By Barrie Olmstead
When people tell me they have read and enjoyed the novel “American Dirt,” it is usually with a tone of either apology or defiance. The hold list for this title in Valnet is long; it tends to be with popular books, especially those that are controversial. The novel follows the journey of a middle-class Mexican woman whose extended family is massacred by a drug cartel in Acapulco; she finds herself on the run with her son, fleeing to the U.S. along with thousands of migrants. Jeanine Cummins, the book’s author, has been accused of exploitation and inaccuracy in her portrayals of both Mexico and the migrant experience.
Cummins is European born (Spain) and, as recently as 2016, identified as white. As the marketing campaign got underway, she cited her Puerto Rican grandmother, perhaps in an attempt to legitimize her interest in the plight of migrants. She also apologized that she wasn’t browner, in an awkward afterword to the book. The questions surrounding the marketing and publication of the book have raised important questions. What stories get to be told, and who gets to tell them? Alexander Chee, who has given advice to writers who want to conjure realities that are unfamiliar to their own lived experience, suggested that writers should ask themselves the following questions before proceeding: Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view? Do you read writers from this community currently? Why do you want to tell this story?
Part of the outcry about Cummins’ novel also is the seven figure advance she received from her publisher. The publishing industry is controlled by gatekeepers, and they are mostly white. The Big Five consist of Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. A large print run for “American Dirt” was assured, as well as heavy promotion across various media, which led to Oprah’s endorsement of the novel for her popular book club. These marketing dollars come at the expense of other authors. Seven-figure advances discourage breadth within publishing houses. Publisher’s Weekly posed the question, “Is the publishing industry properly equipped to champion the work of diverse voices?”
Cultural appropriation and a lack of diversity in publishing are not the only issues being raised by writers of color. Many Latinx writers feel that Cummins relied on cheap stereotypes about Mexico and that her portrait of the migrant experience lacks nuance. Parul Sehgal, the chief book critic for the New York Times, noted in her review of “American Dirt” that “the deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that ‘these people are people,’ while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to despise — and then congratulating us for caring.” Some readers have commented that they feel a newfound sense of empathy for what migrants endure, but it remains unclear if that will lead to sustained reform or change, or a difference at the polls. In her essay “The Banality of Empathy,” in the New York Review of Books, Namwali Serpell argues against “the idea that art can somehow save us from violence that still permeates people’s lives, shockingly unevenly.” She also notes that “the empathy model of art can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it. It in fact perpetuates an assumed imbalance in the world: there are those who suffer, and those who do not and thus have the leisure to be convinced that the sufferers matter. The scales remain tilted and this is why cultural appropriation still runs only one way.”
Many readers that I’ve spoken with have taken issue with the idea that a writer is not free to write whatever comes to mind; it is fiction, after all. Of course writers are free to write about whatever subjects they choose, and inhabit the persona of someone from another race or culture. But it matters profoundly to rigorously self-interrogate one’s own motives, and to do one’s best to write the story accurately and well, especially when it involves a topic as politically charged as migration and the country’s southern border. Katherine Boo, who won the National Book Award for “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” her examination and portrayal of poverty in India, notes that “getting it right matters way more than whether you can make people care.”
No reader should feel apologetic for liking or being affected by a book, but all readers should encourage themselves to dig deeper. There are many native Mexican and Mexican-American authors who write beautiful and rich narratives about Mexican life, culture, struggle and the Mexican-American diaspora. They include Valeria Luiselli, Reyna Grande, Luis Alberto Urrea, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez and Gloria Anzaldua. Ask your local librarians, and we will happily provide more.
All of the discussion surrounding “American Dirt,” and the complexity of its subject, make me think of these lines from U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo, who is the first Native American to hold the title: “The indigenous peoples who are making their way up from the southern hemisphere are a continuation of the Trail of Tears. May we all find a way home.”
Olmstead is the adult services librarian at the Lewiston City Library. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.