaps meant to identify more closely with her subject matter - her husband is actually from Ireland. I think people see her as capitalizing on whichever identity serves her best at a given time. I have also read many times that the it is not a well-written book and the hype was waaaaaaaaaaay over-stated.

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    1. It's my understanding she is of Puerto Rican heritage, which is quite different from the Central Americans and Mexicans portrayed in the book, but that doesn't particularly bother me. The bad writing did.

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    2. Yes, from everything I have read/heard, part of her heritage is Puerto Rican and it bothered people that she is only now claiming that heritage with having the book coming out. I have since read quite a few reviews and so many are also saying what you've said, that the writing is actually pretty terrible and it makes no sense why the main character says or does some of the things that she does.

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  4. Lot of conversations on this book. Thanks for your honest review.

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    1. It certainly has dominated the conversation in the book world recently. And thank you for stopping by, Mystica.

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  5. It's getting fastidious that authors get criticized for not being "authentic" enough. That didn't use to be a problem in other eras. Of course, I'm referring to whether a white person should not write about blacks, or viceversa, or any other topic that an author decides to tackle. This book is not in my wheelhouse, though it certainly sounds interesting. Too bad you didn't like it enough because that's a strong indication that perhaps I won't like it that much either.

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    1. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the book after you read it - if you decide to.

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  6. I haven't read American Dirt, but I've heard the hoopla surrounding this book. I think that it's sad that the publisher has canceled the writer's book tour because of fears of violence for the same reasons you do.

    You wrote another wonderful review, btw. It sounds like you made a fair assessment of American Dirt when you wrote: "one can legitimately complain about is the quality of the writing which is plodding and uninspired. Cummins' research does not seem to have clued her in to the richness and complexity of Mexican society." It's disappointing when an author fails to add the richness called for/needed to give their novel that extra dimension.

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    1. This could have been a much better and more interesting novel with a bit more understanding and appreciation of the richness of the culture about which she was writing.

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  7. You make good points about all the hoopla about this book. I too would like to read it & make up my own mind about it. But I have heard from critics that it's not greatly written ... but it has brought a lot of focus to the issue of immigration and the border .... and to other Latino writers as well. I think it's best to let a book stand on its own merits ... and if it's not well done ... then dont read it.

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    1. You make a excellent point. Even though this book is less than perfect in many ways, it has focused a spotlight on immigration and the challenges faced by migrants trying to escape violence and find a better and safer life for themselves and their children. And it has also reminded the reading public that there are Latino/Latina writers who address this subject as well and who perhaps deserve more attention. All of that is a good thing and I give the writer credit for that.

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  8. Dorothy, you have spoken. You have spoken well, as you always do.

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    1. I can only give my honest reaction, for whatever that may be worth.

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