What was supposed to be a grand literary reception has turned into something of a debacle.
Jeanine Cummins’ border-crisis book “American Dirt” had a lot of star power behind its release last week, including Oprah Winfrey’s: She chose it for her book club.
Slam dunk, right?
But the criticism immediately started coming in hard and fast, with many arguing the books’ depictions of Mexicans are insensitive and flawed. Complicating the issue is Cummins’ own ethnicity: She identified as white in an op-ed for The New York Times in 2016 (though recently she has also claimed Puerto Rican ancestry), and has no Mexican heritage.
A petition signed by 124 writers, including such prominent names as Luis Alberto Urrea, Carmen Maria Machado and Viet Thanh Nguyen, asks Winfrey to reconsider her book club selection. The outcry has been so passionate, publisher Flatiron has canceled Cummins’ book tour, citing security concerns.
More on ‘American Dirt’:The controversial book endorsed by Oprah continues to garner criticism
I was among those who found the book problematic. I especially objected to Cummins’ author’s note justifying her decision to write the book. “I was worried that, as a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants,” Cummins writes. “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”
Lots of someones “slightly browner” than Cummins have written excellent books about the issues that “American Dirt” attempts to tackle: undocumented immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border crisis and violence in South America, among others.
The book debuted at No. 2 on the USA TODAY Best-Sellers List, so chances are, you may have read it by now and formed your own opinion. It might differ from mine. Wherever you fall on the “American Dirt” divide, consider adding these eight recently published books written by Latin American authors to your reading list.
1. “Lost Children Archive,” by Valeria Luiselli (Knopf, fiction)
What it’s about: A mother, father and two children set out on a road trip from New York to Arizona. The father is researching Apache culture and the mother is creating an audio documentary on children in the border crisis – a crisis they themselves get caught up in when their children go missing. The book was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Medal for excellence in fiction.
2. “Children of the Land,” by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (Harper, nonfiction)
What it’s about: A Mexican-born poet turns to prose to recount his family’s struggle to become American citizens, the stress of hiding in plain sight and the often-dehumanizing immigration system. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a heartfelt and haunting memoir just right for the current political and social climate.”
3. “Where We Come From,” by Oscar Casares (Knopf, fiction)
What it’s about: After his mother’s sudden death, 12-year-old Orly is sent to spend the summer with his aunt in the Texas border city of Brownsville. There he finds his aunt’s house turned into a way station for coyotes moving immigrants across the border. A starred review from Kirkus Reviews says the book “delivers a truly timeless emotional punch.”
4. “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (Doubleday, fiction)
What it’s about: Inspired by her own life, this Colombian writer sets her story in her birth country at the height of drug lord Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror, where two young girls, their mother and a mysterious teenage maid live in constant threat of violence. “This striking novel offers an atmospheric journey into the narrow choices for even a wealthy family as society crumbles around them,” says Publishers Weekly.
5. “A Dream Called Home,” by Reyna Grande (Atria, nonfiction)
What it’s about: Grande, a former undocumented Mexican immigrant, shares her quest to find her place in America as a first-generation Latina university student in this inspiring memoir. She’s also the author of “The Distance Between Us,” a memoir about her childhood spent torn between two parents and two countries.
6. “Everyone Knows You Go Home,” by Natalia Sylvester (Little A, fiction)
What it’s about: On the day of her wedding, Isabel meets the ghost of her father-in-law, who reappears in search of redemption every Day of the Dead. Isabel gradually learns the family’s history in a story that poses questions about borders and belonging. “A forceful record of migration within a family and the dangers and triumphs of our undocumented population,” says Kirkus Reviews.
7. “Citizen Illegal,” by José Olivarez (Haymarket, poetry)
What it’s about: The son of Mexican immigrants, Olivarez celebrates his Mexican-American identity and examines how those two sides conflict in a striking collection of poems. Publishers Weekly calls it a “devastating debut.”
8. “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided,” by Diane Guerrero (Henry Holt and Co., nonfiction)
What it’s about: “Orange Is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin” actress Guerrero was 14 years old when her parents were deported. Guerrero, who was born in the U.S., stayed behind. Here, she tells her story of resilience in the face of adversity, and coming of age without the two people she needed most. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a moving, humanizing portrait of the collateral damage caused by America’s immigration policy.”