Tuesday, February 25, 2020
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins with thoughts and a link
Reading American Dirt and even getting it in the mail was such an interesting experience. It literally arrived in my mailbox right as the controversy was erupting, after a months-long wait (I pre-ordered it). After reading a lot of articles and some thoughts by individuals, I was pretty sure I wanted to put off reading the book. I would read it eventually, sure, with a healthy skepticism of its accuracy — I'd already paid for it, after all — but I figured there was no hurry. Then, I spoke to my friend Michelle (formerly blogger Kookie at A Fraternity of Dreamers). Michelle has Mexican ancestry and she knows her history, her Mexican food, her soccer players. I don't. We finished reading the book on the same day, so we were able to chat about it while it was still fresh in our minds.
WARNING: THIS DESCRIPTION CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!!!
PLEASE SKIP TO THE SAFE LINE IF YOU PLAN TO READ AMERICAN DIRT AND DON'T WANT TO KNOW ANY DETAILS OR PLOT POINTS FROM THE STORY!!!!!
American Dirt is the story of Lydia Quixano Pérez, a bookstore owner in Acapulco who unknowingly has befriended a drug lord named Javier. Her husband is a journalist and she has one child, a son named Luca. The book opens with an incredibly tense scene in which Lydia and Luca are huddled in a shower enclosure while gunfire rattles outside. They're at a family cookout and as they hide they overhear the shootings of everyone present, the search for Lydia, the men walking through the house to make sure they've left no survivors. Lydia knows the deaths of nearly her entire family must be connected to the article her husband wrote exposing Javier. Lydia thought Javier would find the article flattering. He must not have. Now, she has no choice but to run.
Javier's friendship with Lydia started innocently enough. He loved books, wrote poetry, and was oddly magnetic. Lydia enjoyed Javier's company until she became aware of what he did for a living. She's seen and heard enough, by the time of the mass shooting, to know that Javier has tentacles throughout the country so even as she's running, Lydia is careful who she speaks to and what she says. But, as she and Luca ride buses, stay in overnight migrant centers, walk, and ride the dangerous train known as The Beast, they are dogged by a young man with a tattoo that Lydia recognizes. Is he pretending to be a migrant or has he really left the drug business?
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NO SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT.
Recommended with dramatically mixed feelings. Instead of summarizing my thoughts, I've decided to summarize our discussion a bit, share Michelle's review, and directly quote a few of her thoughts. I highly recommend you read Michelle's review:
Michelle's review of American Dirt at Facebook
Michelle and I were jumping back and forth between the comment section below her review (which you can see) and another post at Facebook, so you can't see the entire conversation at Facebook. This is an analogy Michelle wrote about the book:
Imagine you are in a horrific car crash and barely escape with your life. Someone asks you to tell them what it was like and before you even open your mouth someone who SAW the crash describes it. They get it mostly right, but they can't describe the physical and emotional impact the accident had on you. American Dirt is a bystander to the Latin American immigrant experience.
That seems fair.
I came into the reading from an entirely different perspective, of course: ignorance of the Mexican culture. My extent of experience in Mexico amounts to a couple of walks across the border from Texas as a young child and then a teenager. I don't remember much.
Without knowing what the author got right or wrong (except from articles I'd already read; there are tons of them online if you've missed out), I viewed American Dirt on its merits as a piece of writing, like any other novel, and my general feeling was that it was marketed badly. Billed as a tale of immigration, American Dirt is really (in my opinion) a thriller. The author is equally guilty in the mischaracterization of the book. She talked about her desire to tell the story of a people viewed as "faceless brown masses" (a quote even I find extremely offensive — maybe there are people who see immigrants that way but I certainly do not). But, then she added that she wanted to make her heroine "someone like me". This makes little sense as Lydia is not typical of the masses; she is a bookstore owner with plenty of money and her weird friendship with a cartel boss further sets her apart.
So, there's a little bit of a disconnect, there. I think if you leave out the attempt to market American Dirt as a a novel of immigration and look at it as a thriller, it works. Thrillers tend to lack depth and are meant to be fast-paced. The idea is to propel you through the pages and give you a vicarious thrill, not to deeply examine an important social issue, although a social issue (immigration; environmental crisis, etc.) can serve as the backdrop. So, I agree with Michelle's car crash example in that as a thriller the book skims over the emotional and physical impact of immigration and focuses, instead, on the escape.
I also thought Cummins' comment in the author's note about wishing someone slightly browner than her had written the book was a bit of garbage pandering to her audience. As someone who has been published, I think I can safely say that no author wishes someone else had written her book, period, regardless of the shade of their skin. I do, however, know that writing a thriller set in another country is nothing new and, yep, authors get details wrong when they don't know the location or the people intimately or don't do their research. The argument that someone shouldn't have written a particular book has been around for ages, not just in contemporary fiction but in historical, where there can be a huge difference between fiction written by historians and popular fiction.
Michelle said she enjoyed parts of the book and agreed that it wouldn't have been so controversial, had it been marketed as a thriller. But, there were times that elements struck her as lazy googling instead of real research:
The real shame of it is most of those details could have been avoided if she’d just done her research. I’m sure she Googled “famous Mexican soccer player” to get the name Hernandez, but if she’d just turned around and Googled his name she would have realized he’s never called that. That really bugged me.
We also talked about the author's part in the controversy. This was my opinion:
Her author's note just added fuel to the fire. She painted herself as some sort of heroine trying to reveal hidden truth. Nah. You wrote a thriller. It was good but not brilliant. It's a fun read if that's what you're in the mood for. Thrillers sell; that's the real reason she got the big bucks and the knowledgable writers didn't. A little honesty about that would have probably prevented the controversy (although, controversy generally is a good thing for publishers because any publicity is golden -- people *are* buying the book out of curiosity -- so this won't necessarily lead to thoughtful action, IMHO). [...] She also has some writerly ticks, things she reused, especially toward the beginning. One was people pouring beverages that nobody bothered to drink, including Luca. And, she did some weird head-hopping. There was one page where she was in Lydia's head, then Luca's, then Soledad's. That is generally considered bad writing, although some authors can pull it off well. She did not.
Michelle agreed and noted that Cummins referred to her mother as Abuela, capitalized, which is like calling your own mother "Grandma". It's normal to say something like, "You're going to have a great time at Grandma's house!" to your child. That's not what was happening. In one case, a policeman referred to Lydia's mother as Abuela, as well, which is just bizarre. No policeman calls a victim's mother "Grandma". If you know Mexico, you'll apparently notice a lot of little mistakes like that in the book. Another one is Luca ordering extra sour cream on his tacos — something I probably would not have noticed if I hadn't read about it, although the fact that Luca's extra sour cream order comforted Lydia did. What? Why would someone ordering extra anything comfort you? That was weird.
The bottom line:
Mistakes were made. The marketing of this book implied that there was some deep, unique revelation or insight about the immigrant experience in American Dirt when, in fact, even the journey (which is, admittedly, pretty exciting reading) was not apparently accurate. Even I noticed that Cummins had a priest warn migrants about the dangers of The Beast and then . . . nothing happened. Everyone was nice to Lydia and Luca on The Beast. I've read two other books in which people rode that train and while she is the only author who bothered explaining why people ride on top (it's a freight train — there are apparently no passenger trains at all in Northern Mexico, thanks to American influence) in the other books I read, one person who rode The Beast was raped and the other robbed.
The use of barbed-wire-wrapped centerpieces at a party and the way the author painted her nails with the cover image were additionally incredibly offensive, so it wasn't the marketing alone that stirred people up. As a white American with European roots, I would never have spotted most of the inaccuracies or seen the book as racist and I respect the opinions of those who find the book upsetting. But, I do think the proper marketing could have prevented some of the anger and hurt. And, clearly, authors should be very careful what they say about their writing.
If you read American Dirt, read it as a thriller but bear in mind what those who know the country have to say. Better yet, take Michelle's advice:
I could go on forever talking about the flaws of American Dirt, but I’d rather talk about the books that tell the REAL Latin American stories. Read Luis Alberto Urrea, Octavio Paz, Jennifer Clement, Alfredo Vea Jr. and Sandra Cisneros. Read Juan Rulfo, Yuri Herrera, Carlos Fuentes, and Carmen Boullosa. Read Juan Pablo Villalobos, Daniel Saldana Paris, Sergio Pitol and Elena Garro. All of them tell the story of American Dirt a million times better than Jeanine Cummins.
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