'American Dirt' creates dustup over border story
CHICAGO -- There's a literary war going on over a new book about migrants in crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. "American Dirt," by Jeanine Cummins, elicited ferocious fuss and combating reviews even before its release last week.
Writing in The New York Times, staff critic Parul Sehgal said: "There are so many instances and varieties of awkward syntax I developed a taxonomy. There is subtext announced at booming volume. There are the strained similes. ... There are perplexing bird analogies. ... Then there are the real masterpieces, where the writing grows so lumpy and strange it sounds like nonsense poetry. I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives."
Other reviews about the narrative were glowing -- including one that also appeared in the Times. In it, Lauren Groff, the author of the best-selling novel "Fates and Furies," wrote: "I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book's representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant. In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant."
Groff hit the nail on the head. The fuss is because Cummins is neither Latina nor of any Mexican heritage. And that caused a lot of fireworks on the internet, where people of color go to get the hearing they feel is often missing in mainstream media.
First up was Myriam Gurba, writing on the academic blog Tropics of Meta, who told her story about being asked to write a review for a feminist magazine and turning in such an on-fire take-down that the editor told her it was "spectacular" but a nonstarter, because Gurba wasn't famous enough to level such criticism.
"The nicest thing I can say about "[American] Dirt" is that its pages ought to be upcycled as toilet paper," she wrote.
There's no question that Cummins' story lacks a certain authenticity -- she may have visited Mexico a lot to research the story, but she identifies as white, even though she does have a Puerto Rican grandmother.
We can criticize inauthenticity in lots of literature, though.
The real issue here is that legions of Hispanic, Latino and Latinx writers, authors and journalists who either have written an authentic border story book, or have pitched one and been turned down -- or write about real people in real immigration crises all the time but are roundly ignored -- see a white lady getting a windfall of opportunities (the book has gotten Oprah's love, plus a movie deal) for writing stilted trauma porn about brown people.
This isn't an issue of who can or "should" write fiction about people who are not their own so much as it's about who gets to write about important issues that are about their own people.
I can think of so many great, knowledgeable Latino/Hispanic/Latinx writers who could have tackled a fictional treatment (or already have but got little notice for it) about the border. But they aren't recognized by the same brown-averse white media and publishing establishment that made the choice to uplift a white author and not let Latinos even review the book.
And did I mention the barbed-wire table decorations at the official launch party? Ugh.
In the end, Groff put it best: "Perhaps this book is an act of cultural imperialism [but] 'American Dirt' is written for people like me, those native to the United States who are worried about what is happening at our southern border but who have never felt the migrants' fear and desperation in their own bodies."
It's good that Cummins is getting the word out about the atrocities at the border. I just wish it weren't to the exclusion of others who could tell the story from a more authentic perspective.
Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda.
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