What is the Controversy Around American Dirt and Migration?

What is the Controversy Around American Dirt and Migration?

The new novel, American Dirt, by American author Jeanine Cummins, has been received with a mix of praise and vitriol. The book tells the story of Lydia Quixano Pèrez, a young middle-class owner of a Mexican bookstore who is forced to flee her hometown of Acapulco with her eight-year-old son, after her husband (a journalist) is killed by a local drug cartel. She escapes to the safety of the United States, enduring a treacherous journey aboard a freight train, during which time she becomes friends with migrants also fleeing the country. On face value, it would appear there is little to court controversy, so why did it? And why in particular did this book stir up considerable anger for some Mexican-American migrants?

Why is American Dirt so controversial?

One review which encapsulates the views of many Mexican-Americans and other migrants to the United States, by David Bowles, a writer, professor, and translator, written for the New York Times express the view that American Dirt "is a pastiche of stereotypes and melodramatic tropes of the sort one might expect from an author who did not grow up within Mexican culture, from a massacre at a quinceañera to the inexplicable choice of a relatively wealthy woman to leap onto La Bestia, a gang-controlled train - rather than just take a plane to Canada".

The author, rather than trying to cause offence, was endeavouring to expose the dangers and emotional and physical trauma endured by migrants who are forced from their own homes. The publisher's own note at the start of the book explains how Cummins had told her "migrants at the Mexican border were being portrayed as 'a faceless brown mass'" and that she wanted to give these people a face". This isn't, however, how American Dirt has been received by all. Some have expressed the view that the book wasn't for her to write, a point she herself acknowledge in the afterword; "I was worried that, as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants."

Some Latin-American voices have stated that they feel deeply misrepresented by American Dirt. Mexican writer Myriam Gurba wrote scathingly about the book, "Unlike the narcos she vilifies, Cummins exudes neither grace nor flair. Instead, she bumbles with Trumpian tackiness, and a careful look at chronology reveals how she operates: opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically. Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the "faceless" out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification. By her own admission, Cummins lacked the qualifications to write Dirt. And she did it anyways. For a seven-figure sum". Gurba says that the book only serves to make Americans pity those of Mexican heritage, and in her words "look down their noses" at them. And that many Americans have a "sweet tooth" for Mexican pain and have a preference for "trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf".

What can we learn from American Dirt?

Mexican-American author Reyna Grande in her review of American Dirt in the New York Times believes positives may come from the controversy. She explains how her own novel about a Mexican immigrant girl was rejected 26 times, and on the 27th attempt was successful in gaining a $20,000 book deal. While she is grateful for her success, she calls this challenge of Latino authors the "publishing border", one which many are never able to cross. Crucially, she firmly believes that the controversy was the fault of the publishers more than the author; "I had seen Ms. Cummins as a writer who could speak with us, not for us. Instead, the publishing machine decided to put her book on a pedestal".

In making this point, Grande reminds us that the cultural heritage of the writer should be less important than the quality of the writing and the accuracy of what it portrays. Books such as 'Small Island' by Andrea Levy about the Windrush Generation have been received with widespread critical acclaim.

It is also imperative that migrants of all backgrounds have an equal opportunity and reward for telling their stories.  Doing so serves a vital purpose in explaining what really happens when people are forced to flee their war-torn homes, violent drug cartels, political or religious persecution, or any other form of inhumane behaviour. 

Final words

As Reyna Grande concludes, American Dirt at least shows that publishers "are willing to pay top dollar and use the full strength of their marketing machine to promote the immigrant experience".  But stories written by migrants themselves should not be the subject of discrimination when it comes to amounts paid by publishers and their willingness to promote them.  Whether it is the stories of those escaping war-ravaged countries in the Middle East, those seeking new homes as a result of climate change, or those who are facing daily political persecution in Russia or China, migrant tales need to be told.  In a period when some countries appear to be turning their back on migrants, reading about their real plight has the power to engender empathy and a desire to push for a fairer and more considerate approach to those in desperate need.  The truth is that many politicians and media outlets are keen to portray migrants in a less positive light to serve their own interests.  American Dirt should be a wakeup call to publishers that accurate portrayals of migrant experiences, whether in the form of a novel or non-fiction, are of great value to our society.  The opportunity to tell those stories should be open to everyone in equal measure.

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