New Book ‘American Dirt’ does a poor job of displaying the real immigrant experience

In what amounts to the Holy Grail for authors, Oprah Winfrey has announced the latest selection for her book club, “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins. The novel, about a Mexican woman and her young son fleeing to the U.S. to escape drug cartels, has won ecstatic reviews and endorsements from Stephen King and John Grisham. The film rights have already been sold.   

But “American Dirt” has generated an intense and deserved backlash. Cummins’ book is problematic in myriad ways, from her appropriation of the migrant crisis for storytelling purposes to her depiction of Mexico as a violent hellhole. Latino writers have called her novel “Non-Mexican Crap” and “trauma porn.” Meanwhile, books by Latino authors rarely receive such attention or recognition.   

In her book, Cummins explains that she wrote “American Dirt” because she was shocked at the way Latino migrants were characterized in public discourse: “At worst, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass.” In fact, most Americans think immigration is a good thing, according to Gallup polling, and view migrants with compassion, as evidenced by the outrage over family separations. If Cummins herself sees Latino migrants as a “faceless brown mass,” then she is not the right person to write about them. 

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It doesn’t matter that Cummins is neither Mexican nor a migrant, or that her grandmother is from Puerto Rico. A gifted writer can write about virtually anything, if they do so with authenticity and care. With books like “Memoirs of a Geisha” or “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” the ethnicity of the authors was irrelevant because of their beautiful, nuanced writing. It is equally unimportant that Cummins’ book features blurbs from Latina writers like Sandra Cisneros and Reyna Grande. That’s the literary equivalent of announcing that “Some of my best friends are Mexican.” 

"American Dirt"

The kindest thing to say about the plot of “American Dirt” is that it’s implausible. The novel’s heroine Lydia is a bookstore owner who reads Yeats to her son “in her Mexican accent.” Following a bloody rampage at a quinceañera, Lydia sets out for the U.S. wearing quilted gold lamé sneakers and carrying $12,500 worth of pesos (She has access to thousands more in an ATM). Supporting characters include a charming drug lord and a “dangerously” beautiful teen migrant.   

Cummins’ vision of Mexico is downright Trumpian. In “American Dirt,” the country amounts to a failed narco-state, a portrayal that has been disputed by experts. The lead characters are fleeing Acapulco, where “kids, rich, poor, middle-class, have all seen bodies in the streets” and people are apathetic to beheadings. In contrast, el norte is the promised land, if only the main characters can make it over the border. Cummins writes without apparent awareness of the problems that undocumented immigrants face once they arrive here, like workplace raids and the threat of deportation. Her idealized vision of the U.S. is as out of touch as her dark view of Mexico.  

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Cummins portrayal of Mexico is harmful because it fuels the narrative that our neighbor to the south is a violent place that must be walled off from us for our own safety. Despite Cummins’ good intentions, this mindset facilitates the acceptance of harsh immigration policies.

Representation for Latino writers

The buzz surrounding “American Dirt” also raises questions about representation in the publishing world. A 2015 survey by Lee & Low Books found that overall the industry is 79 percent white. This lack of diversity means that Latino authors struggle to get their work seen and published. The Latino and Latin American authors that Cummins cites in her acknowledgments, like Sonia Nazario and Luis Alberto Urrea, have never received the enormous marketing and publicity push given to “American Dirt.” 

Not only does “American Dirt” often feel opportunistic and exploitative, so do some of its promotional activities. The book party with barbed-wired centerpieces (presumably meant to evoke the border) and Cummins’ matching barbed-wire manicure were extremely tone-deaf.

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In a statement to the L.A. Times, the publisher of “American Dirt” stood by the book, saying the company is “carefully listening to the conversation happening around the novel.” How about pledging to donate a portion of the novel’s profits to groups that work with migrants? Or committing to elevate more authentic Latino voices? “American Dirt” ranked #4 on Amazon on Saturday, so the publisher surely has the resources to take such action. 

“American Dirt” will likely be the one book that many Americans read about immigration this year, and that’s a shame. Cummins’ superficial take on the migrant experience reflects poorly on her as well as the mainstream publishing industry.

Raul Reyes, an attorney, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @RaulAReyes

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