Remembering "American Dirt"

This op-ed piece in the Times reminded me of my own take on American Dirt which I read and reviewed three years ago. Apparently, the book is still stirring up feelings. Here were my thoughts on it at the time.


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       


  1. I am sad about all the controversy that was stirred up by this book. "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 agree with you completely about this. But I don't think it's because you are too nice; this should be the accepted norm in our society.

  2. Yeah I had a similar reaction to this novel. It isn't a classic but it's not awful either. I enjoyed it as a crime / immigration novel. It was on par with that. It wasn't deep but it highlighted an issue. I don't think the author should've received all the backlash. But I realize that she received a very high Advance Paycheck for the book ... while other Mexican authors who have written the same kinds of novels about migrant crossings have not. I think Mexican authors are probably right to be a bit frustrated. But I support writers appropriating what they want to.


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